Tyson Fury, the Manchester traveller who represents Ireland as a boxer, delivered such a ham-handed performance on his American debut over the past weekend that it felt almost exploitative. It was an indecorous display that left those deemed associates through living in the same geographical area blushing on his behalf. It felt like packing your children off to relatives for the weekend only to learn that they’d neglected their table manners and broken an heirloom.
Of course not everything converts from pounds into dollars. British institutions such as soccer, tea, Oasis, Robbie Williams — Tesco, even, have all failed in their quest to “crack” America. The U.S. remains a capitalist playground that can flip provincial hits into global brands. An appealing boxer, though, generally crosses over. If you can fight then you’re all right. British ex-pats generally represent HM and the Crown without incident: Lennox Lewis, Joe Calzaghe, Ricky Hatton, Amir Khan and Carl Froch — while not quite James Bond in terms of professional etiquette — all wiped their feet on arrival and left a card on departure. In fact, not since former featherweight king Naseem Hamed hit New York in 1997 have New Yorkers been left to ponder quite what it is to be British.
Hamed signed a six-fight $12-million contract with HBO after grabbing headlines in his native U.K. The limbo-limbed wee-man debuted at Madison Square Garden less than a week before Christmas against a battle-weary but solid professional in the shape of the verbose New Yorker Kevin Kelley. Afforded a promotional blitz to the tune of $1.75-million — one garnished by Hamed’s own boasts that he was a hybrid of Willie Pep and Sandy Saddler — expectations were skyscraper-high. In the event, Hamed antagonised his hosts with an overlong ring-walk (during which he writhed and bopped behind a silhouetted curtain for the best part of five minutes) before falling flat on his face. In an exhilarating set-to, the pair traded knockdowns as though exchanging gifts from back home, and while Kelley was praised for his chutzpah, Hamed had been left with egg on his face.
“I got news for you Seth (Abraham, the then president of HBO Sports),” Kelley announced post-fight. “Hamed is no Roy Jones. I’m telling you straight up, your boy was about finished. I was beatin’ up your money, and you was scared. I told him he better watch out. It’s not like he’s fighting in England, where you can fight tuna fish and get $2-3 million.”
Fury pales in comparison to Hamed as a talent. His New York experiment — though sharing similar dramatic plot points — was proportionally disproportionate (Hamed fought at Madison Square Garden, for instance, whereas Fury had to settle for the Garden’s more modest Theatre). Both faced highly motivated and experienced tough guys; both set themselves up for a fall in ratcheting up expectation and both were ambushed by superior technique in dramatic victories that nonetheless tarnished their reputations.
Fury not only aped Hamed’s dance moves (between rounds 5 and 6 in celebration of his senses returning) along with the Prince’s bouncebackability, he topped Naz’s acrobatics with some impromptu caterwauling. One minute the brawling gypsy was reviewing VT and the next he’d mutated into a lunatic troubadour. Hunter S. Thompson could not have imagined this madness, or if he had, he’d have likely spat out his Chivas Regal in horror.
Tyson had even tipped Hamed the wink during pre-fight brouhaha. “This is a three hit fight,” he had bragged. “I hit Steve, he hits the floor, Tyson Fury hits New York.” Even his mathematics was over-hyped and it’s unlikely the big man ventured out after such a trippy night under the ring lights. He’d been fingered as a cheat and a bully; a freak show and a fraud. Cunningham meanwhile was inundated with messages of support on social networking site Twitter commending him for his performance while lambasting Fury.
Fury, it is clear, made more of a splat than a splash. Plainly he failed to give of himself as planned. There is another version of the man, though, a more cautious, tactically astute edition that can be respectful, generous with fans and refreshingly frank. Perhaps his eagerness to impress kept that variant of himself under wraps. More likely it was the administrative gaffe that led to his uncle and trainer, Peter Fury, being denied access to the country.
Hamed, his career already a runaway train by the time he touched down Stateside, had similarly self-combusted. Under increasing pressure to be great, the Sheffield maestro began to realise that the hiccups he’d encountered against Daniel Alicea and Manuel Medina were not accidents. Unable to fathom why his powers had suddenly waned, he embraced divinity instead and the notion that he was a vessel of God. Brendan Ingle, the coach who’d grown him from an acorn, was dismissed and Hamed unravelled as a result.
A once peerless talent, Naz abandoned a life’s worth of teachings and went all-in behind his “god-given” power. Unable to locate an excellence that now bedevilled him he had to improvise while shouting a little louder to help cover up. The result was a vulnerable puncher who people paid to see cowed. Floyd Mayweather and Paulie Malignaggi both applied keen eyes to his marketing stratagem and profited as a result; Mayweather even appropriated some of his lines.
Fury, too, abandoned his boxing on Saturday and fell back on an innate scrappiness that rescued him from the brink. Tactically bereft, he struggled to explain what had happened to him. “Many are picked and few are chosen and the Lord Jesus Christ has given me the ability to come back,” was all he could muster. Devoutly religious, he feeds off his faith, again like Hamed. It provides him an invisible force-field yet stokes up his ego, as evidenced pre-fight when he said: “God has bigger plans for me than Steve, obviously, because he’s already been defeated and whatever and I haven’t.”
While blind faith can move mountains, having faith in fighting blind is a ticket to the infirmary in boxing. Fighting with such blatant disregard for an opponent and indeed boxing truths will see him humiliated – just like Hamed. A complete U-Turn from the big galoot he portrayed last weekend would be well-advised. Failure to take heed is likely to render him boxing’s biggest King Rat or worse even: someone nobody wants to see at all.
Fury doesn’t need to be that guy at heavyweight. Rightly or not, Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko already hold the distinction in the U.S. The Ukrainian brothers – virtual demigods across parts of Europe and perfect gentlemen with it – have been cut adrift by the major television networks in the States. Their bouts are so routinely one-sided, yet rinsed of all drama, they have been actively ignored. America’s hope is that they retire and are replaced with someone more colourful.
Fury can be that understudy but he must embrace humility. A self-deprecating giant, one well aware of his shortcomings but unafraid to risk his lot, for a title that once mattered, would be a heavyweight people could root for, rather than against.