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Ugly pantomime of John Fury fracas demeans biggest fight on the planet

John Fury – Biggest bout on the planet does not need pathetic theatrics
John Fury was left bleeding as fight week hostilities boiled over in Saudi Arabia - PA/Nick Potts

The great fights tend to be prefaced with moments of exquisite profundity. Take the Rumble in the Jungle in 1974, when Muhammad Ali mobilised for battle with George Foreman by writing a poem. “Only last week I murdered a rock, injured a stone, hospitalised a brick,” he teased. “I’m so mean I make medicine sick.”

A half-century on, it is safe to say that the standards of boxing’s linguistics, and of its central protagonists, have slipped. In place of Ali’s playful verse, we now have the moronic tauntings of John Fury, who, not content with yelling “Fury, Fury” across a Saudi Arabian suite, displays his courage by headbutting the smallest member of Oleksandr Usyk’s entourage.

If nothing else, the cowardice of Fury Snr is in character. This is the figure, we can hardly forget, who gouged an adversary’s eye out after a 12-year dispute spilt over into barbarity at a car auction in 2010. Sentencing him to 11 years in prison at Manchester Crown Court, Judge Michael Henshell declared that he had been “cold-blooded” in inflicting a “catastrophic” injury.

Clearly, time has done little to mitigate his propensity for senseless violence. Under minimal provocation, with Usyk’s team simply supporting their fighter, he ploughed his forehead into that of Stanislav Shepchuk, a man half his size.

It is supposed to be the week when boxing projects the best of itself. With Usyk and Tyson Fury contesting the first undisputed heavyweight title bout for 25 years, the sport finally has an occasion of genuine heft and significance to counter all the crossover nonsense involving YouTubers and mixed martial artists who have never boxed. Instead, it gives centre stage to Fury’s father, who, to put it politely, is not the type of character Norman Mailer would ever have been tempted to mythologise. A convicted criminal, he promoted his son’s grandest moment as only he knew, with a cowardly assault.

Remarkably, he then had the gall to suggest that he was merely defending his son’s honour. “We’re fighting people,” he rasped. Except there are two forms of fighting people: those who dazzle with their ringcraft, and those who engage in gratuitous thuggery. John Fury falls squarely into the second camp. Just try reading the testimony of Oathie Sykes, the man he left half-blind, to form some idea of the savagery of which he is capable. The attack on Stepchuk was as predictable as it was despicable.

There will be some who claim that the elder Fury’s actions are part of the old warrior code, that his instinct is just to lash out at anyone who invades his territory. Except his attempted justifications were as illogical as the headbutt itself. “Who cares, it’s a bit of claret,” he said, blood streaming down his face. “The last thing they’re going to do is get one on me or my family. We don’t talk, we don’t scream.” Two seconds later, he resumed chanting “Fury” to the sycophants across the room at the top of his lungs.

Embarrassing retinues are nothing new in boxing. The diminutive Floyd Mayweather Jnr looked faintly ridiculous when he used to trail around the casino floor at Las Vegas’ MGM Grand with a 7ft bodyguard called “Big Church”. But Fury’s most absurd hanger-on is his own father, who believes he has carte blanche to behave disgracefully by virtue of his son’s talent. Even Tyson himself looked shocked when, emerging from a TV interview in Riyadh, he confronted the spectacle of his blood-stained dad.

At least some had the gumption to call out the obscenity of it all. “An absolute disgrace to the sport” was how Joe Egan, the retired Irish heavyweight, summed up John Fury. “Hard to believe,” said commentator John Rawling. The problem is that where boxing is concerned, it is all too easy to believe. The crude language of maiming has been celebrated ever since Mike Tyson declared that he wanted to eat Lennox Lewis’ children. Today, in a landscape where some of the biggest pay-per-draws are social media stars desperate to outdo each other with outrageous pronouncements, there has never been more of a race to the bottom.

Fury Snr, evidently, is unafraid to join in. Last year, ahead of the ludicrous match-up between his son Tommy and YouTube personality KSI, he had to be physically restrained as he tried to headbutt the influencer through a Perspex wall. In Riyadh, unfortunately, there was no such impediment, leaving him free to attack Stepchuk in plain sight. Where Team Usyk kept their dignity, Fury’s father proved that he never had any with which to begin.

The pity is that this could be a glittering showcase for boxing, the long-delayed duel between the two outstanding heavyweights of their generation. But it is being sabotaged by the ugliness of the pantomime that has grown up around it. To think, this fight marks the 50th anniversary of Ali’s triumph in the jungle of Zaire, when he had the wordplay to match his boxing. “When George Foreman meets me, he’ll pay his debt,” he promised. “I can drown the drink of water, and kill a dead tree. Wait ’til you see Muhammad Ali.” From that imagery to the grotesquerie of John Fury? How far the sweet science has fallen.

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