He may be unpredictable, contradictory and infuriating at times, but there is little doubt that Tyson Fury is among the most compelling and charismatic of heavyweight champions.
The 33-year-old from Wythenshawe faces another potential landmark moment tonight when he squares up to Deontay Wilder for the third time in a titanic heavyweight showdown in Las Vegas.
At stake is not only Fury’s WBC title belt, but also his potential legacy, as boxing historians begin to wonder where he might ultimately rank among the ranks of heavyweight immortals such as Muhammad Ali, Joe Louis, Jack Johnson, Larry Holmes et al.
So far, despite the personal chaos and demons that have frequently threatened to subsume him, Fury has somehow managed to preserve an unbeaten record as a professional boxer – his ledger currently standing at 31 fights, 30 wins and one draw (a disputed one at that, in his first fight against Wilder, which many believe he should have won).
Whatever you may think of him, Fury is a natural born fighter and survivor.
He survived being born three months premature in 1988, he escaped a 2009 battle against John McDermott for the English title with a controversial victory and he overcame surprise knockdowns against Neven Pajkic and Steve Cunningham early in his pro career.
He survived a trip to Germany to face the formidable Wladimir Klitschko – returning to England as the unified and lineal heavyweight king – and he even survived his mental and physical well-being falling apart in the wake of that contest.
Most iconic of all, Fury survived and somehow rose the stronger man from that vicious 12th round knockdown against Wilder in their first fight in Los Angeles in 2018, when recovery looked impossible and hope looked lost.
For all he has achieved, though, for all the fame and riches he has garnered, there remains a restless element in Fury’s soul that never seems settled. He seems to possess appetites and ambitions that are unsated and perhaps can never be sated.
At times, Fury has spoken of loving boxing and needing boxing, yet he has also spoken of hating the sport and wanting to leave it behind him. He has spoken of how much the heavyweight title or the WBC belt mean to him, while at other times he has spoken derisively of such honours as if they don’t mean tuppence.
Day-by-day, apparent contradictions appear in what Fury says, feels and does and yet – in a sense – these are not contradictions, merely the symptoms of a restless and fluid mind that – from one day to the next – seems to re-evaluate all his assumptions and values, finding that one day he holds them dear, and another day that they matter not a jot.
I have interviewed Fury twice and there is no experience like it in boxing journalism. As an interviewee, he ducks, weaves and befuddles with verbal dexterity much as he does with physical dexterity in the ring.
The first time I spoke to him he spent the entire interview affecting an American accent and persona, an affectation that initially seemed to amuse him and momentarily banish the eternal ennui that seems to afflict him.
However, as our conversation wore on, he found it impossible to hide his frustration with the inevitable banalities that often arise in media interviews.
When I asked him what his victory against Wladimir Klitschko had meant to him he declared, dripping with sarcasm (and still affecting an American accent): “Oh, it was absolutely fantastic. The greatest night of my life… That’s what I really want to be remembered as – a great fighter – because that really matters when I’m sitting in my front room having snacks…
“It was like the sixth or seventh best thing that’s ever happened to me. I have five children and I think that ranks higher than winning a fight, and marrying my beautiful wife Paris I think that ranks higher [too]. Don’t you?”
The second time I interviewed Fury came as he counted down the final hours before his first major press conference ahead of his rematch with Wilder.
“Fire away, mush!” he declared ebulliently as we began, and although there was no American accent this time (“my American accent is on hold at the moment,” he reassured me. “Although I’ll be speaking fluent American at the press conference today”), his playful contempt with the whole process remained evident as he spun yarn after ridiculous yarn.
“We’ve brought in a new training method,” he said of his link-up with SugarHill Steward, “a Japanese sensei to help with my focus and help with my senses and reawaken my senses all the time. We are training with blindfolds on to reawaken the senses. It’s all good, all new stuff.”
When I asked Fury how he planned to deal with Wilder’s big right hand he continued to jest: “I’m going to look to headbutt [it] and break it on me head. You know the forehead is the toughest part of the body? I’m aiming to let him hit me on the forehead with that big right hand and hopefully he breaks that hand and he won’t be throwing it much. I’ve got a head like a bowling ball.”
At other times, when he is less playful and more reflective, the joker’s mask slips and the existential turmoil that permanently haunts Fury is revealed.
At these times, it is impossible not to empathise with him, as well as admire the way that he has somehow clawed his way to the top of the boxing tree, despite his clearly and frequently troubled mind.
At these lucid times, the insights Fury provides into the eternal pain of the human condition reach moving, even poetic heights.
“What motivates me?” he pondered this week in conversation with Steve Bunce. “I’m getting asked this question a lot lately. It’s definitely not a few quid and it’s definitely not winning any more fights.
“It’s the fact that there’s nothing else. There was a movie that I watched many, many times. It’s called ‘Zulu’. It’s got a young Michael Caine in it. There’s a young soldier and he asks one of the generals: ‘Why us?’ and the old general says: ‘Because we’re here boy and there’s nobody else. That’s why!’
“Why am I doing it? Because I’m here and there’s nobody else. There’s just me and that’s it. Nothing else really matters… Why am I doing boxing? Because I can and I don’t enjoy anything else. I’ve got no other hobbies, I’ve got no other passions. I’ve got nothing and after boxing I’m going to be a very lonely sad person I think.”
It is to be hoped that such a bleak prophecy never comes to pass.
Fury is a unique and special talent.
If he beats Wilder this weekend then history begins to beckon him – but you sense he would forsake a place on boxing’s heavyweight Mount Rushmore in exchange for true peace of mind.
The fairytale ending would be if he found both.
But boxing and fairytales rarely coalesce.
Main image: Sumio Yamada/World Boxing Council.