By Corey Erdman
When Tyson Fury steps through the ropes on Saturday night to face Sefer Seferi, he will no doubt be expected to win. Divorced from the context in which this bout came about, it is a gimme victory. But that would require ignoring Fury’s journey to get there, the greater fight he is fighting, one which he wasn’t expected to win at all.
As grisly as it may sound, there was a time not too long ago when it appeared more likely that Fury would wind up dead than in a boxing ring ever again. The only fight he could wage was the one with depression and mental illness. The heavyweight champion of the world was prepared to drink, use drugs and eat himself to death before ever defending his crown.
What happened to Fury is perhaps unprecedented in the history of sports, and the tragedy of it was at times lost on the boxing community. For centuries, the heavyweight championship has been regarded as the most enviable status a man can reach in sports—“the baddest man on the planet.” Yet the biggest, toughest man alive was succumbing to his own weaknesses, a prisoner in his own mind.
Two years ago this week, Fury sat down for a BoxNation Face Off segment with Wladimir Klitschko ahead of their ill-fated rematch. Cross-table interviews are usually more candid than general pre-fight hype but tend to stick to the script in terms of displaying how confident each fighter is. Fury did the opposite.
"I'm an emotional wreck," said Fury. "I can wake up in the morning, everything is fine. The afternoon I could commit suicide." He continued, "if I beat him, I'm still in the same position. Still sick as ever, still depressed as life can be, and still don't care if I die any second."
The segment ended moments later, with no follow-up questions from the host, just pleasantries and well wishes for the fight.
It’s emblematic of how Fury’s plight would go on to be treated by the sport at large over the next two years. Rather than consider what could be done to help Fury or fighters potentially dealing with the same issues, the main topics of discussion were why Ring Magazine hadn’t yet stripped him of his title, and mockery of how much weight he had gained.
After a salacious interview with Rolling Stone revealed the depths of Fury’s cocaine habit and suicidal thoughts, the sport issued a collective “thoughts and prayers” and moved along, because that is all boxing is equipped to do. Boxing has an open-door policy—no matter who you are, where you came from or what you’re going through, as long as you can make it to the ring, you’re welcome. Until you can’t.
Boxing’s “don’t ask don’t tell”-type mindset purports to create a meritocracy, where only your ability to fight truly matters. In many ways, that is true, and serves to make the sport accessible and open to all. But no barriers of entry and no concerns eventually causes danger.
The fact that Muhammad Ali was a boxer gives people the impression that boxing is overall a socially progressive sport, but the fact is, it has been decidedly behind the times on issues of race, gender and mental health since the moment it was conceived.
When Toronto Raptors star DeMar DeRozan so much as said he feels depressed sometimes, the basketball media immediately began discussing the issue of mental health in the sport, and rightfully praised him for his bravery. Tyson Fury actually said the words “I hope someone kills me so I don’t have to do it myself,” and next to nothing happened in the fight world.
Since boxing isn’t an amorphous thing the way it’s often described, nor is it a league with a central office, it’s not as if there is a mandate or support group that could be created by a boxing commissioner of sorts to help out Fury and fighters like him. However, we can begin with some compassion, and with acknowledging that if what had happened to Fury had happened to a top star in any other sport, it would have not only been a major story, but would have affected immediate change.
The closest thing to Fury’s saga in sports might be the tragic tale of Schuye LaRue, the women’s basketball prodigy who succumbed to her mental illness and is now homeless, rather than having realized her potential as the next great WNBA star.
“Well now, I’m a testament for people with mental health, the oppressed, the depressed, all those people who aspire to me and look to me for motivation. How can I let these people down? I have to continue, I have to be that shining light in an era of darkness – I have to be there for them, I can’t let them down.I’m fighting for those people, to bring a smile to their face, a little bit of joy, a little bit of hope. Because if I can do it, they can do it," said Fury to The Sun, before declaring that he also would like to become a doctor after his fighting days to further assist those with mental health issues.
Fury’s bombastic character he plays on camera can make it easy to forget about the real human being behind the antics. Perhaps some of that during his layoff was by design—a man just trying to be happy and not talk about what he’s going through mentally every time he turns his phone camera towards himself. But that doesn’t mean that we should forget or appreciate what he’s gone through.
For a while there, we lost the heavyweight champion of the world. In a more harrowing way, we nearly lost him forever. We should be thankful that we still have him.