By Cliff Rold
He was the breath of fresh air the boxing world never got to exhale.
When Tyson Fury (25-0, 18 KO) lifted the heavyweight championship of the world from Wladimir Klitschko in November 2015, it was hard not to be both impressed and intrigued. The fight itself wasn’t particularly thrilling but Fury had done something no one else had in a decade, in a way no one had before.
Fury talked the talk, and then talked some more, and then had a few more things to say, before he backed it up in the ring. Loud, erratic, profane, and sometimes offensive, one word that can accurately describe Fury is colorful. Boxing rarely lives by the rules of the rest of polite society when there is money to be made. Colorful goes a long way towards putting butts in seats, especially when it wins.
Fairly winning a unanimous decision that could have been even wider, Fury became the first man to defeat Klitschko by decision, snaring the WBA, IBF, and WBO belts along with the lineal crown. There had been three losses before for the Ukrainian, all inside the distance. No one had ever outboxed him. Fury did. Using a combination of footwork, odd angles, and expert feints, he befuddled Klitschko. The 6’9 UK product of Irish Traveller heritage continued to show off his big personality after the fight, singing a rendition of Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want to Miss a Thing.”
Since then, Fury has missed everything.
Fury missed, via postponement, cancellation, and ultimately a now retracted retirement, two rematch dates with Klitschko. Outstanding issues with depression, and the British Board of Boxing Control over anti-doping violations, delayed career resumption despite Fury announcing the end of his retirement and intention to return in 2017.
When he left, he was the lineal king of the division. It isn’t one of the longer lines in the division, beginning only during the long run of Klitschko, but history’s crown was still his. Fury still stakes that claim even though the rest of the boxing world has moved on to another UK star, unified titlist Anthony Joshua (WBA/IBF/WBO) and a big punching American in Deontay Wilder (WBC).
On a June 9 packed with boxing goodness, Fury, who is still only 29 years old, will begin the process of proving whether his link to history’s crown still matters. For the first time in over two and a half years, Fury will step into the ring against 39-year old Sefer Seferi (23-1, 21 KO). Seferi has fought most of his career at cruiserweight and is about as safe a comeback foe as one could ask for.
Let’s assume Fury resumes his to date unblemished place in the winner’s circle.
What comes next?
Can Fury truly pick up where he left off?
He’s made no impression yet. The intrigue is immediately returned. Fury isn’t the first man to walk away from the ring for an extended time still recognized as the true heavyweight champion. The returns of most of his predecessors did not go well. Ring Magazine recognized Vitali Klitschko as the king of the division when he was forced to retire and he came back for a flawless, undefeated run into his 40s. There could be dispute though about whether he ever truly sealed himself as history’s champion; when he won Ring’s honors he beat their third rated heavyweight (the late Corrie Sanders) and never won a fight against the next highest rated man in the division.
During his comeback, that was his brother so there was little to be done about that.
Not so for three other men. James J. Jeffries, Joe Louis, and Muhammad Ali all made ill-fated returns, reminded of their lost youth by Jack Johnson, Ezzard Charles, and Larry Holmes respectively.
Fury isn’t like any of the three in two distinct ways. The first is that he hadn’t accomplished what any of them had aside from the winning of the title. Jeffries and Louis had lengthy, uninterrupted title reigns before their retirement, though Louis had a little luck in his first fight with Jersey Joe Walcott. Ali had a little luck in his second reign against Ken Norton and Jimmy Young before avenging a loss to upstart Leon Spinks for his third and final title.
They were fighters who built legacies. Fury hadn’t got to that part yet.
Fury hasn’t gown old yet either. Louis, Ali and Jeffries were all well into their 30s when they attempted to defeat father time. Fury is right in the heart of what likely would have been and still could be his physical prime. Even if he can’t regain his form, big money is out there. Fury could talk a stadium full against Joshua or Wilder and fans would eat it up. Fury-Wilder in particular would be an epic war of trash talk regardless of what happens in the ring.
If Fury can regain his form, well, we don’t know what happens then. Winning a title and staying a champion are two different things. We never found out if he could do the latter. Was Fury set to be a flash in the pan or the next long-term ruler of the class if his outside the ring issues hadn’t been there? Joshua (21-0, 20 KO) and Wilder (40-0, 39 KO) have both showed they can defend their crowns, but could they have kept them, in Joshua’s case won them, if Fury had stayed in the game?
Before we find out, Fury will likely have another fight or two after Seferi. Former cruiserweight titlist Tony Bellew, fresh off two heavyweight wins over David Haye, has been talking about Fury and that would certainly sell. If Fury puts some wins together, it’s only a matter of time until he is back in the real thick of things.
The moment will come when the men with belts see the man who beat the man.
The lingering questions may get their answers soon.
Cliff Rold is the Managing Editor of BoxingScene, a founding member of the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board, and a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America. He can be reached at [email protected]