Photo Credits: Nick Potts
This weekend will mark Tyson Fury's return to the squared circle after being exiled out of the sport roughly two and a half years ago. His technical master class against the terror of the heavyweight division in Wladimir Klitschko was soon washed over by a torrent of controversy, misogynistic comments followed by poor choice words on gay marriage, and all manner of other topics. All later buried under a positive test for cocaine, calling off the Klistchko rematch, soon left the newly crowned champion with but a sliver of his already marred reputation intact. The brilliance of his heavyweight campaign, equally and oppositely juxtaposed with the worst PR campaign you could fathom.
Add to this his later personal struggles with mental health, and a dietary lifestyle that left him almost unrecognisable (truly, he resembled Homer Simpson in that one episode with the big floral shirts) and you can quickly see that ol' Tyson sure does have quite the mountain to climb if he is ever to reach the summit of the heavyweight division once again.
As you can see, I was only being partly sarcastic.
Fury managed to earn a reputation in his early career for being a lumbering six-foot-niner who would lean, jab and grab his way to victory. However during his ascension to the title, he improved his technical repertoire substantially and became, arguably, the heavyweight division's most scientific and unorthodox fighter.
If you simply compare his two performances against Chisora, the first in 2011 and the second in 2014, you can see his maturation. Fighting well in the first bout but at times lazily getting caught with some reckless hooks by Chisora, Tyson came into the second much more defensively astute, and now a master at his 'switch-hitting' style, the art of switching stances mid combination, a manner perhaps best seen today in Vasyl Lomachenko and Terrence Crawford. And so, Fury put an absolute shut out on Chisora, with the fight being called off between the 10th and 11th round. Those moments on un-refinement that 'Del Boy' found holes for in the first bout were virtually all gone. Tyson was moving on up.
Now able to fight on the outside with his terrific reach and flicking, "Ali" style backhand jab, getting ugly in the clinch with his sheer size, and also being really the only fighter in the elite of the division capable of switch hitting, Fury had molded himself into the most versatile Heavyweight around. This all culminating in his performance against Klitschko, we saw the lumbering six-foot-niner dance rings around the champion untroubled for 12 rounds. Fans called it boring, but the experts knew better. Fury had confounded the confounder, unpuzzling the puzzle that had seen the Heavyweight belts locked away in Klitschko's basement for the last 11 years.
And then it was all over. Cue the aforementioned torrent of controversy and kiss goodbye to the "Gypsy King"...
The history book on bouncing back
Sitting out for this long after ascending to the top of any given sport carries an inherent and obvious risk factor, but history shows us that success can achieved after a lay off. Also too, many high profile athletes have achieved success without necessarily looking after themselves the way you'd expect an elite athlete to do so. Where the concern for Fury is, is that not many athletes (rather any, to this writers mind) have combined a long lay off with such a clearly detrimental lifestyle in the meanwhile.
Fat Ronaldo was never quite the same after a series of injuries stalled his career for around 3 years, earning him his unflattering nickname in the process. Ricky Hatton never suffered a prolonged absence from the sport, but his lifestyle outside of camp has been regularly commented on as having diminished both his chin and the longevity of his career. Whereas constant discipline in training has long been considered to enhance a fighters longevity, Floyd Mayweather and UFC fighter Yoel Romero being exemplary case studies for this.
Only last year did legendary UFC fighter Georges St-Pierre return after a staggering 4 year lay off, looking almost unchanged against champion Michael Bisping, and debuting in a weight class higher than he competed in previously. After the fight it was revealed that Georges had been training the entirety of his lay off, with express focus on perfecting his skills as a fight finisher, and a return to action was always planned. Another in the mould of Mayweather, St-Pierre kept himself in good shape during his time out.
Muhammad Ali is perhaps the most famous example of competing after a long lay off, forced to miss over three years of competitive action due to his refusal to fight in the Vietnam War. Ali came back and had perhaps his most famous victories in this second chapter, albeit his famed footwork and speed had noticeably diminished. Becoming much more of a "holder", he often ditched the 'float like a butterfly' approach and regularly wasted entire rounds in the clinch in his late career, more than the Ali cultists will probably admit to.
And this is perhaps the most relevant story befitting to the case of Tyson Fury. Ali had to adapt his fighting style after his lay off, not only because of some of the technical deficiencies he had, but because Father Time had leeched some of his natural superpowers. And while Fury has never been thought of as a particularly impressive athletic specimen, his appearance belies his natural speed and should this have faded, Fury will need to adopt a new approach. Ali became more reliant on his power in the later years and this too may be the case for Fury's second run.
Fury will have, rationally speaking, accrued some kind of penalty for mishandling his health in such a way, but it will not be entirely clear to what extent until after the dance is done. Whether it be in the short term and permanent cost to some of his skills, the hand speed, reflexes etc, or effecting the more ethereal factors such as his chin and heart. This could show itself more in the long term on his career longevity, or, most miraculously, not at all! I'm not sure theres another case study out there to reference on athletes that became genuinely obese during their athletic prime, and returned to former glory still in their prime years. Fury really is writing the book on this one.
Re-climbing the mountain
As we can see, the history is there for Fury to learn from. Those in the names listed above experienced similar stalls in their careers and you cannot argue against the level of pedigree in that list, positive signs for Fury indeed. Granted, no one of these cases is a perfect emulation of what Fury himself has gone through, and it seems reasonable to suggest that Fury may have the hardest task of them all, when you combine his long lay off with the extremely poor lifestyle he led therein.
There's a general sentiment amongst fans (and something I am guilty of feeling also) that Fury's unorthodoxy as a human being will somehow counteract or balance the chaos of the situation he finds himself in. As if the understood facts of human biology and the consensus of whats realistically workable in the realm of athletic achievement, can be bent by a person if they are only eccentric enough to break the norms. Its a kind of mental pitfall sports spectators regularly find themselves in, it's the kind of hysteria that lead some people to believe Conor McGregor really was going to KO Floyd Mayweather. As if the story of the event need only be dramatic enough, that it will write itself into reality.
Truly, if he is to complete his quest back to heavyweight titles, it will go down as one of the most remarkable sporting comebacks of all time. In boxing terms, maybe only comparable in its sheer scale to George Foreman's ridiculously impressive return to heavyweight titles, but with entirely differing circumstances altogether.
Firstly though, he must get past the (rather unfortunately named) Sefer Seferi. A relative unknown who's google search pulls up his brother before him. A 6 foot cruiserweight, he should be custom made for Fury's return, tending to be an aggressive fighter who pushes forward. It will be Fury's lowest ranked opponent for some time, so anything other than a lopsided victory will see the notion of him besting Joshua and Wilder any time soon be balked at, and perhaps rightly so. Sefer has never weighed in above 216lbs, has only fought once at heavyweight, losing to now WBA world champion Manuel Charr.
And while there is certain to be that usual subset of the boxing community warning the "casuals" "not to write Sefer off", anything but a dominant victory for Fury will take a lot of the wind out of this comeback.
So sit tight, we could well be in for another Gyspy Takeover.