Anthony Joshua is the golden boy of boxing. A photogenic, English speaking Olympic champion with aspirations of dominating prizefighting’s glamour division, many see him as the potential saviour of a sport crying out for a crossover star. Fresh from his IBF title victory, Joshua is loudly celebrated in the media as the future of boxing. Experts talk up his potential, while he has amassed legions of fans in Britain and started to garner attention stateside. But in the midst of all the excitement, it’s easy to forget that Britain already has a heavyweight champion, in fact one who might be described as the only legitimate holder of the title. Tyson Fury is viewed by much of the media and a large section of the public with bemused distaste. But that does not change the fact that he succeeded where so many others failed and currently holds the belts Joshua needs to fulfil his promise. The stage is set for a new era in heavyweight boxing, one that may be defined by the rivalry between two contrasting characters and their vastly different public images.
Good v bad
In the early 1960s, before Muhammad Ali’s arrival revolutionised the sport of boxing, the heavyweight division was contested between two men. On one hand there was Floyd Patterson, the reigning champion. A humble family man with a respectable image, Patterson was seen as a worthy holder of the belt. He was the sort of man who could be held up as a role model, one who embodied what people wanted in a successful athlete. The other, Sonny Liston, existed at the opposite end of the spectrum. Liston was an ex-convict with well publicised ties to the mafia. In public, he came across as inarticulate and menacing, eyeing questioning journalists with suspicion. In the ring, he was a devastating force of nature, possessing unmatched power which he unleashed on a succession of unfortunate opponents. When Liston fought his way into a title match against Patterson, many saw in the match up a classic example of good against bad. Patterson must triumph, argued many in the press. President Kennedy even advised Patterson to avoid the fight, fearing that the heavyweight crown might fall into the hands of a man like Liston. But Patterson did take the fight. In the end his role as the hero of the story didn’t help him. Liston knocked Patterson out in the first round and, to the horror of public opinion, took the belt. Boxing proved once more that it was not a sport for fairy-tales; bad left good out cold on the canvas.
It would be a stretch to compare Liston and Patterson to the increasingly intense conflict between Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua today. Fury’s critics brand him clownish rather than menacing. But, nonetheless, the two men are being cast as hero and villain. Joshua is becoming a phenomenon in the UK, a household name with the goodwill of the nation behind him. In interviews he comes across as modest and considered. There is no ranting or boasting, just repeated assurances of his work ethic and gratitude towards fans. Fury, meanwhile, seems to have no qualms about being the bad guy. He is brash and outspoken at every opportunity, loudly espousing views that seem almost (and at times definitely are) designed to provoke. At his most harmless, he is playfully insulting. At his worst, he displays unashamed bigotry, as seen in his comments about women and homosexuals last year. Joshua attracts crowds because, for the most part, people want to see his success. Fury attracts at least as many who are keenly awaiting his comeuppance as genuine supporters.
The dislike for Fury can be seen most clearly in last year’s Sports Personality of the Year award. After his comments about women caused outcry a campaign was launched to prevent him receiving the accolade. In reality, there was probably little need for a petition. Fury had been an unpopular figure even before his less palatable opinions became public knowledge. His antics at pre-fight press conferences and frequent tirades on social media had already earned him a reputation among boxing fans. Some found him entertaining, others obnoxious and irritating. When he fought Klitschko many fans predicted he would be easily swept aside, a prospect that some were clearly keen to witness.
In Joshua, those same fans who roll their eyes at Fury’s behaviour see a welcome antidote. He exudes confidence, but also seems wary not to let it stray into cockiness. He is affable towards the press and respectful towards his opponents. Even against Dillian Whyte, an adversary clearly bent on aggravating him, Joshua largely kept his composure. The young IBF champion seems well aware of the British public’s dislike for figures who seem to be “too big for their boots,” an awareness no doubt shared by his promoter Eddie Hearn.
These perceptions are reflected in the way the two are covered in the press. Joshua is often celebrated as the best heavyweight prospect to emerge from Britain in decades. Fury, however, who has actually managed to achieve what it’s hoped Joshua can in the future, is described in a more dispassionate tone. No doubt reporters are only grateful for the material Fury unceasingly provides, but there is a sense that Joshua is a fighter the country is proud to claim. Fury is one it would rather ignore, or at most acknowledge only begrudgingly.
Perception v reality
There’s no doubt that both Joshua and Fury are well aware of their public images. Hearn is careful to maintain Joshua’s, stressing the positive values he is associated with. Hearn is always quick to mention Joshua’s youth, his talent, his olympic success and down to earth persona.
Opponents have proved eager to look for weaknesses in Joshua’s golden boy image. Dillian Whyte repeatedly derided Joshua as a fake, bringing up his opponent’s criminal past. Whyte branded Joshua a “scumbag,” his squeaky clean image no more than a marketing ploy. Fury has since picked up where Whyte left off. He sneers when the press compares him unfavourably to Joshua as a role model. He has no criminal convictions he is quick to remind them, whereas Joshua is, as Fury sees it, a former drug dealer.
The jibes Whyte and Fury have taken at Joshua are based in fact. As a teenager in Watford, Joshua was placed on electronic tag and at one point claims he faced the possibility of a ten year prison sentence. A later brush with the law saw him charged with possession of cannabis with intent to supply. Joshua’s criminal past is undoubtedly something Hearn isn’t keen to dwell on and something that doesn’t easily fit into the positive image he is keen to project.
In Joshua’s defence, however, the trouble in his youth isn’t something he’s ever denied or tried to cover up. He prefers not to go in to details but in numerous interviews he has mentioned the incidents. Additionally, the episodes were years ago, when Joshua was only a teenager. In some respects, it might even help his appeal. Joshua has spoken about how dedicating his life to boxing at the relatively late age of 18 turned him towards a more positive path. Joshua’s story is not out of place in a sport that often trumpets it redemptive role in the lives of the troubled.
The willing villain
Fury, unlike Joshua, seems only too keen to embrace the negativity directed towards him. He is widely viewed as an idiot, a mindless quote machine who spews out outrageous statements whenever a mic is put in front of him. But in rare moments, when Fury drops the ranting act we see on the podium, there is a sense of wry self awareness. As a fighter, Fury clearly believes his appeal is limited. He frequently claims that in the eyes of the public he is no more than a “fat gypsy.” He also shows an inherent mistrust of boxing fans. Public favour, Fury knows, can be fickle. He points to Ricky Hatton who was celebrated as a hero one minute, then derided as a no hoper after coming undone against two of the best fighters of his generation. If a large section of fans dislike him, the feeling appears to be mutual.
After the SPOTY controversy, he responded with disinterest. He was never going to be a role model, so being told he wasn’t one was no loss, he suggested. In his mind, he has been deemed the villain so why not play up to it in a way that benefits him? If people pay for his fights to see him fail, fine, it only means he gets their money and the chance to gloat if he prevails. He may be branded an idiot, but he is clever enough to recognise his own capacity to be the bad guy.
Having to play this role in order to get ahead is, Fury maintains, partly due to racism. As a traveller who has always proudly broadcast his heritage, Fury believes he will never be fully accepted by the mainstream, at least not in Britain. On one hand this may be seen as a convenient excuse to blame his unpopularity on bigotry rather than his own actions. Certainly his comments about women would have generated controversy regardless of his ethnic background. At the same time, though, there is certainly an underlying anti-traveller sentiment in some of the criticism directed towards him. These claims of racism often attract sneers, but you only have to look at Fury’s mentions on Twitter and count the number of times the term “pikey” is used to see evidence of it. The same sort of abuse directed towards a prominent boxer from a different minority ethnicity would provoke outcry, Fury says. In his case it seems to attract little more than shrugs.
Tyson Fury, anti-hero
However, although Fury frequently complains about unfair treatment in the media, he is not without his supporters. He is an imperfect man, they concede, but he has never claimed otherwise. They see Fury as a skilled boxer in the ring and an honest man outside of it. What you see with Fury is what you get. There is no spin or marketing narrative driving his success. He has not risen to fame on the back of personality or hype but by beating Wladimir Klitschko, a man who’s dominance of the heavyweight division went without a serious challenge for years. He is a fighter who asks to be judged on his fighting. He may not be a likeable man, he may broadcast views many find abhorrent, but he is a world champion on merit.
Those that applaud Fury for his honesty see in Joshua the opposite. He is, they claim, a hype job who has been undeservedly propelled to the top by a cynical marketing machine. His career has been defined by fights against lesser opposition, his record inflated with carefully selected nobodies shipped in to be knocked out. His belt was won from Charles Martin, a man described by some experts as the worst heavyweight champion in memory. Martin only had the belt in the first place after it was stripped from Fury, less than a fortnight after he took it from Klitschko. Even then Martin’s victory in the title decider was more attributable to his opponents leg injury than his own skill.
These criticisms cast doubt on Joshua’s credentials in the eyes of some boxing diehards. They see him as a casual’s champion, someone fast tracked to the top due to his commercial appeal not his achievements. Joshua’s critics echo Dillian Whyte’s sentiments that the Watford fighter’s public image is a carefully maintained PR exercise. In their eyes, Fury, for all his faults, is a real heavyweight champion while Joshua is an artificial star with a paper belt.
The building tension between the two fighters, their camps and fanbases suggests that at some point the two will meet in the ring. Certainly the amount of money on offer for such a fight would be too tantalising for either to resist. But boxing being boxing, fans eagerly awaiting to see the clash shouldn’t expect anything to soon. Promoters understand the key to making big money is ramping up anticipation to fever pitch. The product isn’t as important as the demand for the product. Mayweather v Pacquiao is now almost universally regarded as one of sport’s great anti-climaxes, a fight memorable mainly for it’s dullness, delivered years after its sell by date. Yet it was also the most lucrative fight in history, generating over 400 million dollars. That lesson won’t be lost on Fury or Joshua’s promoters. The two men will likely circle each other, continuing the war of words, calling each other out but not actually fighting for at, very best, another year.
Of course, all this speculation is meaningless if Fury doesn’t win his rematch with Klitschko. He may be in decline, but Klitschko has not gone from invincible champion to a decrepit bum overnight, he will be dangerous and he will surely be better prepared than his last outing. Similarly, Joshua will have to step up his level of opposition now he is a champion. The public will forgive less exciting contests early on in a boxer’s career but they expect more when titles are on the line.
But if both do continue their success then we will see what has the potential to become one of the more interesting rivalries in heavyweight history. Both men will be driven by a desire to silence their critics and establish a legacy. Boxing needs rivalries and character clashes to capture the public imagination. In the animosity between these two British fighters there are hints of something great. But most of all it is good just to see signs of life in the most prestigious weight class. The heavyweight division, after years on ice, finally seems to be heating up again.