Whenever Tyson Fury opens his mouth you can never be sure whether what comes out will be accompanied by a smile or a scowl; be tinged with intelligence and charm or be dipped in poison.
Fury, you suspect, does not always know either. But as he stared into the cold dead eyes of Wladimir Klitschko at the final press conference before their world heavyweight title fight in Düsseldorf on Saturday, there was no doubting his intentions. He wanted to goad and get under the skin of the WBA, IBF and IBO champion. To play with his mind before his fists mess with his features.
“You look tense Wladimir, come on give us a smile,” Fury whispered, moving closer to his opponent to sniff him like a dog. “Ooh, you smell nice.”
Klitschko stared back, impassive; his mouth closed as his eyes burned the back of Fury’s skull. “Who looks the heaviest?” continued Fury, laughing. “Who looks the healthiest?”
Again Klitchsko was stoic, statue-like. There, but not there.
Pre-fight stare downs have more influence on the next day’s papers than the results of major fights. But this one at least told us this: if Fury is experiencing flutters of doubt before the biggest night of his life he is a master at hiding them.
And afterwards, when the microphones were up close, Fury pronounced himself satisfied with his work. What did you see in Klitchsko’s eyes, he was asked. “Fear. He’s nervous. I can tell. Next question.”
What did he smell like? “He smelt of perfume. Women’s perfume.” Another laugh.
How are you going to be able to counter his speed? “Easy. Don’t forget I’m the fastest heavyweight since Muhammad Ali.”
He even attempted to mimic Ali’s way with words when he was asked whether he was as confident as he seemed. “Of course I am,” he shot back. “Four more sleeps and it is going to be Christmas early for Team Fury.”
In Klitschko he faces an opponent who has won 64 of his 67 fights and has held at least one version of the heavyweight title for the past 11 years. Yet Fury, a 4-1 underdog on Saturday night, has such confidence in his veins that he is predicting a thrilling knockout.
“This is going to be one of my easiest fights,” he insisted. “That might sound crazy as he is a super champion, but I see so many chinks in the armour and I am going to expose them very quickly. There is nothing that I see that Wladimir does that makes me afraid or makes me think I can’t win against this guy.
“He’s very weak minded and he’s very nervous. He’s got very skinny. He may have stressed that off. I’m feeling fantastic, I’m in the greatest shape of my life and he’s getting knocked out on Saturday mark my words.”
There was even an attempt to play geo-politics as Fury responded excitedly to a Russian reporter who wondered whether Klitchsko was too old at 39. “Not only is he getting old, he’s getting knocked out. Russia, I’m going to knock him out for you.”
If elite sport really is mostly played in the mind, then you could almost crown Fury the world heavyweight champion already. Yet Klitschko appeared unruffled by a man he described as “colourful”, a word that appeared to drip with disdain from the boxer’s lips.
But while Klitchsko held his counsel, his management team played a video that showed a succession of his opponents, including David Haye, promising to knock out the giant Ukrainian. And then, in the next frame, a Klitschko left-right combination chopped through their bravado. The message was clear: Fury’s antics were not new. As the video played, it was noticeable that Fury turned his head away and looked to the floor.
While relations between Klitschko and Fury were cordial – the pair, at Klitchsko’s behest shook hands before and after the press conference – the row between the rival camps over the gloves that Fury is due to wear on Saturday became increasingly tetchy.
When the contract was signed, Fury agreed to wear Paffen gloves, which are more padded than the Reyes gloves he prefers and have a more rigid thumb design. But after using them for five weeks in training, Fury felt they were hurting his hands. A second prototype was designed, and approved by Fury, but Paffen are yet to deliver them.
It was, insisted Fury’s promoter Mick Hennessy, “a matter of health and safety” – which to the casual observer seems odd phraseology given that two men close to 18 stone will be hammering each other on fight night. But Hennessy explained: “The gloves have got to be right for Tyson’s hands otherwise he could end up with broken thumbs.”
However, Klitschko’s manager, Bernd Bonte, claimed that Fury’s team had used the first pair of gloves for five weeks before complaining. “You needed five weeks to suddenly realise, ‘ooh, there is a little problem with this and that?’” he scoffed. “Your way is the old Don King way. When the contract is signed the negotiations begin.”
It was at this point Fury intervened excitedly. “Why don’t we settle it like Ronnie Pickering, bare knuckle outside you two – and let’s get it on,” he said, to cheers from those wearing Team Fury shell suits, and stony silence from everyone else. This being boxing it will all get sorted out in the end, of course. There is too much money at stake for it not to be.
Earlier in the day Fury had told the BBC that “boxing has a big problem with drugs” and that he could “look at a man and tell you if he’s full of drugs by one glance at his body with his top off”. Yet when pressed by a German reporter afterwards he insisted his comments were not a dig at Klitschko “but about the sport in general”.
Klitschko’s response when questioned about drugs in the sport was blunt. “I’ve been tested for the past quarter of a century since I was an amateur as an Olympian,” he said.
Watching on was Tyson’s father, John, a former bare knuckle fighter who was delighted to be watching his son after being released after serving five years in prison for gouging out a rival’s eye in a fight.
“I’m not long out of jail, it was a long sentence and all I want to do is see my son be victorious here,” he said. “If I die on Sunday, I’ll die happy because I will have seen what I need to see.
“This man doesn’t want to fight Tyson. He knows Tyson is a danger man and he’s been saying it for years. Tyson is like lightning. He’s strong, he’s 27 and he’s mentally as strong as that wall and Klitschko hasn’t got it in his mind to be able to beat Tyson on Saturday night.”
Not everyone is as convinced that Fury has the tools for the job. The former WBA heavyweight champion David Haye, who announced that he will fight Mark de Mori in his comeback fight in January, reckons Fury only has a “one in 20 shot”. “Wladimir Klitschko is a consummate professional inside and outside the ring,” he said. “The best guy on Fury’s record is Dereck Chisora, you look at Klitschko and it is a whole different story. This is Tyson’s first introduction to world heavyweight boxing. He has never fought anyone who is a true world class fighter. To go from fighting the Chisoras of this world to go in with a strong, healthy dominant world champion, will be a step too far.”
Not that such a sober and level-headed assessment is going to blunt Fury’s confidence. “I didn’t believe this fight would happen but he has proved me wrong,” he insisted. “I hope he has prepared well, and I know he would have done. But I am coming. Old guy, young guy, old champion, new champion. Enough said. Amen.”
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