Boxing's troubled Gypsy King opens up to Decca Aitkenhead about the "void" of success and the mental health issues that have plagued him his whole life.
Tyson Fury's beard takes more than half an hour to trim and powder and perfect for the shoot. "I'd shave it off if I could," he says dolefully. "But it's part of my look now." How much time does he spend on grooming normally? "None. I shave my head every other day, brush my teeth and shower. That's it."
It doesn't look like it. He's come wearing a silk Versace shirt, white linen trousers and pristine trainers. "Yeah, but I've created a monster, haven't I? I've created this flamboyant character, so now if I don't turn up dressed the part, people are disappointed. It's the brand. It's just part of the job." But then he adds: "When I'm at home I always like to wear a three-piece suit."
What? He lives in Morecambe with his wife and five children; three are under 3 years old, the oldest is just 10, and when not travelling for work Fury is "a full-time, hands-on dad. I do the night feeds, change the nappies, get them up and fed and washed and dressed and ready for school every day." Wearing a designer suit? "Yeah, I really like to look good."
Fury looks more like a Marvel superhero than an actual human being just over 2m tall and 114kg, with a wingspan — "reach" in boxing jargon — of more than 2m. Even more outlandish than his look, though, is his life. Boxing has always been a cinematic sport, but Fury's story is so fantastical that it would stretch the limits of even Hollywood's credulity.
The 31-year-old was born into an Anglo-Irish traveller family, from a 200-year line of bare-knuckle fighters, and family legend has it that he arrived three months early weighing just 450g. His father took one look at him and declared: "He'll be 7ft tall, 20 stone, he's going to be called after Mike Tyson and he'll be the heavyweight champion of the world."
The story has always been that the Fury family lived in Wythenshawe, a gritty outpost of Manchester and by the age of 10 Tyson had left school to work with his dad, dealing cars, collecting scrap, carrying bricks. The first time he put on a pair of gloves to challenge his dad, he broke his father's ribs with one blow. Only 14 and already 1.95m, he joined a local amateur club and stunned everyone with his speed and power. His very first opponent took one look at the giant and fled.
At 20 he married Paris, an 18-year-old from another traveller family, and turned professional. Styled the Gypsy King, he showed up to one prefight press conference in a Lamborghini, dressed as Batman. He went on to win the British, Irish, European and Commonwealth belts, and in November 2015 defeated the Ukrainian Wladimir Klitschko to be crowned the WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight champion of the world. And then, overnight, everything fell apart.
Within hours of his victory, Fury plunged into depression. He heard voices, saw demons, ballooned to 178kg on takeaways and sweets, and unravelled into a drunken blur. He was stripped of the IBF title over a contractual technicality — subsequently relinquishing the WBA and WBO belts — and made a series of breathtakingly ill-advised public outbursts, attacking gays and Jews, and joking about "slapping bitches". He declared, "A woman's best place is in the kitchen and on her back," adding that if he had a promiscuous sister he would "hang her". In June 2016 he tested positive for a proscribed steroid, and came close to taking his own life. After also testing positive for cocaine, Fury gave one of the more memorable interviews in sporting history.
"I've been out drinking, Monday to Friday to Sunday, and taking cocaine," he told Rolling Stone magazine. He was the victim of a "witch hunt", he ranted, because the boxing world hated gypsies, and "the only thing that helps me is when I get drunk out of me mind … I've done lots of cocaine. Lots of it. Why shouldn't I take cocaine? It's my life, isn't it? What the f*** has that got to do with anything? I'm as fat as a pig … I don't even want to wake up. I hope I die every day … I just hope someone kills me before I kill meself."
Twelve months later, long after the world had written Fury off for good, he astonished everyone again by getting clean. He quit cocaine, sobered up, became a mental health ambassador, lost 63kg, fought his way back to fitness, signed an £80m five-fight television deal with the US network ESPN and won two comeback fights. Last December he went 12 rounds with the undefeated WBC world heavyweight champion, Deontay Wilder, only for the fight to end in a controversial draw, with one referee scoring Wilder the winner, one Fury, and the third awarding each boxer identical points. The crowd erupted — in their eyes, Fury had been robbed. It was "a complete injustice", he fumed. "Disgraceful."
Fury has since won two more fights, and a rematch with Wilder is set for February. Meanwhile, in the latest twist of this implausible plotline, Fury has turned his hand to WWE wrestling. Last week he took on Braun Strowman in Saudi Arabia, arriving in the ring wearing a full Arab thawb, and defeated the 2m American in seven minutes.
He is busy promoting the WWE fight when we meet at his hotel in Orlando. He strides into the foyer unchaperoned, and I'm instantly charmed by his unaffected ease. He's irresistibly charismatic, with a big infectious smile, and before we can even find our interview room he's cheerfully admitting that the whole "I'm from Wythenshawe" backstory was a lie, invented to make him sound tough, when in fact he'd grown up in an idyllic, leafy Cheshire village.
• Boxing: The reason Tyson Fury will never fight Joseph Parker
• Boxing: Tyson Fury overcomes bloody cut to beat Otto Wallin
• Boxing: Tyson Fury turns down rematch with Deontay Wilder for another fight
• Boxing: Joseph Parker v Tyson Fury? It could happen if the money is right
I'm expecting to have to listen to him go on about boxing for ages before we can get to the juicier personal stuff, but the minute we sit down he starts telling me all about his mental breakdown. Radical candour is Fury's new thing, and so deceptively disarming I mistake it at first for raw authenticity. He observes all the conventional tropes of the celebrity mental health confessional: "I just didn't want to suffer in silence any more, and I thought to myself, if I'm feeling like this, there's got to be many other people who are feeling the same." The "truth is always the best", and now he can "be me", so "people are seeing the true Tyson Fury, not the act". Quite soon, though, I begin to suspect his new candour is just as theatrical as his old showmanship. I'm not even sure Fury would know the truth if it hit him in the face.
His memoir is called Behind the Mask and, to be fair, it does come clean about not growing up in Wythenshawe. But it peddles again the preposterous idea that he came home from hospital just three weeks after his birth, when a severely premature baby wouldn't be discharged for three months. For the past three years he has said he has a type of bipolar disorder, but now he says, "I don't have bipolar. That's something you don't know." But I just read about the diagnosis again in his own book, I point out. He shoots me a triumphant "gotcha!" look. "Well, I don't have a book out, so you can't have." I have to remind him that his book is the whole reason why we're here.
Once he remembers he's written a memoir, he says he did it because "I wanted people to be helped by my story, because I went from hell to being back to heavyweight champion of the world again [he still regards himself as such because he remains unbeaten, although he no longer holds any of the main title belts], and being back fit and looking fantastic, being in a great mood every day. And if I can do it, so many other millions of people around the world will be able to do it, because I'm no superman. I didn't have any great help and I done it on my own."
Fury grew up in an archetypically macho culture, where "no one talks about feelings. Ever. Everyone's a tough man. Even though we're all big softies behind it all." His family never discussed the death of his two-day-old sister when Fury was nine, nor the tragedy of his mother's dozen miscarriages, nor his grandfather's lifelong mental health problems. "When you're growing up and you're a boxer and you're going to be heavyweight champion of the world, you can't show these weaknesses."
As a boy he was haunted by a profound sense of dread, and by his teens was suffering violent mood swings and anxiety attacks that continued into adulthood. When training for fights he'd be fine, but the lows in between could leave him suicidal. His wife was bewildered, but the vocabulary of mental health was a foreign language to the couple, and Fury's policy was to suppress the terror by focusing on the next fight. For most of us, nothing could be more terrifying than facing a heavyweight boxer in the ring. Even some of the world's best boxers have admitted they have no affection for the sport; they live in fear of brain damage and death, and fight only for the money. For Fury, the ring was the one place he always felt invincible and fearless — "supremely confident" — and boxing more like a love affair than a job.
In late 2014 he was preparing to take on a heavyweight rival, Dereck Chisora, when his beloved uncle Hughie died, and Paris went into labour at six months to deliver a stillbirth. There were more miscarriages, but Fury ploughed on with training, his sights set on Klitschko and the ultimate prize.
Winning a world title was all he'd ever wanted, and he floated out of the ring "walking on air". But that night all the buried grief came flooding up. The chasm between the false self he'd constructed — the arrogant, cocky bad boy of boxing — and the truth of his internal anxiety opened up and swallowed him. "The world tells of success as such a wonderful story, the pinnacle of happiness," he writes. "But my experience was that there was just a void," which he filled with sweets and drink and drugs.
I'm curious about how he was introduced to cocaine, but he turns vague. "I just didn't care if I lived or died. Nothing mattered. It wasn't fun, none of it was fun. It was a sedative to get rid of the pain." Self-disgust at getting fat only made him eat and drink more, and if he'd carried on "I know what I'd be now. I'd be rotting in a box somewhere, dead. I'd have had a heart attack. I couldn't tie my own shoelaces without being out of breath. I was a wreck."
On Halloween 2017 he sat in his bedroom in his underpants and wept. "I thought to myself, what has my life come to? I've gone from being heavyweight champion of the world to being a fat mess. I've just got to change. The next day I got my sweatsuit on and started running, and never looked back."
There was no 12-step programme, no therapy or medication, and he still drinks in moderation. But as long as he trains twice a day, he says his mental health couldn't be better. He has only to miss training for three days to gain 3kg, "and being fat's what made me depressed", so at home he now follows a practically monkish daily routine of domesticity, gym, work, gym. "And I've not had any hiccups at all."
In the past he has credited his recovery to God. For a while, in fact, he wouldn't shut up about God — but to my great relief, God's now on the list of things he refuses to talk about. These include My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding — "I have no opinions"; the perils of social media — "Everyone to their own"; his parents' violent marriage — "Their business, not mine"; and his father's numerous extramarital children, including one called Tommy who starred in this year's Love Island. Fury closes right down when I bring up Tommy; he didn't watch the show, he says shortly, and has only seen him once since it aired.
He doesn't want to talk about his infidelity during the booze-and-cocaine years, either. "There was a little bit of that going on, but I don't want to go into that in the newspaper. It makes my wife look a right idiot," which is a novel way of looking at it.
He's delighted to talk about women hitting on him, though. "Hear that, Brendan?" he roars to his security man, his face lighting up with uncontainable joy. "Do women hit on me? All the time! Everywhere I go. And not just because they know who I am. Seriously, I could go to foreign countries where people don't know me and they're still hitting on me." Beaming, he stands and spreads his arms. "Because I'm tall, dark and handsome. Good dress sense. In shape. They're like, 'Who is this guy? Is he Brad Pitt? George Clooney?'"
Paris knows she doesn't have to worry, though, because "after 11 years and five kids and all the bulls*** I've put her through I'm not going anywhere". Their two daughters are called Venezuela and Valencia Amber; their sons are Prince John James, Prince Tyson Fury II and Prince Adonis Amaziah. Family planning isn't the couple's way, "so we'll find out if we're going to have more, time will tell". Though he adds: "To be honest, I think five's enough. I'm away for half the year, so it's very challenging for Paris on her own."
Fury's notorious sexism has landed him in a lot of hot water, and he's now almost comically careful. When asked for his opinion on women in boxing, he once replied, "I think they are very nice when they're walking around that ring holding them cards," but when I ask if he'd be happy for his daughters to take up boxing, he says, "If they wanted to," with a knowing grin. How would he feel if Paris wanted to go out to work? The canny smile widens. "If she wanted to, then it's up to her."
He claims he's had no media training since his calamitous outbursts in the past. He's being, I laugh, impressively diplomatic. "I'm a very diplomatic person, that's why," he grins. He wasn't always, I point out. "Well, maybe it was an act. Maybe I was doing it to become famous because I know controversy sells. People ain't really interested in someone who's normal. People want to see a freak show to sell papers and sell views on a TV. Before, I was a performing monkey, I've done everything from A to Z to be famous and it got me to where I wanted to be, that elevated position where every motherf***er knows who Tyson Fury is. Now I can be me."
In the past he's blamed the wild bigotry on his mental illness; is he now saying it was all a calculated strategy? "We're not going to go there. I'm not even going to talk about it because it's a very diplomatic conversation."
I don't think Fury really knows which parts of him are real or an act. He is a compulsive myth-maker, a fabulist. When I ask if he still feels the boxing world is prejudiced against him, for example, he's off: "Nothing can hold me back. I'm a one-man army, the Gypsy King will prevail. You can't stop this, this is a moving tornado and it doesn't get fazed by anything. Every time someone puts you down, it builds you up in life. And you know, what good would sunshine be every day if there was no rain?" It's like watching a human Scalextric set, roaring round familiar conversational tracks, and whenever a question derails him by requiring him to stop and think, I can practically see the wheels spinning to get him safely back on track. Yet, more than once, I think I see him boring himself. He feels most alive, if unsettled, when deviating from his script.
He's even reluctant to examine mental health in any depth. He is certain his father suffers from the same problems he's faced. "He won't admit it, but one minute he's in a good mood, then the next he's very down and negative." Does Fury talk to his dad about his negative feelings? "I say, 'I only want to hear positive things, don't come to me and tell me about negative stuff, I'm not interested.' " Does he think that helps? The question seems to surprise him. "Er …" He thinks. "Mmm. Sort of."
If he's now done with playing a character, I'm confused by the appeal of WWE, which is all about that. "Maybe. But I'm not playing a character, I'm just playing myself." For a professional boxer, it must feel weird to choreograph a fight with the winner and loser already decided before stepping foot in the ring. "Well, the fact that people think wrestling is fake is the biggest crap of rubbish I've ever seen." Even WWE's own CEO has publicly admitted that wrestling is not sport but entertainment, I point out. "Oh. Well, that's what it is, it's the entertainment." I ask if they've decided who'll win yet. "I don't do losing, so I hope it will be me." Which, of course, it was.
He insists boxing is still his real world, not WWE. But if the cut to his eye from his most recent fight gets reopened in Riyadh, won't that jeopardise his rematch with Wilder in February? "Yep." I thought regaining his heavyweight title mattered more to him than anything? "I only live for today and tomorrow. February may as well be 10 years away. We may never get there. I may die in my sleep today. Who knows?"
He knows he'll never box in the UK again, though. "They had their chance," he says. "They didn't treat me well. Over here, I get treated like a superstar." He claims to have no interest in fame — "It's really not what I'm after. It's strictly business" — but in that case why has he just made a four-part ITV documentary, Meet the Furys? "So people can see the real Tyson Fury." Yet he says he doesn't even like leaving his local area in Morecambe because "I hate fame. When I go to a big city it's just a nightmare. Torture." Interviews and photo shoots hold nothing for him, they're just part of the job. "Honestly, the only bit I enjoy is going to the gym. That's what makes me happy. Everything else is just what I've got to do." With a reported net worth of $40m, I'm not sure then why he can't just go to the gym.
Before we part, I ask him to show me what it means to have a 2m reach. We stand to face each other. For me to get close enough to punch him on the nose, our feet are just 35cm apart. When it's his turn, he looks slightly apprehensive. He draws back his arm and extends it to my face. Our feet are a good yard apart, and I begin to grasp what his extraordinary dimensions mean in a boxing ring. But we've misjudged the distance, and he taps my nose. He looks completely horrified. It was barely even a nudge, but doesn't feel at all like human contact. His fist feels more like a solid steel dumbbell.
Behind the Mask, Tyson Fury (Penguin, $38)