By Kelefa Sanneh
If ever there was a good time to spend eighty dollars to watch boxing on TV, the rematch between Deontay Wilder and Tyson Fury, on Saturday, is it.
Of all the products that were advertised during this year’s Super Bowl, perhaps none was more exotic than this one: Wilder Fury II, which despite the name is neither an action-movie sequel nor an aggressively marketed men’s body spray but, instead, a boxing match, with a suggested retail price of about eighty dollars. “Wilder” is Deontay Wilder, a heavyweight boxer from Alabama who is one of the most brutal punchers in the history of the sport. “Fury” is Tyson Fury, a British heavyweight who is arguably the most charismatic personality in the sport—and, even more arguably, the most accomplished heavyweight boxer in the world.
Casual fans might have been impressed to see the fighters’ undefeated records on the screen: 42–0 for Wilder, 29–0 for Fury. More attentive viewers might have noticed that those records were wrong, or at least incomplete. Wilder is actually 42–0–1, and Fury is 29–0–1; that last “1” represents their first encounter, in December, 2018, which was an astonishing fight that ended in a draw. This Saturday night, in Las Vegas, they meet again, in the most eagerly anticipated boxing match since Floyd Mayweather, Jr., fought Manny Pacquiao, in 2015. Prize-fighting tends not to play an important role in modern political discourse, but on Wednesday night, at the Democratic debate, Senator Amy Klobuchar made an unexpected reference to Wilder-Fury II. “I was thinking, there’s going to be a boxing rematch on Saturday in Vegas,” she said, “and those guys should go down there.” She was referring to Michael Bloomberg and Senator Bernie Sanders, who were arguing about the tax code. It was a pretty bad joke, but a pretty good sign that lots of people are paying attention to this fight.
Mayweather vs. Pacquiao was a rather lopsided match-up. By fight time, Mayweather was a -240 favorite, and in one poll, forty-two out of forty-eight experts picked Mayweather to win, as he did, easily. But for Wilder-Fury II, the odds are about even, and the experts are split. Most people would never dream of spending eighty dollars to watch boxing on television, but, if ever there was a good time to contemplate such a thing, this is it. And there may not be many more.
A big boxing match is both a clash and a collaboration, since both sides must work together to make sure the event occurs. (In boxing, there is no central authority with the power to dictate and organize fights.) The Wilder-Fury pay-per-view broadcast is a joint production of ESPN, which is Fury’s American home, and Fox, which is affiliated with Wilder; Fox also broadcast this year’s Super Bowl, which helps explain the advertisements. And, if you think that pay-per-view seems like a rather outmoded format, you’re not wrong: the practice of charging cable subscribers an extra fee for big fights goes back to 1960—the Floyd Patterson era. The third major modern heavyweight, Anthony Joshua, fights on DAZN, a streaming network based on a subscription model, which aims to make pay-per-view obsolete. (In December, Joshua won a rematch against Andy Ruiz, regaining some of the stature he lost when Ruiz upset him, last June.) The Wilder-Fury fight is, among other things, an economic experiment. More than four million people reportedly bought the American pay-per-view broadcast of Mayweather-Pacquiao. Will millions be tempted, too, by Wilder-Fury? If a fight this appetizing fails to generate an impressive number of buys, that could signal the beginning of the end of the sixty-year relationship between boxing and pay-per-view.
Wilder’s appeal is not complicated. He has what Max Kellerman, the ESPN personality and boxing analyst, calls “the single most devastating knockout punch in the history of boxing.” Wilder came to boxing relatively late in life, around the age of twenty, and he has a reputation for throwing the kinds of wild punches that boxers are typically taught to forsake. But he always wins, pretty much always by knockout. (He once won by decision, against Bermane Stiverne, but he later avenged that victory, as it were, with a brutal first-round knockout.) In Wilder’s last fight, against Luis Ortiz, he looked rather mediocre for six rounds, and then he made those six rounds irrelevant in the seventh, when his right fist connected with Ortiz’s forehead, and Ortiz collapsed in a heap. “Fighters have to be perfect for twelve rounds,” Wilder likes to say. “I only have to be perfect for two seconds.”
Compared to Wilder, Fury is more skilled but less spectacular. He became a heavyweight champion in 2015 with an ungainly but nevertheless impressive victory against Wladimir Klitschko, who for years seemed unbeatable. Then he disappeared for some time; when he returned, in 2018, he faced a pair of lower-level opponents before fighting Wilder, whom he almost beat, and who almost beat him. As the twelfth round began, most observers thought that Fury was beating Wilder on points. But, in that round, Wilder found his two perfect seconds: he landed a straight right and then a left hook, which put Fury flat on his back; the fight seemed to be over. But Fury did something that no one could reasonably have expected him to do: he got up and finished the fight, earning a draw. (Fury has no memory of being knocked down. “I remember opening me eyes, round about four seconds,” he recalled, in a recent video interview. “I thought, ‘Shit. Get up!’ ”) No matter what happens on Saturday night, or in the years to come, that is the image that will doubtless define Fury’s career: a beaten man, somehow deciding to become unbeaten.
Bob Arum is the American boxing veteran who is one of Fury’s promoters, and he likes to describe his fighters with superlatives. “Tyson Fury is the most articulate boxer that I’ve come across since Ali,” Arum recently said—referring, of course, to Muhammad Ali, a former client of his. “Most articulate” might seem like faint praise for a boxer, but it is not: Fury is an unusually compelling figure. Not long ago, he was interviewed by the former boxer Andre Ward, who hosts a show called “Unguarded” on ESPN+, a streaming network. Ward asked Fury about the years after the Klitschko victory, when Fury was idle and, from all accounts, often drunk. Fury talked about his lifelong struggle with depression and anxiety. “Going into that Klitschko fight, I was afraid of winning,” he said. “I knew I was going to win, but I was afraid of it, because I knew that I wouldn’t have a goal anymore, and there was nothing to pull me out of that darkness. And I was right.” He said that the darkness only subsided when he started fighting again.
Not long ago, Fury was portrayed in the British press as a strange and possibly malevolent character. He suggested to The Mail on Sunday that the legalization of homosexuality was a sign of the apocalypse. (The newspaper denounced his “vile homophobic slurs.”) Curious sports fans learned, too, about his father, John, a former bare-knuckle fighter, who was jailed for “gouging out a man’s eye in a brawl,” as one newspaper put it. But, in the years since his hiatus, Fury has come to seem inspirational, instead. This month, the British network ITV has been broadcasting a fascinating documentary series called “Tyson Fury: The Gypsy King,” which suggests that Fury could have a lucrative future, if he wants one, in reality television.
In the documentary, John Fury, now freed, is blustery but charming. He talks about how all Fury men are fighters, and about how he decided to give his son, born premature, a fighter’s name. (Fury was born in 1988, about seven weeks after Mike Tyson’s first-round knockout of Michael Spinks.) As for the eye-gouging, John Fury maintains, confidently if not dispositively, that it was more like a misunderstanding: “Just a disagreement between travelling people what went wrong.” He shows the viewers a painting of a traditional wagon and encampment, with men around a fire. “This is how we’d used to live, a hundred years ago,” he says. “Free as birds.”
Nowadays, Tyson Fury lives in Morecambe, a seaside town in Lancashire that is not known for glamour. Cameras capture him taking delivery of a horse-drawn wagon, like the one in the painting, and then deciding to be his own horse. He tows the wagon down the street, shouting, “Rocky Balboa has nothing on the Gypsy King!” Inside his house, we meet his wife, Paris, and their five children, one of whom won’t stop climbing up the window, thereby earning himself a lecture. Fury says, “You know why we don’t do that? Because Dad’s had to get his brains knocked out to get this house. Got no more brains to knock out, me boy.” Then he smiles and holds up his enormous palm, so the boy can practice. “Big punch,” Fury says. “Punch it—punch, not slap!”
Part of what makes Fury so watchable is the complicated relationship between his well-being and his profession. He says that during his boxing hiatus, he came close to committing suicide; he stopped himself by thinking about his family. His wife, Paris, is fond but stressed out: she gets anxious when he has a fight coming up, and anxious, too, when he doesn’t. She says, “That’s when I start thinking, like, ‘Where are we at, here? Are we slipping back into a low point?’ ” Fury seems to view boxing as a form of therapy, though of course boxing is far too dangerous and damaging to be considered therapeutic. And, when you consider the awesome power of Wilder’s right hand, Fury’s chosen path might seem less like self-medication and more like self-destruction.
Of course, Fury is confident that he will be able to avoid Wilder’s right hand on Saturday night—avoid it or else, once more, withstand it. Like all the most captivating boxers, Fury has a fighting style that seems to reflect his personality: stubborn, and surprisingly crafty. He found a way to beat Klitschko, and may have deserved to beat Wilder; in that sense, neither Wilder nor Anthony Joshua can match Fury’s record of achievement. Informed observers disagree about which of the two is more likely to have learned something useful from the first encounter, or lost something crucial in it. It is possible that the fight will be ugly and relatively uneventful, all artful feints and tangled limbs—a Fury victory, by decision. It is possible that the fight will end quickly and brutally—a Wilder victory, by knockout. In fact, neither scenario is unlikely. A great puncher versus a great talker doesn’t seem like a fair fight. But this one is.