A similar story was told a couple of months ago, and it probably wasn’t true to begin with, but this was boxing. Reality was optional.
“I went down the street yesterday and we asked 50 people, ‘Have you ever heard of Deontay Wilder?’” Tyson Fury said. “Two people said yes and they were boxing fans.”
The emcee of the news conference, Jim Gray, playfully interjected: “And did you ask them if they knew who you were?”
Fury responded, “100%. And they all did. Every one of them.”
The audience laughed. Fury smiled.
“Every one them!” Fury shouted for emphasis.
Finally, some personality.
The self-proclaimed Gypsy King who was born into a family of Irish travelers, Fury has an unusual degree of magnetism, especially in this sterilized climate. As much as boxing has a reputation for tolerating a wide range of behavior, its landscape has become absent of the distinct characters that used to separate it from other sports. Boxers have become as predictable as baseball or football players.
Fury, who will take on Wilder for a share of the heavyweight championship Saturday at Staples Center, is a throwback to the sport’s better days.
No one would acknowledge this, but the news conference Wednesday was the true main event, as the verbal exchanges and on-stage fracas were almost certainly more entertaining than anything that will happen in the ring.
Fury and Wilder are undefeated, as is the other recognized heavyweight champion, Anthony Joshua of England. That prompted a representative of the World Boxing Council to declare the heavyweight division restored to its former glory — “It is back,” Pepe Sulaiman said — but how many times have we heard that over the last couple of decades?
What Fury and Wilder have is size.
A defense-minded mover, 30-year-old Fury is 6-foot-9. A thunderous puncher with 39 knockouts in 40 fights, the 33-year-old Wilder is listed at 6-foot-7.
But they aren’t giants who fight with the grace of smaller men, as the likes of Muhammad Ali and Larry Holmes were at their respective peaks. Fury is often described as mobile for his size, but he’s closer to a boxing equivalent of Kevin McHale than Kevin Durant. Wilder is a technically flawed fighter who throws long punches in windmill-like motions.
Wilder is nine months removed from surviving a life-or-death title defense against Luis Ortiz. While Wilder deserves credit for taking on a high-risk, low-reward opponent in Ortiz, the reality was that the Cuban defector was approaching his 39th birthday. Wilder would have been stopped by a decade-younger version of Ortiz.
And when Fury dethroned Wladimir Klitschko three years ago, he didn’t whip the longtime champion as much as he exposed his lack of agility. Klitschko’s inability to throw punches from certain positions led to an overly harsh critique by Wilder of Fury’s performance.
“Klitschko beat himself,” Wilder said.
Fury’s career crashed after the victory over Klitschko. Fury was treated for depression and substance-abuse problems. He also tested positive for a performance-enhancing drug. He returned to the ring this year, registering two unspectacular wins.
As Fury’s opponent, Wilder is probably better known in England than he is in his home country.
“On Saturday night, the whole world will know Wilder as the person that Tyson Fury just knocked out,” Fury said.
Fury’s taunting angered Wilder, who started a skirmish on stage in which Fury removed his shirt and exposed his bare chest. Images of the episode were widely circulated on the internet. Fury did what he was there to do.
As for what any of this actually means, Fury acknowledged the reality later in another ballroom, where he shared a table with a group of reporters.
“If I can’t beat Deontay Wilder, I obviously ain’t no good,” Fury said. “That’s it. There’s no dressing it up.”
This was an indirect admission that even if he upsets Wilder on Saturday, he won’t be considered great. In boxing, greatness is achieved by conquering a great opponent. As a fighter who isn’t great, Wilder can’t elevate Fury. He can only expose him.