This weekend, I was one of the millions of people around the world watching, in my opinion, one of the most historic heavyweight boxing matches since Muhammad Ali vs George Foreman’s “Rumble in the Jungle”. The anticipation was too much. We had two boxing champions, both undefeated, in their prime, going to war.
In one corner there was the “Gypsy King” Tyson Fury, who brands himself as a representative of the outcast. Fury came to international acclaim when he defeated Wladimir Klitschko in November 2015. Fury ended Klitschko's ten-year reign and assumed among many titles the Lineal champion. For non-boxing fans or historians, the Lineal champion is won by the challenge of a champion in the same weight class. The Lineal only fights the best at their best and wins. For context, Muhammad Ali is currently the only three-time heavyweight lineal champion in boxing.
Fury’s story took a downward spiral, his titles except Lineal champion were stripped, he was morbidly obese, had bouts with drugs, depression and was diagnosed as bi-polar. Fury was in a very dark place in his life, and all of this turned around through 1) his Christian Faith as he proclaims.
“My opinion is that I follow what the Lord says. Or I try to. Others are following what they want to do, basically. They are living for their self. I am living for God.”
The second reason for his turnaround was Fury’s renewed focus on saving what he called “a dying sport”. Fury came out of an episode of depression, drugs and obesity to challenge the undefeated champion twice. As he sat on his throne, ready to make history, listening to Patsy Cline’s Crazy, it was appropriate for so many reasons, but the most poignant reason was what it took for him to stand in that moment at that time.
In the other corner, we had Denotay Wilder, the “Bronze Bomber”. Wilder was the undefeated WBC Champion. Wilder, an Alabama native, rose to acclaim because of his lethal right hand. Boxing was never in the cards for the lean fighter. He was an athlete with aspirations to play American Football and Basketball. All of this changed when his daughter was born with spina bifida. Given his new parental responsibilities, Wilder reprioritised his goals and redirected his energy to boxing. Interestingly, Wilder's path also led him to the championship in 2015, when he became the first American to hold a heavyweight title since 2007. Wilder beat Bermaine Stiverne by a unanimous vote and had been the reigning champion until this weekend.
Fury in short beat Wilder down for seven rounds. Fury exposed the lack of technical ability coupled with the power required to be the heavyweight champion of the world. Fury’s combination of brute force, agility and technicality were too lethal for the former WBC Champion. Wilder was pressed and laid out multiple times. As Wilder struggled with his equilibrium and bled from one ear, the fight was called. Wilder can blame his loss on his suit weighing at circa 40lbs, on influences from the audience, the sun, moon, stars or the rain. But the fact is Wilder was out boxed and severely hurt. The corner made the right call. Wilder is known for saying “he would like to catch a body” in the ring and “he’s a warrior that would fall on his shield”. As he takes his L he should reflect on the fact maybe Mike Breland, politically motivated or not did not want a body on his conscious if he could have prevented it.
In any event, this fight was clear. Fury won with a technical KO making one of the most iconic comebacks in boxing history. This comeback could not have been possible without the support, ingenuity and skill of his trainer Sugar Hill Stewart from Kronk Gym in Detroit. Here is where I would leave my synopsis, but there was one detail that I found very disrespectful and had me giving Fury the side eye.
During the fight, Fury was wearing a gum shield made of the Nigerian flag. While British media such as the Sun have made light of it with quotes like “all gums blazing” or the Metro with “ Fury taunts Antony Joshua”, Fury's tactic is xenophobic, screams of colonialism and it's not needed in 2020. My theory is Fury used this trope not only to taunt Anthony Joshua but also to speak to the spread of nationalism we see in post-Brexit Britain. Some people would argue it’s just a gum shield, no big deal. Here’s why it is.
To be clear, if the gum shield said Joshua or AJ with a union jack flag on it, I would have zero issues. As a boxing fan who fell in love with boxing because of Ali, fighters should be trash talking, aggressive, cocky, arrogant and all of the adjectives in the world. They should be disrespectful to each other, taunt each other and deploy all of the psychological strategies to have the advantage. In 2020, a line must exist when race is a promotional tool.
Race and xenophobic epithets are not new to boxing. Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world, was positioned according to Vice as "the representative of black America". While at the same time his white opponents were positioned as "the great white hope", this was 1907. From 1911-1948 non- white fighters were barred from competing in British boxing until Dick Turpin broke the barrier.
Through the years, there has been an US vs. Them theme in boxing particularly along racial lines. It wasn’t too long ago during the Mayweather vs McGregor promotion circuit in 2017 when McGregor infamously told Mayweather to “dance for me boy”. Racial promotion is nothing new in boxing; however, Fury brought in xenophobia and colonialism with one gum shield.
Anthony Joshua was born in Britain to a Nigerian mother and Nigerian/Irish father. Joshua is very proud of his Nigerian heritage and increasingly spends more time in Nigeria. In Britain, there is an undertone of what it means to be British. There is a prejudice that some people have that is unless you are white; you are not 'really' British. After skin colour, the next determination of "Britishness" would be the accent of the individual. For some, the most "British" is the Received Pronunciation (RP) accent (the Queen’s English). An accent is a critical determining factor for some people because it denotes ones social class. Britain is a very classist society, therefore between skin colour and accent, an individuals “Britishness” and station is assumed.
Tyson Fury is known as the "Gypsy King". Gipsies are considered one of the lowest class categories in Britain. Additionally, Fury's accent is purely Manchurian, not RP. Therefore, when Fury wore his Nigerian gumshield, he was signalling the tropes that have been in boxing for decades but took it a step further. First, Fury nodded he is now the British champion. Second, in making the distinction Fury essentially stated Anthony Joshua isn’t “really” British. Third, Nigeria, like gumshields, are there to guard the “soft tissue” which is the empire. Fourth, Nigerians are all Anthony Joshua, not a country filled with 190.9 million people as of 2017. Finally, most importantly, Nigeria was a business transaction between the Niger Company (now Unilever) and Great Britain. Due to its colonial past, Fury’s gum shield was essentially signalling that Nigeria could be chewed up and spit out. Fury's signal is significant because the recent political climate in Britain has been to spit out immigrants that are “taking jobs”. The spread of nationalism is enabling behaviour that demonises the “other”. The “Gypsy King" sent a powerful whistle of solidarity to those who demonise the other. My theory is that it is a an intentional tool to promote the fight.
Of course, Fury supporters and perhaps Fury himself would retort by saying this is an over reaction. This is too PC. There may even be the usual, “ we are all the human race” or the “ I don’t see colour” PR line that Fury was careful to reiterate in the US during the Wilder vs. Fury promotion circuit. There may even be the calling out of Fury’s new trainer, a black man, Sugar Hill Stewart. But this is Britain. Xenophobia and racism is institutionalised, implicit and insidious. Unless you are paying attention sometimes it may be missed through its subtlety. I didn’t miss it.
Fighters should talk trash to each other but the Nigerian gumshield was highly disrespectful to an entire country. The logic behind it doesn’t even add up which is reflective of xenophobia it just doesn’t make sense. For example, for some fights, there is no chance anyone is going to watch them, so out of desperation; they default to these racist promotional strategies. Fury fighting Joshua would be a unification fight of fighters in their prime. The only promotion needed for that fight would be the announcement of the date. For Fury to start to dog-whistle down this route doesn’t make sense, is disappointing but not unexpected. Trafficking in bigotry or racism in boxing needs to come to an end. Its 2020. Tyson Fury take your win, enjoy it, back off the disrespect of Nigeria and focus on the next match.