One of the most momentous events in the last decade of sports history occurred this past weekend: Tyson Fury upset Wladimir Klitschko in Germany to become the first new lineal (read: he now holds every belt except the one that probably matters least) heavyweight boxing champion.
That’s the good news. The bad news? No one seems to care.
And I can understand why, to a point. American interest in heavyweight boxing — though on a slight upswing now thanks to power-punching destroyer Deontay Wilder holding a world title — crashed and burned some years ago after the decline and retirement of popular name fighters like Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, Riddick Bowe and others. For the past 10 years, if an American held the title, it was someone dreadfully boring: Shannon Briggs, John Ruiz, etc. The most exciting thing the latter two have ever done, for example, were respectively making outlandish callout videos to the Klitschko brothers, and losing the title to former middleweight champion Roy Jones Jr.
The problem was twofold: a litany of sanctioning bodies is bad enough, but when an American champion can’t hold onto the title belt for long enough — Jones Jr., Ruiz, Hasim Rahman, Michael Moorer and George Foreman in his late career renaissance all enjoyed notably short reigns — casual fans, the ones who matter in terms of making the sport a success, are going to stop paying attention. And with most of the mainstream sports media focused for the past 10 years on the fights of Floyd Mayweather, Manny Pacquiao and, to a slightly lesser extent, Miguel Cotto and Nonito Donaire, heavyweight interest waned, and stayed that way.
Meanwhile, quietly but consistently, the Klitschko brothers reigned supreme over the division, holding all of the belts between them for a number of years, primarily fighting in Europe, usually Germany, where they were superstars. The laundry list of dispatched challengers was generally nothing to write home about: Manuel Charr, Dereck Chisora, Odlanier Solis; but the brothers remained dominant, stoic, and almost frustratingly polite in doing so.
Here’s where it gets good. Tyson Fury, a man destined to be either a heavyweight boxer or the lead singer in a thrash metal band, has been opposite-of-quietly-and-respectfully climbing the heavyweight ranks for the past few years. An Irish Traveller by origin, Fury stands at almost seven feet tall and — unlike novelty giant Nikolai Valuev — actually wields his size well. Though not a big puncher in the context of the heavyweight division, Fury makes up for that with striking agility and boxing acumen.
He’s also kind of a dick. Besides hurling childish insults at most of his opponents, Fury has also gone on record as believing that “pedophiles and homosexuals” are going to bring about the apocalypse. He’s basically what would happen if you spliced Donald Trump’s DNA with a side of beef and taught it to kill.
But he’s got talent, and heart to boot; there’s no denying that. He handed Dereck Chisora the first loss of his career and, prior to facing Klitschko, got up off the floor against Steve Cunningham to rally and win by KO. It was that win that showcased his ability to not only persevere, but adapt: he fought sloppily in the first two rounds, gunning for a knockout, but left himself open to Cunningham’s counter shots, which eventually got him knocked down. But he got up, calmed down, and gradually picked his opponent apart. It showed in-ring maturity, even if actual, adult-human maturity remains tantalizing out of reach for him.
The fight between Fury and Klitschko was, in itself, nothing to write home about. Despite talks of demolishing his foe, Fury instead frustrated Wladimir with awkward footwork, taking away the Ukrainian’s trademark jab, and using his size advantage to muscle the champion in the clinch, eventually winning a 12-round decision.
Wladimir has already stated that he intends to exercise his rematch clause, with that fight stipulated to again take place on German soil, the Klitschkos’ adopted home turf. And while Wlad is a much more likable and respectful champion than Fury will ever be, any boxing fan with legitimate hopes that the sport will catch on in the States again had better hope that Fury once again comes out on top.
Fury isn’t an American, but that doesn’t matter, for several reasons: 1) American fans love a brash sportsman, but what they love even more is a brash sportsman who can deliver; see the obsession with Floyd Mayweather, even though he rarely took it upon himself to produce an exciting fight; 2) new blood is, in and of itself, invigorating; 3) perhaps most importantly, this very likely sets up a future match with current WBC champion Deontay Wilder, which, if the two men stay on their current trends, is essentially a license to print money: the loud-mouthed Irish giant vs. the Alabama-born destructor.
Granted, we do have a ways to go. Fury first has to defeat Wlad a second time — no easy feat, as Lamon Brewster will profess — and even then, the calls for a rubber match would be too earnest and justifiable to ignore. Then there’s the matter of Anthony Joshua, the 2012 Olympic gold medalist in the super-heavyweight division, and British golden boy. Joshua turned pro after the games, and has been wreaking havoc so far. Though he has yet to fight anyone who can truly challenge him, the prospect of an all-British heavyweight title fight (Fury can trace his lineage to both Ireland and Britain) has promoters salivating.
Likewise, Deontay Wilder has a couple of hoops to jump through: an optional title defense next month, and then a mandatory defense against the dangerous Alexander Povetkin, who recently lost to Wladimir Klitschko. But if the stars align, we could finally be looking at a new era of heavyweight boxing, one characterized not necessarily by an upswing or wind-change in technique, but by a series of marketable, attention-getting fighters. And really, at this point, that would truly be revolutionary.