In 1971, when the heavyweight championship of the world could still be described accurately as one of the greatest prizes in sport, Norman Mailer wrote about Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier with a kind of drunken fervour. He suggested that “the closer a heavyweight comes to the championship, the more natural it is for him to be a little more insane, secretly insane, for the heavyweight champion of the world is either the toughest man in the world or he is not, but there is a real possibility that he is. It is like being the big toe of God”.
Mailer, who regarded himself with scant modesty as the most vivid writer and toughest man in American literature, added with absurd grandeur that “when the heavyweights become champions they begin to have inner lives like Hemingway or Dostoevsky, Tolstoy or Faulkner, Joyce or Melville, or Conrad or Lawrence or Proust”.
These days humble boxing hacks have to tussle instead with issues of doping, gangsterism, sportswashing and the mundane fodder of explaining to bewildered or uninterested readers that Tyson Fury is the WBC champion while Oleksandr Usyk holds the IBF, WBA and WBO belts. But the bout planned for this Saturday between two unbeaten boxers would have produced the first undisputed world heavyweight champion of the 21st century.
The last man to be the King of the Hill, in Mailer’s phrase, was Lennox Lewis who beat Evander Holyfield to unify the recognised heavyweight titles in 1999. So there was a real frisson of anticipation at the prospect of Fury fighting Usyk.
But since the protracted and tedious negotiations between their rival promoters produced an original date for the fight of 23 December they have just traded in disappointments and insults. The bout was postponed for the first time after Fury was knocked down and nearly lost in October against Francis Ngannou, a mixed martial artist and former UFC world champion who was boxing professionally for the first time in a fight meant to be a mismatch.
Instead of florid comparisons with Dostoevsky or Proust in the buildup to the rescheduled Usyk showdown in Saudi Arabia, where even mild dissidents continue to be imprisoned, tortured and executed, we had to make do with Johnny Nelson indicating that Fury might be in trouble. Late last month Nelson, the former cruiserweight turned boxing pundit, said: “I’m hearing rumours of what’s happening in [Fury’s] camp. I’m hearing that he’s getting turned over in the gym … I’d expect him to beat Usyk but the Tyson Fury who boxed Ngannou in his last fight gets knocked out. I’m thinking has he taken his eye off the ball, or has time caught up with him?”
Boxing on social media is as hysterical as it is poisonous and it did not take long for wild gossip to go into overdrive. After it was revealed on 2 February, just 15 days from the fight, that Fury had sustained a cut in sparring which required “significant stitching”, Usyk’s abrasive manager, Egis Klimas, and a small army of trolls declared that Fury’s wound was self-inflicted. His critics went even further in stressing that Fury will never risk fighting a much smaller and lighter man who can match and possibly surpass him in terms of unconventional skill and movement.
Klimas’s argument was not sophisticated: “Tyson Fury is a fucking coward who will do anything not to face Usyk, and he asked [someone] to hit him with a frying pan in his brow.”
Usyk’s promoter Alex Krassyuk was more polite, if still barbed, when he replied to Fury’s post: “Wish you soonest recovery. God sent you a sign. Think of retirement, brother.”
The only change from the usual pattern was that Fury, for once, refrained from doling out most of the abuse. He has been relatively restrained since a new date of 18 May was set for the fight, again in Riyadh, and limited himself to a mild outburst. “I keep hearing talk of people saying I should retire or I’m going to retire,” Fury said last Wednesday. “I ain’t retiring.”
Fury is notorious for threatening imminent retirement but he now insists he has planned at least five more fights – with the first two being the unification battle and an obligatory rematch with Usyk. Boxing’s longsuffering fans could be forgiven for telling Fury to put a sock in it and just make sure he turns up for the fight in May.
Yet, if and when they do step into the ring, Fury and Usyk will provide a fascinating clash of character and style. They are the best two heavyweights in the world and, whether it’s Fury talking about his fragile mental health or Usyk describing the resilience and courage of his fellow Ukrainians amid the Russian invasion, they are capable of showing the gravitas and complex inner life which drove Mailer to his verbose flights of fancy more than 50 years ago.
Last week I even thought of Mailer’s riff on the “secret insanity” of heavyweight fighters before a championship bout when Usyk was asked about Fury as a man. Having reacted to the latest postponement with an unsurprised smile and shrug, Usyk said: “I think Tyson Fury is a little bit crazy.” He paused and then, with trademark humour, added: “I am too. Tyson Fury a little bit. I am more.”
Usyk turned to the camera and sent a message directly to Fury: “Tyson, hi my brother. Don’t be afraid. I will not leave you alone.”
In that moment, as wry as it was intense, Usyk showed again how much boxing needs this fight to happen. The world has changed too much for them to rival the stature of Ali or Frazier but, if they do finally meet in the ring, heavyweight boxing will at last have another championship fight of real magnitude. We can then move on from the circus that has preceded it and concentrate on the searing test that awaits both Fury and Usyk.