Tyson Fury: Return of the King?
Luke G. Williams
The imminent return of Tyson Fury just made the heavyweight scene doubly exciting, argues Luke G. Williams. After all, he is still the lineal heavyweight champion of the world ...
For so long stagnant, the heavyweight division - boxing's blue riband weight class - received a massive shot in the arm back in November 2015 when 'Gypsy King' Tyson Fury deposed long time divisional ruler Wladimir Klitschko to lift the WBA (super), WBO, IBF, IBO, Ring magazine, and lineal heavyweight titles.
Although an utter gentleman from the the top of his imposing 6'6" frame to the tips of his boxing gloves, Dr Steelhammer's monotonous brilliance had removed much of the glorious unpredictability from the heavyweight title scene.
Of course, no one could ever accuse Tyson Luke Fury of being predictable. Indeed, from seemingly the moment his reign as 'lineal' champion begun the Wythenshawe-born pugilist was mired in contention and controversy.
Before he had mounted so much as a single defence of his crown, Fury's much publicised personal demons threatened to overwhelm him. Indeed, on more than one occasion you would have been forgiven for thinking that it was unlikely he would ever again lace up a glove in competitive anger.
Therefore the 29-year-old's impending return to the ring on 9 June - announced today at a dramatic press conference - is a huge moment for the sport, not least because it throws a further factor and compelling personality into the heavyweight title mix.
Whether you still regard Fury as the legitimate 'heavyweight champion of the world' or not, there is no denying the fact that so long as he is active, anyone else's claim to be the 'baddest man on the planet' is open to dispute.
Yes, if Anthony Joshua was to hoover up Deontay Wilder's WBC belt, he would be - without doubt - the unified champion of four (or even five) sanctioning bodies, and probably have a cast iron case to be regarded as the world's premier heavyweight. But Fury's presence - so long as he remains unbeaten - negates any claim that a unified 'alphabet' title could truly be regarded as 'undisputed'.
Critics of Fury have frequently cited two factors why he should no longer be regarded as the legitimate heavyweight champion - namely his inactivity since that heady night in Dusseldorf in 2015, and the fact that he has (on several occasions) announced his retirement.
Yet the history of the heavyweight division provides plenty of precedents which suggest that Fury's title claims can, at the very least, be regarded as credible, even if they are not beyond question.
When Bob Fitzsimmons fought Peter Maher in February 1896, the majority of newspaper reports billed the contest as being for the 'world heavyweight championship' - understandably so, given the fact that the most recent incumbent, James J. Corbett, had taken the crown from the great John L. Sullivan in 1892, defending it just once in 1894 against England's Charley Mitchell before then apparently retiring and announcing he was passing his crown to his sparring mate Steve O'Donnell. Irishman Maher had subsequently KO'd O'Donnell and Fitzsimmons then KO'd Maher in short order in 1896.
At this point, Corbett rescinded his retirement, and when he faced Fitzsimmons in 1897 he was still considered the reigning champion. Today the majority of historians do not consider Fitzsimmons' heavyweight title reign to have officially commenced until his solar plexus punch pole-axed 'Gentleman' Jim in that memorable 14th round in Carson City, Nevada, while the flimsy claims of O'Donnell and Maher to be considered heavyweight champions have long since been forgotten.
Admittedly, the case of James J. Jeffries provides less credence for Fury's claims to still be the heavyweight champion. When Jeffires retired in 1905 as the unbeaten heavyweight champion of the world, his title passed first to Marvin Hart and then - via Tommy Burns - to the great Jack Johnson.
White America's disdain for Johnson and clamour for a 'white champion' persuaded Jeffries to return to the ring in July 1910 and face Johnson, with the 'former' champion reportedly claiming: "I am going into this fight for the sole purpose of proving that a white man is better than a negro."
Although Jeffries had never lost his title 'in the ring', the majority of contemporary observers considered him 'the challenger' to Johnson's 'champion' - but not everyone did - one newspaper billing Jeffries before the contest as the "undefeated champion of champions". Had Johnson been defeated by Jeffries you can be sure that the black pugilist's claims to have ever been heavyweight champion would have been written out of history pretty quickly. As it was, Johnson destroyed Jeffries with ease, forcing even his harshest critics to admit there was now no doubt he was 'the man'.
The showdown between Mike Tyson and Michael Spinks in 1988 offers a further example of a contest in which both boxers possessed competing and widely debated claims to the heavyweight crown - Tyson had recently unified the WBC, WBA and IBF crowns, while Spinks was seen as the 'man who beat the man', having deposed lineal champ Larry Holmes in 1985 and repelled him once again in a rematch the following year.
"For all the belts Mike Tyson wears, as long as Michael Spinks is out there undefeated and uninvited, Mike Tyson will never really be the undisputed heavyweight champion," claimed the New York Times in the aftermath of Tyson's 1987 destruction of Tyrell Biggs. Only when 'Iron Mike' obliterated Spinks in 91 seconds the following year did traditionalists consider him the 'undisputed' champion.
It's also worth noting that Holmes' own claims to heavyweight supremacy had themselves only become fully recognised when he defeated Muhammad Ali in 1980, after 'the Greatest' brought his shortlived post-Leon Spinks retirement to an end. Similarly, many did not regard Joe Frazier's world heavyweight title claims as fully legitimate until he defeated Ali in the 1971 Fight of the Century.
As for the argument that Fury's two years and (at the time of writing) nearly five months absence from the ring negate his claims to being regarded as the heavyweight champion, perhaps someone ought to tell Jack Dempsey (and Gene Tunney for that matter) - after all, more than three years separated Dempsey's fifth successful title defence against Luis Angel Firpo in 1923 and his sixth (and unsuccessful) defence against 'Gentleman' Gene in 1926.
Regardless of your view of such historical antecedents and regardless of whether you regard Fury's claims to the heavyweight title as still retaining any legitimacy or not, what cannot be denied is that today's announcement has certainly enlivened the boxing world as a whole and the heavyweight scene in particular.
Welcome back Tyson Fury!