Three years ago, Tyson Fury’s life changed forever when the 6ft 9in, 18st boxer claimed the heavyweight championship of the world. Once called the richest prize in sport, the title has been held by legendary boxing names: Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Lennox Lewis and Mike Tyson among them.
Fury, a traveller from Lancashire, shocked the world, earning huge acclaim and millions of pounds. He was 27, undefeated and in love with Paris, his wife, who was pregnant with their third child. But there was an emptiness inside him. Depression hit Fury harder than any opponent.
It had happened many times before. He would put on weight, pull the covers over himself and wait for it to pass. Sometimes it would take days, other times weeks. But now he had achieved his lifelong dream – so why was it happening again? Suddenly a very public figure, Fury began to spiral out of control. Not even a planned rematch with Wladimir Klitschko, the Ukrainian he beat in Germany, and a promised pay packet of £10 million, could summon the fighter deep inside him.
He relinquished his world title belts, drank himself silly and binged on cocaine. The boxing authorities removed his licence and he became embroiled in a doping inquiry over traces of a steroid in his system. Physically and mentally, he was a wreck. He emptied vending machines, partied and ballooned to 28st. He would rant at opponents on social media or declare he had retired – he barely remembers any of it now.
Then, last November, after two years in the wilderness, Fury set out to return to the ring. Friends vowed not to leave his side; that they would be in the gym with him every day.
“I was in a very bad time in my life and I’d given up on everything,” explains the fighter, as he speaks at the Wild Card Boxing Gym in Hollywood, ahead of his world title comeback in less than two weeks.
“I look back at that time and I didn’t want to live any more. I was suffering from depression and anxiety. I was drinking heavily and doing bad things all the time. It was almost like I’d let myself down, my family down, everyone I knew down. But I didn’t realise that I was suffering with my mental health. My body was of no interest to me.”
In the past 11 months, Fury has shed 10st – the equivalent of a 6ft newborn giraffe, or Melania Trump – by pushing himself physically every day, his meals and moods monitored by his team. It has helped stave off the mental illness that had given him regular thoughts about ending his own life.
“The weight gain, I think, is related to my depression,” explains Fury. “I’ve realised that winning the belts won’t bring me happiness. They are just the target; the challenge. What I have learnt is that if I don’t train for a few days, I start getting depressed. By two weeks, I’m totally under. So if I train every day, I feel fantastic, on top of the world. So I must continue to train for the rest of my life.”
As Fury has fought the flab, so his growing mental fortitude – not to mention his boxing skills – have transformed his outlook. He receives messages from other mental health sufferers, who take hope from his journey. “To lose that much weight, it was a hell of a thing. I’m thankful for my team who got me into the gym every day. My trainer, Ben Davison, may have saved my life,” he admits.
“Realising about my mental health issues was a big thing. I’m now spreading the word, because it’s a silent killer and more needs to be done to help people who suffer inside.”
Stepping between the ropes in the Hollywood gym, looking lean and muscular at 18st 7lb, Fury moves fluidly as he prepares to reclaim the world title in Los Angeles on Dec 1 against another giant – the 6ft 7in Deontay Wilder, from Alabama, who has knocked out 39 of his 40 opponents. Fury has never been beaten in 27 fights over 10 years. Can he dethrone this dangerous American? Should Fury defeat Wilder, it will be one of the greatest comebacks in heavyweight history, as momentous as Muhammad Ali reclaiming the crown in 1974. Like Ali, Fury has been away for almost 1,000 days. He shocked the world by taking the title from the formidable Klitschko, who had ruled boxing’s blue riband division for almost a decade – but not those close to him.
He hails from Irish travellers, 10 generations of bare-knuckle boxers, and fighting is in his DNA. He was born a fighter – weighing just 2lb. Doctors told his family he might die, yet his father, John, predicted that his son – named after Mike Tyson – would “grow up to be 7ft tall and become heavyweight champion of the world”.
John has also revealed that Tyson had “night terrors” as a child, and has had “episodes” all his life.
Expected to be a man’s man, Fury never expressed his emotions. “You put up with things and you bottle it away,” he says. “And I’d done that my whole life. Even as a youngster. I used to have this feeling of being alone and being left behind. It was a terrible feeling, but I didn’t understand anxiety. I didn’t know what I was going through until a few years ago.
“I’ve never spoken about this before, but Paris gave birth to a child at six months old that was dead. I had to be there when she was delivering the baby. We were in one side of the hospital and my uncle Hughie was dying on the other side of the hospital, at the same time.”
Fury pauses, as a wave of emotion surfaces. “That was the end of 2014, and I suppose I didn’t really think about it. I stopped myself from thinking about it. I didn’t really think about it until after the Klitschko fight, and then it all came tumbling down.”
Fury’s wish is to defeat Wilder and return to the UK for a showdown with British heavyweight Anthony Joshua, who, in the absence of the self-proclaimed “Gypsy King”, has usurped his titles. He rubs his big, bald head. “They said I couldn’t come back, that it wouldn’t be possible. To be here, fighting for the world title again, have I not already won?”
TysonFury will fight Deontay Wilder for the WBC heavyweight title in Los Angeles on Dec 1, to be shown live on BT Sport Box Office