“Apollo Creed meets the Italian Stallion!” proclaims Carl Weathers in the original Rocky. I’m glad he’s still around—he’s about to see Steel Hammer vs. Son of Fury.
Late Saturday afternoon on HBO, live from Dusseldorf, the undisputed, long-time heavyweight champ, Ukranian Wladimir Klitschko, takes on unbeaten Irish challenger Tyson Luke Fury in the most hyped and anticipated heavyweight championship fight since … Well, it’s hard to say, since no one can remember the last time a heavyweight fight, at least in the U.S, was big news.
Not during Klitschko’s reign, which goes back to 2000. Nicknamed Steel Hammer by his countrymen. Klitschko has never been popular in the world’s most lucrative market, the U.S. Some say it’s because of his complete domination of the heavyweight division: his professional record is 64-3 with 53 knockouts.
But domination never hurt the popularity of Joe Louis (who held the title for 12 years) or Rocky Marciano (who never lost a fight) or Muhammad Ali. Others say it’s because Klitschko is a foreigner, born to Russian parents in what is now Kazakhstan. But being a foreigner didn’t hurt Manny Pacquiao, a Filipino who has been one of the biggest box office draws in the U.S. for years.
The real reason Klitschko doesn’t generate hate with American sports fans is because he seldom fights here. And the reason he doesn’t fight often here is because, let’s face it, we no longer produce heavyweight contenders.
In truth, the rest of the world hasn’t done very well in that department, either. Possibly the second best fighter over Waldimir was his older brother, Vitali, who is currently the mayor of Kiev.
The only heavyweight champion to earn a PhD (from the University of Kiev with his dissertation on sports science), Klitschko is articulate and soft-spoken. He is an avid chess player and golfer, and a passionate humanitarian particularly involved in causes for children in the Ukraine. Wladimir and Vitali were honored for their involvement in Ukranian politics with their own postage stamp.
But the two brothers never met in the ring. Why? “We fought too much as boys,” Wladimir once told a reporter. “It scared our mother, and she made us promise we’d never fight professionally.”
So Wladimir Klitschko seemed destined to go through his career without ever having that big fight that would define his legacy, But at last, a worthy challenger has appeared, and from the most unlikely of places.
Around 2005, after he had been champion for a few years, still-skeptical American boxing writers likened Klitschko to the steroid-pumped brute Drago, played by Dolph Lundgren in Rocky IV. Like Drago, Klitschko is a sculpted 6’-7” and around 250 pounds and, of course, speaks Russian (in Klitschko’s case, he also speaks English, German and Ukrainian). Like Drago, he has a thunderous right hand. But that’s where the comparison ends.
The fighter who seems to have much more in common with Drago is Klitschko’s opponent on Saturday, Tyson Fury. At 6’-9” and about 280, Fury is the first fighter Klitschko has ever faced with height, weight, and reach advantages, and he’s nearly 13 years younger in age.
Tyson Fury, named by his father for former heavyweight champ Mike, isn’t merely Irish, he’s an Irish traveler, a group often derogatorily called “gypsies.” He was born in County Galway, as was his father John, or “Gypsy John,” as he was known when he fought professionally—and sometimes unprofessionally—as a bare-knuckles boxer in the 1980s. (No film exists of Gypsy John’s bare-knuckles career, but I like to think he looked something like Brad Pitt’s brawler in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch:
Though born in Greater Manchester, England, Fury traces his family’s lineage to both Belfast, County Antrim in Ireland’s north and counties Galway and Tipperary in the south. He even claims kinship to Bartley Gorman, who was called “King of the Gypies” and from 1971-1992 was known as King of Gypsy Boxing, fighting with bare knuckles, not only fighting on the streets but fighting at horse fairs and even down in the mine shafts.
You might say Fury comes from a boxing family: his cousins are World Boxing organization champ Andy Lee and heavyweight Huey Fury. The only family member who wasn’t a successful fighter, Tyson Fury once cracked to a British sportswriter, “was me ma. She never got outta the amateurs.”
Fury has won all 24 of his professional fights, 18 by knockout. But despite his youth and physical advantages, the oddsmakers have him a 4-to-1 underdog, mostly because of Klitschko’s far greater experience. Fury is quick to discount this: ‘I’m the fastest heavyweight since Muhammad Ali,” he boasts, “besides, not only is he [Klitschko] getting old, he’s getting knocked out. Russia, I’m going to knock him out for you.”
He mentions Russia because of Klitschko’s enormous popularity there, but presumably he means also kicking butt on Ukraine, Germany (also a huge fan base) and Nashville, Tennessee, where Klitschko lives part of the year with his fiancée, actress Hayden Panettiere, and their baby daughter.
For his part, Klitschko has played the part of the gentleman in the run-up to the match. “I thought I’d seen it all, but I was wrong,” he says of his opponent. “Tyson Fury is very different to anything I’ve seen before. He is a very challenging individual, both in his manners and his boxing.”
By manners, Klitschko is probably referring to Fury’s behavior last year when, looking to land a sponsorship from Gillette, he promised, “I’ll shave my head, beard and pubes—all at the same time.” Fury also has been known to occasionally dress as Batman and head-butt watermelons.
At the press conference where they announced the fight, Fury declared, ‘I’m not coming to Germany to win on points. I’m going to do a demolition job on Waldimir. I have a plan.”
If Klitschko is fazed, he hasn’t shown it. “Everybody has a plan against me,” says the champion with a smile and a shrug. “But you know what they say in boxing: Everyone has a plan—until they get hit. We’ll see what kind of plan Tyson Fury has when I hit him.”
The HBO fight card starts at 4:45 EST, though the main event may not be until much later. It will be repeated at 10:15 EST that night.