A whole three years after publishing Behind the Mask: My Autobiography, heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury returns to the towering subject of himself with Gloves Off: The Autobiography. The definite article sounds more definitive, but in reality it’s more of the same – more braggadocio, more humility, more professions of love for his wife and family, more descriptions of his mental health, more threats to retire, more talking up potential fights of the future.
Fury is a 6ft 9in 20-stone monument of contradiction. He’s someone who rejects any interest in celebrities, while publishing photographs of himself with Ed Sheeran and Robbie Williams. He praises the strict moral values of the Traveller community from which he comes, but sidesteps the alleged wrongdoing of the crime boss seen in his company. He celebrates the importance of fitness and his efforts to get in shape, but rejects sports science, heart-rate monitors and data assessment.
“Image,” he – or his uncredited ghostwriter – states early on, “isn’t my thing.” Two hundred and 50 pages of image-consciousness later, he writes: “I haven’t wanted to be a Mr Nice Guy who was liked, but unmemorable. I have wanted to be the colourful, outspoken, charismatic and controversial entertainer.” He has certainly succeeded in those aims. The most talented British heavyweight since Lennox Lewis (who boxed for Canada in the 1988 Seoul Olympics) and, some would argue (including Fury himself), the best in history, he has made some shockingly homophobic and antisemitic comments in the past. There are, he says, “all sorts of incidents and events I would love to be able to wish away”.
Although, as in the previous book, he doesn’t revisit his words, he attributes them to his well-publicised mental breakdown leading up to and after his 2015 victory over Wladimir Klitschko to claim the WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight crowns. He has been diagnosed as bipolar and also suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, a combination that produces anxiety levels that are kept in check, he realises, by his fitness and training regimes as a boxer. Which makes you wonder how he would handle the retirement to which he continually refers in the book. He is at his most affecting when he describes the emptiness and suicidal thoughts that he has experienced in the midst of depression. Yet while he has clearly suffered, there is also a sense that the illness is a cloak that covers all questionable behaviours, repositioning him as victim rather than perpetrator.
Larger than life is all very well for the length of a boxing promotion, but it can soon become tiring in life
Gloves Off is not a case of bare-fisted self-exposure, but instead a carefully edited version of events. There is no mention, for example, of Daniel Kinahan, the alleged Irish gangster based in Dubai, whom Fury publicly thanked in 2020 for his work as a boxing promoter. And when Fury refers to his father being sentenced to 11 years in prison in 2011 (he served four), he merely says that it was “for getting involved in a fight”, which makes it sound like a spot of fisticuffs. In fact, John Fury gouged a man’s eye out, leaving him half-blind.
But leaving all the backstory aside, Fury’s return from the breakdown that removed him from the ring for three years and left him a bloated 28-stone comfort eater back home in Morecambe is one of the great sporting comeback tales. What’s more, his trilogy of fights with the fearsome US heavyweight Deontay Wilder are some of the most compelling contests of their division for a couple of decades.
For a big man, Fury is a good mover and an unusually smart boxer. He talks rather too much about smashing people up, but actually some of his key victories, such as against Klitschko, have been on points and are much more about stamina and ring nous than brute force. Boxing is a very particular kind of sport, with one foot in the entertainment world and another in murky backrooms. Which fights get made, and which fights don’t, comes down to a number of opaque factors, but image and presentation can often be as important as style and ability.
Sometimes, the whole “Gypsy King” showman drama – being carried to the ring on a throne in one of the Wilder fights – may occlude Fury’s genuinely impressive achievements in the ring. The man himself says it’s just an act, designed to maximise attention and therefore viewers and profit. Perhaps, but this is a guy who refers to himself in the third person and it’s just possible that the act has taken up more permanent residence in his personality. Larger than life is all very well for the length of a boxing promotion, but it can soon become tiring in life.
Which leads us to the retirement question. Fury writes perceptively of past fighters who have hung on too long, always promising themselves that it will be after the next fight, and then the next one after that, that they will hang up their gloves. By the end of the book, as he surveys the potential contenders, he appears indistinguishable from all those predecessors who didn’t know when to say goodbye. Can he walk away from the spotlight, the discipline and the glory? What will come afterwards, just living at home with his beloved wife, Paris, and their six children? He says he’ll be happy to walk the dogs. In the meantime, he’ll be fighting British heavyweight Derek Chisora (for the third time) on Saturday 3 December. The dogs, it seems, can wait.
• Gloves Off: The Autobiography by Tyson Fury is published by Century (£25). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply