This was not going to end well.
It’s 9.30pm on a Saturday night in 2013 and I’m walking down 33rd Street in midtown Manhattan with two dozen blind-drunk Mancunians who are kicking at everything that’s not bolted down, tottering into traffic and hurling slurs at confused taxi drivers, threatening to fight any passer-by who deigns to make eye contact, a trail of smashed sidewalk signs and overturned newspaper stands in their wake.
At the eye of the well-lubricated storm is Tyson Fury, shirtless and ruddy-faced and draped in an Irish flag. Five hours earlier he had fought for the first time on American soil at the 5,500-seat theatre adjacent to Madison Square Garden, stopping Philadelphia’s Steve Cunningham in the seventh round with a thudding right hook, a matinee shown on free-to-air NBC for a prime-time broadcast in the UK. It was by all accounts an inauspicious stateside debut, with the then 24-year-old showing very little that afternoon to indicate he’d be world heavyweight champion in less than three years’ time. He was sloppy and careless, never more so than when Cunningham, a blown-up cruiserweight more than 3st lighter and years past his best, detonated a right hook on his exposed chin that sent his doughy form crashing to the canvas in the second round.
After rallying for his 21st professional win, Fury wrested the mic from an in-ring interviewer and crooned country singer Ricky Van Shelton’s Keep it Between the Lines to the bewildered New York city crowd. He answered a series of boilerplate queries from the thin media corps at ringside, delivering a blend of straight talk and curious bon mots.
Then without so much as a shower Fury made a beeline from press row to the exit doors, crossed 31st Street into the since-shuttered Irish Times pub and commenced banging back Guinnesses and, before long, shot after shot of whiskey. The fight itself had been a blip on the radar amid the regular Saturday bustle of Manhattan and pubgoers mostly gawked with mild curiosity at the 6ft 9lb mountain holding court by the bar, still anonymous in the States to all but the most hardcore boxing fans, who soon peeled off his tracksuit to snap photos with a gaggle of cooing females.
The party moved from station to station on a midtown pub crawl over the next few hours, drunk on booze and the tantalizing promise of Fury’s future, the day’s early turbulence all but forgotten. My walking powwow with Tyson’s trainer and uncle Peter on the fighter’s immediate prospects ended abruptly between Stout and Jack Demsey’s when he decided to retire to his hotel, no apparent interest in experiencing first-hand where this train was headed.
The line between Fury’s proper entourage and the cadre of expats and hangers-on had blurred. Nearly all from both parties had been going since breakfast and chatted excitedly in an English as recognizable to the American ear as Chaucer, leaving me nodding politely without riposte in our conversations. At one point a racial slur had caught the ear of a black patron outside and tempers flared. The sidewalk conflagration subsided, defused thanks in no small part to Fury’s cool wife Paris, and prompted the correct decision to call it a night. But for the grace of God no one was arrested on the parade back to the hotel.
I’ve spent no small part of the past fortnight reflecting on my eye-watering night on the tiles with Fury that April, as the fighter has gone from outsider in an outsider sport to one of the most divisive stars on the planet since toppling Wladimir Klitschko for the heavyweight crown. No doubt he would look back on that evening, what he remembers of it anyway, with a wistful remembrance of the luxury of anonymity, the ability to carouse mostly unmolested from pub to pub on one of the busiest neighbourhoods in the world.
As the Age of Mayweather further recedes in the rear view, a decade defined by a self-styled image manufactured, calculated and focus-grouped within an inch of its life for maximum profit, there’s something almost refreshing about Fury’s unfiltered persona. His views, while reprehensible and in a thousand ways diametrically opposed to my own, are authentic and his own. Once availed of the fallacy that athletes are role models, there’s a certain purity that feels almost quaint in an era of athlete as brand.
The night ended early by New York standards as the party made their way back to the Seventh Avenue hotel across from the Garden, spilling through revolving doors into a lobby full of bemused and horrified patrons. Only after some confusion did Fury and co realise they were in the wrong hotel, walking one more block before excusing himself for the night. What had seemed an evening bound for a grim ending was instead only the beginning.