I am squashed into the back of a Jeep interviewing British and Commonwealth Heavyweight champion Tyson Fury. The interior of this kind of four-wheel drive vehicle isn’t the most spacious at the best of times, but when you are sharing it with a 6ft 9in boxer it feels positively minuscule.
Due to a breakdown in communication Fury had not been expecting me to pitch up at his Lancaster home. Thankfully, after a hasty phone call he arrives in his car and parks up. He tells me his wife is out and he hasn’t got his house keys on him – I am then invited to clamber aboard.
Despite the initially intimidating nature of the surroundings and my interviewee (he has got the kind of handshake that would have, if he had applied even the slightest bit more pressure, crushed every bone in my hand), Fury is great company.
He is renowned in boxing for being a good talker outside the ring, as well as an exciting prospect within it, and during our car-bound time together the 23year-old confidently holds forth on topics including his forthcoming fight against Nicolai Firtha in Belfast, his world title ambitions and his Catholic faith.
Religion and boxing have long been closely associated. From ring legend Muhammad Ali’s conversion to Islam to modern day great Manny Pacquiao’s avowed Catholicism, boxers have rarely been shy about proclaiming their religious beliefs and Fury is no different.
Early on in the interview he admits that, although boxing means the world to him, there is one prize that he values over any other.
“Going to heaven is the most important thing a man or a woman could ever do and being right with God is the most important thing in life,” he tells me.
“It is a hard thing to do and not as easy as people think. Not everyone is going to go to heaven and I hope I am one of the select few who are.”
The obvious question is: how does this faith square with a day job that requires him to injure people?
Fury won his British and Commonwealth titles after an impressive victory over Derek Chisora in July. It was a performance that won over many sceptics, but the build-up to the fight was marred by Fury’s chilling warning to his opponent: “I’ve a wife and two kids to provide for and if it means killing you in the ring, that’s what I will have to do.”
Fury insists that kind of talk is simply part of boxing, a hypegenerating ruse to help sell tickets and draw in television audiences, but does he find it hard to reconcile this kind of behaviour, and the behaviour he has to engage in within the ring, with his religious conviction? The answer is a firm “no”.
“God gives us talents and I’m using mine to the best of my ability,” he tells me.
“I pray for my opponents before fights, praying that they are strong and healthy and put up a good fight, but I’m doing a job like everyone else.
“It tells us in the Bible we need to work, and boxing is just a sport at the end of the day.”
Fury was born in Wythenshawe near Manchester and comes from a long line of boxers. He was named after Mike Tyson and first took to the ring at the age of 16. His family is from the Irish traveller community and he is as proud of this heritage as he is of his religion.
Yet while his Traveller roots go back centuries, he has only recently turned to God. Although his mother is a Protestant and his father is a Catholic, neither is practising. Instead, it was his uncle, a born-again Christian and preacher, who introduced Fury to religion five years ago and it is an influence that is easy to detect. When Fury speaks about his faith his words brim with an evangelical zeal and, while he cannot quite explain why it was Catholicism he was drawn to, he does admit that he has much to learn about the faith he chosen to follow.
“Religion is complicated and hard. People have practised it for thousands of years and still not understood, so it’s hard for me to understand it all after only a few years,” he says.
“I try to go to church every Sunday and I read the Bible quite a lot, although not as much as I should do. It gives me strength to know that if God is in my corner then no one can beat me.”
This kind of heartfelt talk has seen Fury labelled a “Bible basher” by some uncharitable sports hacks, but he assures me that the jibes don’t bother him.
“If I’m ashamed of God then God will be ashamed of me. If you put him first then everything will work out. I use religion as a strength not a weakness, and it helps me. I do my training and then he does his bit.”
Ihave often wondered whether boxers are inclined to be religious because of the dangerous nature of their chosen sport. Does having faith in God make it easier for them to deal with the peril they are putting themselves in?
Fury is quick to shoot down my theory. He is convinced that, even if he were not a boxer, he would still have become a Catholic and a regular churchgoer.
Away from the ring it has been a tough year for Fury. His father was jailed in February for 11 years for committing a violent assault, but he appears to be utterly focused on ensuring his boxing career continues on its upward trajectory.
Fury fought as an amateur for both Ireland and England, and will be making his professional Irish debut in the fight against experienced American Firtha on Saturday night.
While reaching heaven might be Fury’s number one goal in life, he also has his sights firmly fixed on claiming as many versions of the world heavyweight title as he can, and victory over Firtha is an essential part of that plan.
Fury, who is undefeated after 15 professional fights, is a charismatic presence on the boxing scene and, despite David Haye’s best efforts, the heavyweight division is still crying out for a fighter capable of troubling the commanding Klitschko brothers – the giant Ukranians who share the WBC, IBF, WBO and IBO titles between them.
After the Chisora fight there was talk of a match up between Fury and one of the Klitschkos. He insists that he could beat either of the brothers but says that any deal to fight them is yet to be struck.
“I’ll fight any man born from his mother but it is not about that – this is a business and a job,” he says.
“I could get a title shot right now, easy, but it would be on their terms. I could take both the Klitschkos out now but the money is wrong and the TV deals are wrong. Until that is right I won’t be fighting them.”
Fury is convinced that becoming the world champion is his destiny, and since I met him there has, in fact, been some suggestion that a fight with one of the Klitschkos could take place before the year is out.
Whether he fulfils his boxing ambitions remains to be seen, but one thing is certain: Tyson Fury is a man on a mission.
This article was first published in the Catholic Herald (16/9/11)