Niyo: ‘Gypsy King’ Tyson Fury tips his crown to Detroit

With the Kronk Gym’s SugarHill Steward in his corner, boxing’s brash heavyweight champ…

Niyo: 'Gypsy King' Tyson Fury tips his crown to Detroit 1
Niyo: 'Gypsy King' Tyson Fury tips his crown to Detroit 2
Niyo: 'Gypsy King' Tyson Fury tips his crown to Detroit 3

The taxi driver made two stops in Detroit before Tyson Fury found the legend he was looking for, along with the man who’d ultimately help him create his own.

But that’s only the beginning of “an absolutely crazy story” they all joke about now, as Fury, one of boxing’s most charismatic stars, prepares for another title bout July 24 in Las Vegas against Deontay Wilder, the third act in an epic fight trilogy.

Fury, the undefeated WBC heavyweight champ (30-0-1, 21 KOs), won the last meeting in February 2020 with seventh-round TKO of Wilder, the fearsome knockout artist (42-1-1, 41 KOs) who’d held that championship belt since 2015. And Fury wasn’t about to let his rival forget about it when they finally met again for a bizarre promotional press conference Tuesday in Los Angeles.

“For the last 18 months, I’ve been living rent-free in Wilder’s head,” said Fury, a mountain of a man at 6-foot-9 and nearly 300 pounds. “He got smashed to pieces in our last fight, and for some reason, he wants it again.”

But for reasons that require some explanation here, this summer’s boxing blockbuster actually draws its inspiration from the Motor City.

It was more than a decade ago — late in the summer of 2010 — that Fury, the self-proclaimed “Gypsy King,” became a Traveller again, much like his nomadic Irish ancestors. He’d boarded a flight from Manchester, England, seemingly on a whim, and when he landed in Detroit, Fury asked the first cab driver he could find to take him to the Kronk Gym, the fabled fight factory that churned out many of the 41 world champions Emanuel Steward trained in a Hall of Fame career.

The original Kronk at McGraw and Junction in Detroit had closed by then, so it took a few phone calls from the cabbie to find the gym’s new home on the city’s west side. Once there, the fast-talking Fury asked to see Steward. But since he wasn’t in the gym, it fell to his nephew and protege, Javan “Sugar” Hill, who now goes by the name SugarHill Steward, to deal with the interloper.

“What do I remember? I remember being bothered mostly,” he recalled with a laugh this week. “I was working in the gym training my guys and they tell me there’s some crazy white dude at the front door named Tyson Fury, and he’s saying he’s the next heavyweight champion of the world.”

Indeed, that’s exactly how Fury introduced himself. And as it turned out, Hill’s uncle, who helped turn Detroit into a boxing Mecca some 40 years ago, had asked Fury’s father a year earlier if the newly-crowned British champ would be interested in training with him at the Kronk. He said he saw a future world champ in him, but the timing wasn’t right for Fury, whose wife was pregnant with their first child back in Manchester.

But after running his record 12-0 that summer he decided it was a pilgrimage he needed to make, anyway. As he told The Guardian newspaper last winter, “If I didn’t go to Detroit then, I knew my life would never turn out the way it was meant to.” 

And following some brief introductions at the Kronk, and more than a few suspicious looks, Fury was off to meet Steward, who did what he often did with fighters that showed up on his doorstep. He invited Fury to stay at his four-bedroom home on Bretton Street in Rosedale Park.

“Although I’d just met the guy,” Fury said, “I felt like I’d known him my whole life.”

Kronk camaraderie

Hill stayed in the bedroom downstairs, while Fury took one of the rooms upstairs next to Andy Lee, an Irish middleweight — and Fury’s second cousin —  who’d started training at the Kronk back in 2005. Steward even bought the British giant a king-size bed so he could sleep comfortably.

By day, they’d train in the sweltering basement gym, with Fury joining the likes of Lee, Steve Forbes, Cornelius Bundrage and Johnathon Banks, one of the top U.S. heavyweight prospects at the time. Fury’s sparring sessions often created a stir, particularly with some of the Kronk old-timers. (“It was like what you see in one of those movies, like ‘Coming to America,’” Fury said, “where all the guys in the barbershop are sitting around bantering. It was absolutely amazing.”)

And at night, they’d all dine together and spend hours talking about boxing, about life, about anything and everything.

“It was one of the best experiences I’ve had,” Fury says. “I’ll remember it forever.”

He’d go on to spend a couple months more with the Kronk team in Austria, where Steward traveled for a training camp with Wladimir Klitschko, the heavyweight champ he tutored from 2004 until 2012, the year Steward died of colon cancer at age 68.

It was there he really got to know Hill, who spent much of his time working with the other fighters in camp while Steward’s attention was focused on Klitschko. And it was there that Hill grew to understand what Fury was all about, too, beyond his sharp wit, his nimble feet and his unconventional boxing style.

Klitschko often invited future challengers to his camps as a way of sizing up — or even intimidating — his competition. But Fury knew that, and when he found himself in a large group sitting in a sauna with Klitschko at the Stanglwirt alpine resort, he recognized it was a test, of sorts, the way the champ cranked up the thermostat. It took nearly 45 minutes in the suffocating heat before the Klitschko finally gave up and left Fury as the last to exit.

“That was a mental victory for him,” said the younger Steward, who saw it play out again Tuesday, as Fury and Wilder squared off in complete silence during a photo op. The stare-down lasted for nearly 6 full minutes before security stepped in and Wilder, who’d refused to speak earlier as Fury trash-talked his way through the press conference, finally gave up and walked away.

“He’s one of the best to do it, to get in people’s heads,” the 49-year-old SugarHill Steward said. “Maybe it’s a lie, maybe it’s the truth, but you don’t know. And you have to find out the hard way.”

Emanuel Steward always taught his fighters that “champions were built from the inside,” and Fury’s remarkable journey is certainly is proof of that. He went on to beat Klitschko in 2015, claiming his three title belts while wearing the boxing shoes he’d been given by Steward back in that first training camp. But then Fury’s life spiraled out of control, his career all but lost in a haze of drugs and depression and controversy. His weight ballooned to over 400 pounds and Fury says now he contemplated suicide.

Fury, though, managed to battle his way back after a 2½-year absence from the ring, sobering up, shedding more than 100 pounds and eventually earning a shot at Wilder and the WBC title in 2018. That fight ended in a draw, but Fury won over fans with his spirited effort as the underdog, surviving a pair of knockdowns — including one in the 12th round — and outboxing Wilder for much of the night.

Sweet reunion

Yet when it came time to get ready for the rematch 14 months later, Fury turned to an old friend to help him reclaim his throne. He parted with his former trainer, Ben Davison, and after consulting with Lee, he phoned Steward “totally out of the blue,” interrupting a Kronk sparring session once with a request the latter couldn’t refuse.

“I was in the gym getting fighters ready for a big year,” he said. “But that phone call came in and it was like, ‘Oh, wow, 2020 is gonna be a big year!’”

Fury knew he’d take flak for making the switch only eight weeks before the Wilder rematch: “Everyone said, ‘Oh, no, this is a bad idea. We don’t know how good this guy is.”

But he knew better, and Fury says he knew he needed something more from his training. He wanted the technical work that Steward was known for, but also the “Kronk style” that called for aggression in search of a knockout punch. And that’s exactly what he got, which helps explain why Wilder was so overwhelmed in that second meeting. Fury, with his massive 85-inch reach, attacked from the outset, dropped Wilder twice and ultimately forced his corner to throw in the towel.

“The plan,” SugarHill Steward said, “was executed perfectly.”

This time around, they’ve had even more time to work, packing more power into the 32-year-old Fury’s right hand in the process. And more time to develop an even stronger bond, too, having spent much of the last year together — first in England last fall, then in Miami and now Las Vegas ahead of next month’s fight. Scroll through either man’s Instagram page and you’ll find shots of the two dressed in matching Versace outfits or dueling Hawaiian shirts.

“We’re like ‘Twins’ now, Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger — that’s what we call each other,” Steward said, referencing the 1980s buddy comedy about twins separated at birth. “Except I’m Arnold Schwarzenegger and he’s Danny DeVito.”

The truth is, though, they’re also like his uncle and Lennox Lewis back in the day. Or Emanuel Steward and Klitschko a decade ago. And so many others before that, from Hilmer Kenty to Thomas Hearns and Milton McCrory.

“I’m just continuing the legacy that was passed on, teaching the things that I was taught, and I’m happy for that,” SugarHill Steward said. “Not just for Emanuel’s legacy, but for Detroit as well. This means a lot, to see it come full-circle like this.”

Twitter: @JohnNiyo

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