At about 1 A.M. local time in Riyadh, on a Saturday in late May, Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk met in the center of the ring for the chance to become the “undisputed” heavyweight champion of the world. It was the first time in twenty-five years—since the Brit Lennox Lewis beat the American Evander Holyfield—that boxing would be able call one man its sole heavyweight champion due to the money-spinning, head-scratching antics of its various governing bodies. Tyson Fury is a six-foot-nine behemoth and gift to nominative determinism. He has become arguably the most “notorious” fighter—in his era thanks in large part to his size, but also to his unlikely resurrection story. Having beaten the man who was then at the top of the business, the Ukrainian Wladimir Klitschko, in 2015, Fury looked to have announced himself as the new head of the heavies before unraveling completely into substance abuse and morbid obesity, spiraling to a point where he seemed lost to boxing, and almost to life. In 2018, he lost most of the unhelpful proportion of his bulk to come back and face off against Deontay Wilder, a whip-cracking American heavyweight who had knocked most of his rivals cold. (The result was a split-decision draw, but he beat Wilder in 2020.) He’s since spoken of having made a suicide attempt at his lowest, and has become something of an advocate for mental health awareness, as well as the star of a Netflix reality TV series, large portions of which involve him driving to the local dump in a Volkswagen Passat.

Fury—the self-proclaimed “Gypsy King”—is of Irish Traveller heritage and tends to give tabloid journalists profanity-laden, libel-baiting copy. Bald, love-handled, with spindly legs, a Brobdingnagian among the citizenry, he is fleet-footed and elegant in the ring, like some big-game beast suddenly streamlined within its proper element. He had seemed cocksure as ever going into the weekend, having previously called Usyk, who is much smaller, a “rabbit” and a “sausage,” among other slightly feudal insults. Unlike in every other weight division, where ounces are a matter of debate and contract law, in the heavyweight division there is no upper limit.

Usyk has had other, even bigger things on his mind. Usyk is Ukrainian and had, following Russia’s invasion, for a time been on the front line. Usyk was urged to return to the ring to give his nation’s beleaguered but resolute populace something to cheer, so he brought a steely purpose, albeit a divided attention, to the clash. He formerly operated in the weight division below heavy, cruiserweight, and had been an undisputed champion there before bulking up to enter the more lucrative land of the giants. Impeccably well drilled and increasingly squat and solid, having grown into his new big-man status, Usyk seemed unmoved by Fury’s usual erratic rants. He also seemed unmoved when Fury’s father headbutted a member of Usyk’s entourage on the Monday of fight week, serving only to bloody his own head in the process.

A left-hander, or “southpaw,” Usyk is a stylist and had proved a conundrum too difficult to unpick for all his professional opponents so far, exhausting them with educated, relentless pressure and balletic footwork, forcing them to fight at a high pace and with maximum concentration, sapping them mentally as much as physically by requiring them to be constantly hyperalert. Usyk’s plan for Fury would be much the same. “Don’t be afraid. I will not leave you alone.” he had said to Fury in the lead-up. He had talked of there being no fat wolves in the forest—that it was the lion, not the elephant, who ruled the jungle. Fury, too, was undefeated as a professional.

The fight, in this era, could take place only in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. In recent times boxing has joined the list of sports being coaxed to offer up their glamour nights to the lure of Saudi riches; the term “sportswashing” has been heard in tennis, golf, darts, soccer, and Formula One of late, too. Ali fought in Mobutu’s Zaire, in Marcos’s Philippines, we are reminded. Boxing isn’t alone in selling its biggest occasions to the highest bidder, but it’s always been among the most enthusiastic, and rapid, responders when regimes hoping to present a face beyond their human rights rap sheet pick up the phonebook. It’s unfair, perhaps, to blame the fighters themselves, looking for life-altering money to undertake their life-threatening occupation. Boxing has been called “the red-light district of sport,” and its red light has been glowing especially bright since the authentic-seeming boxing fan Turki Alalshikh, chairman of the general entertainment authority in Saudi Arabia, opened up an apparently bottomless purse to make fights that fans have long been desperate to see. “His Excellency,” or “Mr. Turki,” as some of the fighters tend endearingly to call him, received a lot of thanks from all the major players this weekend. Only Jesus would be given more credit during the night’s in-ring interviews.

Usyk walked to the ring in Ukrainian costume, and Ukrainian colors—a fur hat with feathers, a fetching green military coat over his white shorts flecked with national blue and yellow; Fury sang and danced to a soundtrack of first Barry White and then Bonnie Tyler. In the ring he was wearing something green that looked like a cross between a kilt and a plus-size flower petal, with a faintly gladiatorial air to it. So far the big fights in Saudi have occurred in quiet, large, and purpose-built stadia, but there were more traveling fans for this one. The arena was peppered with mostly sporting celebrities and dignitaries. As the referee gave final instructions, Fury weaved his head like a charmed snake, flicked out his tongue.

The fight began a little cagily—both testing each other with jabs to the body, Usyk with the decidedly larger target to aim for. Fury was, as so often, full of feints and a little clowning for the gallery. The first big shot came from the smaller man, though. At the end of the first of the contracted twelve rounds Usyk caught Fury with a left which seemed to damage his nose; he would keep pawing at it, bothered by it, for the rest of the evening. As the fight started to settle into its early, feeling-out stages Fury began to meet Usyk’s pressure with hard right uppercuts, often to Usyk’s body. He held and leaned onto the smaller man—a practical, strategic take on affection, designed to start tiring Usyk out in time for the later championship rounds. Fury seemed happy to let Usyk come toward him and try to pick him off from range. By the middle rounds of the fight, it appeared to be working: Fury’s grander proportions looking like they might prove to be Usyk’s undoing; heavier shots starting to land more often, alongside more than the usual fits of taunting and mugging to the crowd; a sense beginning to form that Fury might even put a stop to Usyk’s night early. He was still having to work hard, however. While Usyk was clearly feeling Fury’s punches, especially heavy body shots in the fifth and a right to the head in the sixth which seemed—briefly—to stiffen his legs, he never looked in danger of hitting the canvas, or decisively wilting, and was forcing an uncomfortable pace.

Neither man had, until this night, encountered a problem in a professional ring to which they couldn’t find the solution. In the minute’s gap before the eighth Usyk kissed a crucifix handed to him by his cornerman—which launched various wild conspiracy theories on the internet about him using an inhaler—and came out with renewed vigor. He had more spring to his step and started to connect overhand lefts to Fury’s head. He ended the round having visibly damaged Fury’s face—a swelling began to form under the bigger man’s right eye, along with further damage to his nose. Fury seemed—for the first time—wincingly uncomfortable. If in the eighth Usyk got back into the fight, he won it in the ninth. With around half a minute to go, he got through with a huge left to Fury’s chin, which served to take away his legs. Fury spent the following seconds being hit from one corner of the ring to the next, his head rocked with punches, the great vessel of his frame veering around the canvas as if on a ship. He was punched into the corner and—momentarily—it seemed the referee was waving it off, but he was in fact administering a sympathetic standing eight count. Fury hadn’t gone down but only because his vast bulk hit the ropes each time he lumbered this way or that. He responded sheepishly to the referee’s instructions and was allowed to continue, the bell ringing to save him from further punishment at a point when he couldn’t have stood up to it. He was in another world, on another planet.

Fury managed to fiddle his way through a foggy tenth, where his legs were still a little shaky. That he recovered enough to be a threat in the fight’s final two rounds, and arguably even win the last, is to his credit and answered any questions about his remaining motivation at this late stage of his career. Usyk was declared the winner, on a split decision, having eroded Fury’s early lead with his explosive, violent revival—a verdict Fury railed against, claiming his rival had been favored because his nation is at war. It would, however, be ungenerous at best to pay much heed to words said in an immediate, concussed aftermath. The important fact is that Usyk is now the sole occupant of the seat at the top of the heavyweight mountain, his record still unblemished. He would dedicate the win to his nation and its children. “It was almost like destiny, wasn’t it?” Usyk’s cut man, Russ Anber, said later that night.

Ali once spoke of “the near room”—a sort of lawlessly alluring mental state he described to George Plimpton as full of “bats blowing trumpets and alligators playing trombones” that a fighter is occasionally aware of in the hardest moments of their hardest fights; to cross that threshold means committing to one’s destruction. Both Fury and Usyk will have caught glimpses of that place before, and if the contracts are honored they’ll fight a rematch in December where they may again move into its proximity.

There will be corners of the media who will use Saturday night to start their alternative history—one in which Fury was never any good; others who will delight in such a public rebuttal of his erstwhile claims to invincibility. I was reminded of the great Scottish sportswriter Hugh McIlvanney’s words when Muhammad Ali lost for the first time, against Joe Frazier, in another heavyweight battle of unbeatens: “They wanted a crucifixion, but if they think that is what they got they are bad judges of the genre. The big man came out bigger than he went in.” We don’t yet know how Fury will react to his first loss. For a man who has long been convinced there was no one good enough to beat him—a grand, lonely boast—it might be hard to start over. Or perhaps he’ll find a conflicted sort of company in knowing there is someone else like him, someone who’d been there all along.

Declan Ryan is a poet and critic in London. His debut poetry collection is Crisis Actor.

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