• Sports
  • Boxing

Heavyweight Champ Tyson Fury Faces His Last Fight—But Skips the Tough Questions

8 minute read

Undefeated world heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, who will defend his title against fellow British heavyweight Dillian Whyte on Saturday at Wembley Stadium in London, insists this will be his last bout. Around 94,000 fans, the most in British boxing history, are expected to fill Wembley in Fury’s farewell. “The king must retire on top of the world,” Fury, 33, tells TIME in a Zoom conversation from London. “I’ve won every belt there is to win in the game. I’ve had plenty of money. I’m very secure and comfortable. And now it’s time to enjoy this final hurrah, and spend time with me family, me wife, and me kids.”

Sports fans, however, are used to false retirements: see Brady, Tom. Boxing, in particular, has a fraught relationship with the concept of walking away. Muhammad Ali retired, and unretired, a few times. George Foreman quit in 1977… then again in 1997, at age 48. Floyd Mayweather said he was stepping away from boxing after his 2007 win over Oscar de la Hoya; he fought a dozen more times afterward.

Like so many before him Fury—a popular showman who’s entering this potential last fight facing unwanted inquiries about past ties to an alleged organized crime boss— insists this retirement announcement is for real. “I want it to be a final decision,” Fury says. “I want it to be on my terms. And no amount of money or fame or glory could make me change me mind on that once my mind has been set. There will always be promoters and people trying to get me to come back and fight because there’s always going to be fights available. But as far as I’m concerned, Dillian Whyte will be the final mountain to climb.”

Fury’s leaving the door slightly open for a return to the ring. “You can never say never in life,” he says. But if this fight is indeed Fury’s last hurrah, he’ll heave behind an influential legacy, having helped revive boxing’s heavyweight division, which languished in the doldrums since the Muhammad Ali-Mike Tyson golden years. Fury, who was named after Iron Mike, made his professional debut in 2008 and rose through the ranks to challenge Wladimir Klitschko for the heavyweight crown in 2015: he won that bout in a unanimous decision. A rematch, however, would never materialize. Fury tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs and took nearly three years off from boxing while dealing with alcoholism and recreational drug use. He vacated his titles, gained weight, and fell into a deep depression while having suicidal thoughts.

“The best thing anyone who’s suffering mental health problems can do is seek medical advice immediately,” says Fury. “The sooner you get medical help, the quicker you can return to being well again. We won’t always be down in darkness. There will be times when you’re feeling good again.”

Uncomfortable Questions

In 2018, Fury returned to challenge American Deontay Wilder for the heavyweight title. The bout was scored a draw. The rematch, in February 2020, was a pre-pandemic Las Vegas mega-event: Fury won on a 7th round technical knockout (TKO), reclaimed the belt and banked some $25 million. Fury beat Wilder again last October.

“When you look at what’s happened since Ali, there have been a lot of very good fighters, great fighters,” says Top Rank CEO Bob Arum, Fury’s co-promoter. “But we haven’t had a performer in the heavyweight division as charismatic as Tyson Fury. You can’t take your eyes off him.”

Fury enters the Whyte fight having to answer some uncomfortable questions. On April 11, the U.S. Treasury Department announced sanctions against, among others, Daniel Kinahan, the purported head of an Irish organized crime group who founded a boxing management company that has worked with Fury. (Kinahan has long denied any wrongdoing). The U.S. government is offering $5 million bounties for information leading to the arrest of Kinahan, his brother, and his father. “The Kinahan Organized Crime Group (KOCG) smuggles deadly narcotics, including cocaine, to Europe, and is a threat to the entire licit economy through its role in international money laundering,” Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence Brian E. Nelson said in a statement. “Criminal groups like the KOCG prey on the most vulnerable in society and bring drug-related crime and violence, including murder, to the countries in which they operate.”

Fury had been represented by MTK Global, a boxing management company started by Daniel Kinahan in 2012. MTK Global, which was not sanctioned by the U.S. Treasury Department or named in its April 11 release, announced on Wednesday that it was ceasing operations, citing the “unprecedented” and “unfair” scrutiny the company has faced following the U.S. government sanctions. MTK Global has said that Kinahan ceased involvement with the company in 2017, the year that Fury signed on with MTK Global. In 2020, Fury praised Kinahan for helping broker a fight with Anthony Joshua, another British heavyweight. “Big shout out Dan!” Fury says in a video posted online. “He got this done.” That fight, however, eventually fell through. Fury also posed for a photograph with Kinahan, in Dubai, earlier this year.

After an open workout Tuesday, Fury said he now has “zero, absolutely zero” business ties with Kinahan; Fury told Sky Sports any business relationship ended in 2020. “The fight with Joshua didn’t happen and that was it,” he said. Arum, who promoted Fury’s last four fights in the U.S. between 2019-2021, says he paid Kinahan at least a $1 million fee for each of these bouts. “We were told that the guy who is making arrangements for us to be involved wanted a consulting fee for every one of Tyson Fury’s fights,” says Arum. “So we entered a deal with a company controlled by Kinahan and paid a fee for every one of Fury’s fights we promoted, in accordance with the contract.”

Both Fury and his other promoter, Frank Warren, have said that they did not know about these payments. Arum backs up this assertion. He insists that shortly before or after October 2021 Fury-Wilder fight in Las Vegas, he brought up the consulting arrangement for Fury. “When I mentioned it to Tyson, Tyson was totally unaware of the arrangement, that I was paying a fee,” says Arum. “And I believe Tyson, without any question.”

Arum also says he has cut ties with Kinahan: Arum and Warren have insisted that Kinahan has no involvement in Saturday’s fight.

“Everybody,” says Arum, “is telling the truth.”

Proud Everyman

This Fury bout presents a quirk for U.S. audiences, especially on the East Coast. These fans are used to gathering late on Saturday for fight night from Vegas. The bell will likely go off around 10 p.m. from Wembley, or 5 p.m. in the U.S. East Coast; that’s 2 p.m. on the U.S. West Coast. Fury offers some advice for Americans who might want to make a day of it. “Get stocked up on booze early,” says Fury. “If you go to the store, get a massive crate of your favorite beer or alcoholic beverage. Get home. Put your slippers on. Relax, get a cold one and enjoy the fight. By the time it gets to normal fight time, you’ll be well oiled up and ready to rock and roll.”

Arum believes Fury’s having too much fun to stop boxing now; once a showman, always a showman. Plus, if he wins, a megabout with the winner of a likely Joshua-Oleksandr Usyk rematch could be too lucrative to turn down. “When he wakes up Monday morning, after the fight, hopefully having won, I’m pretty sure that he’ll change his mind,” says Arum. “That doesn’t mean that what he’s saying now is not the truth. He believes that to be the truth. Last fight, and everything. But knowing Tyson the way I do, I really believe there’s quite a bit more left for him in his career.”

No matter his boxing fate after the Whyte fight, Fury has good reason to grow reflective, after 14 years as a professional fighter and having lost a heavyweight title and hit rock bottom before reclaiming the crown. I ask Fury to evaluate his heavyweight legacy. “I think I’ve been the only heavyweight in the last’s been fat and bald and looks like a normal person,” he says. “The normal people of the world can watch boxing and relate. I’m chubby, I’m bald, I drink beer. I brought that fan to boxing. And a lot of them as well. Because there’s a lot of us around the world. The real people of the world.”

On Zoom, Fury doesn’t look as round as he’s letting on; he’s been working with a nutritionist in training camp, eating healthy doses of fish and rice and vegetables to fuel up for the fight. When I mention this to Fury, he presents his evidence: he lifts up his muscle shirt, and grabs rolls of his stomach for the camera. “I’m fat, I’m hairy, and I’m bald,” he declares, with pride.

We’re almost ready to wrap up our chat. But I need to give Fury a chance to address the Kinahan controversy. As soon as I mention Kinahan’s name, however, Fury abruptly disappears from the screen.

Interview over. He’s gone.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Sean Gregory at sean.gregory@time.com