Ring of Fire: Tyson Fury sure he'll rise to the occasion against Oleksandr Usyk in Riyadh

WBC champion aims to put Ngannou debacle behind him when he faces Ukrainian for undisputed heavyweight title on Saturday night

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Tyson Fury fights are rarely without layers of intrigue, and Saturday night’s undisputed heavyweight title clash with Oleksandr Usyk in Riyadh has more than most.

At 35, Fury heads into an era-defining bout against the unbeaten Ukrainian with debate raging over his conditioning, his form, the tactics he might employ and whether the elite heavyweight of previous conquests will reappear after years of relative inactivity and tepid performances.

The consensus is that he will need to rediscover his best against Usyk, an opponent who always arrives in shape, whose talent and consistency have enabled him to transition from cruiserweight and climb to within one victory of being crowned the best big man on the planet.

The capricious Fury insists it’s a challenge that will bring out the best in him, that he has blown hot and cold in the past merely because he felt insufficiently threatened.

“If you put these average men in front of me, like [Derek] Chisora and Dillian Whyte and Francis Ngannou … I am not getting turned on, they’re not my type, if that makes any sense – but I am definitely turned on for this one," Fury said of Usyk.

“You put me in a six-rounder and I look [bad], but if you put me at the top of the world, on the world’s biggest stage, and I look good – I always do. That’s how it rolls.”

It seems that many agree. Despite recent struggles, Fury will start as a slight favourite at Kingdom Arena on Saturday night.

It’s the same venue in which he suffered near-disaster against the MMA import Ngannou last October, when poor conditioning and underestimating the man in the opposite corner left the ringside Usyk squirming in his seat, unsure if he was watching the undisputed fight evaporate before his eyes.

That Riyadh showpiece was Fury’s first outing in almost a year, his second in 20 months, and it showed.

He was supposed to be taking part in a glorified sparring session ahead of the real fight. It was to be the most lucrative spar in history, coming after the most lucrative training camp in history. How shrewd, it was claimed – until Ngannou sat him down in the third.

Needless to say, Fury’s fitness has been a hot topic, particularly after a cut in sparring moved the fight back three months from its original February date.

It says a lot that some – including members of Usyk’s team – immediately cried foul. As the blood flowed, so did the conspiracies.

Grainy mobile phone footage purported to show the moment the damage was done. Pictures were posted and, finally, Fury appeared alongside Turki Alalshikh, the custodian of Saudi boxing, eye stitched up, ready to explain what had happened and confirm a new date.

“If Fury was acting, then he deserves an Oscar,” said Usyk this week.

The extra three months of training certainly haven’t hurt Fury’s chances, judging by the slimmed down and upbeat fighter who peacocked into fight week in Riyadh.

“Congratulations on finally getting fit,” sniped Usyk’s promoter Alex Krassyuk.

Fury agrees that the delay has been to his benefit.

“It didn’t sink in for a few hours, until I had the stitches in, thinking, ‘It’s all off’, then I was quite down … for a few days I was depressed,” he told TNT Sports.

“But as soon as we went to Turki’s house, and we got it all sorted and put back on for another date then I was alright. Because I know that postponements have always helped me in my life, and it is all God’s timing – if you believe in that sort of thing.

“I remember when I was supposed to fight Wladimir [Klitschko] on September 1, in 2015, I was over-trained. I had to lose a lot of weight – six or seven stones as usual – and I didn’t have it in me. I was feeling very rough and, thank God, he pulled out. He got an injury, a calf injury. He postponed it and it was a blessing for me. It’s been the same this time.”

The scepticism arose because with Fury, things are often not quite what they seem. The cruiserweight Jai Opetaia, who fights Mairis Briedis on Saturday’s undercard, tells a story about asking for a picture for his Instagram after a sparring session – Fury made him wait while he stuffed bundles of clothing inside his gym gear so he would appear out of shape.

Such playful deception is typical of a man who enjoys the psychological warfare ahead of a big fight and is usually happy to feed the media frenzy in the days before the opening bell.

On Friday, at the official weigh-in, his conditioning will be there for all to see. While his physical state has fluctuated wildly over the years, Fury has always arrived in fighting shape for his biggest tests.

The night he dethroned Klitschko in late 2015 he was as fit as he’s ever been, boxing up on his toes, producing a measured display full of guile and agility.

Then there was his 2020 rematch with Deontay Wilder, for which he transformed himself into a human wrecking ball, his arms, shoulders and chest visibly enhanced as he planted his feet and pulverised the American in a career-best display.

That version of Fury has been conspicuous by its absence ever since, but on Saturday night, he is confident he will prove once again that he is the man for the big occasion.

Updated: May 17, 2024, 2:56 PM