Behind the Mask
By Stuart Weir
On 22 February, Tyson Fury ended Deontay Wilder’s five-year reign as WBC heavyweight world champion in Las Vegas. Wilder, unbeaten and making the 11th defence of his title, had already been knocked down twice, before his corner threw in the towel in the seventh round to concede defeat. That Fury would win the most eagerly awaited fight in years was unthinkable a few years ago as he battled the depression, weight gain and despair which seemed to have ended his career.
Behind the mask is his autobiography, but it is far from your typical sports autobiography. Fury has been a professional boxer for 12 years and is unbeaten in 31 fights. In July 2015, he came to prominence when, against the odds, he defeated Wladimir Klitschko to become the undisputed World Heavyweight champion. Following that, he was involved in contractual wrangles and suffered mental health issues, resulting in him not boxing again for two and a half years. He fought Wilder in 2018, and seemed to have won but the judges scored the fight a draw, meaning that Wilder remained World Champion.
Fury faces his mental health issues head-on in the book, which is dedicated to the cause of mental health awareness. His own summary of that period is: ‘Throughout my life, I have battled anxiety and between 2015 and October 2017, I descended into a vile pit of despair but found a way back to having a life again.’ In several places in the book, he expresses the hope that his experience will help others to recognize the problem and seek help. As he puts it, if the six foot nine inch heavyweight champion of the world can seek help, so can you! f
Unless a person has experienced depression, he says, they really don’t know what it is like. At a time when he had fulfilled his ambition and become world champion and should have been feeling on top of the world, all he could feel was an emptiness, a darkness that had descended upon him which left him scared for his life. He adds: ‘Depression doesn’t mean that you’re a weak person or a bad person - it’s an ailment that some of us have to face up to. If the heavyweight champion of the world can go as low as any person can do, when he’s supposed to be so tough, then it can happen to anyone.’ He describes, in graphic detail, going out in his sports car on the motorway, intending to drive it at full speed into a motorway bridge to end his life. Only thoughts of his family and his Christian faith stopped him. He says of the incident: ‘That’s as close as I have come to ending it all. Without my faith I would have committed suicide that day.’
He has recovered but without feeling that he really understands what was happening to him: ‘I look back with relief and bewilderment at just how a person can enter such a state, suffocated by depression like I was, and I give thanks to God.’ He advises people who have friends who are struggling with mental health issues that the best thing to do is simply to just listen and have a sympathetic ear.
The title of the book reflects a pressure and expectation he felt in professional boxing to act in a particular way, which he describes as putting on the mask and losing himself in a character, which wasn’t him. Naturally, he says, he is shy and quiet but he was told his career would take off more if he was loud and cocky.
Fury is very open about his Christian faith and about the presence of God in his life. Of the Klitschko fight, he said: ‘I didn’t win the fight against Wladimir [Klitschko], God won it for me. He intervened in so many ways. I don’t believe anything happens by chance when you trust God; this was the plan He had for me and He had put everything in place for me to triumph.’ He had entered the ring to the song ‘I’m going to have a talk with Jesus’ and then afterwards ‘on the biggest stage possible I gave glory to my Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ.’ In an interview in the ring immediately afterwards, he added: ‘This glory is not for me. This was down to my rock and my salvation, Jesus Christ.’
Fury acknowledges that God brought him out of his mental illness: ‘My faith has been a pillar throughout my life and has been critical in my battle with mental health. I know in my life I have made some mistakes but I’m also acutely aware of the forgiveness of God…My way out was to get down on my knees and cry out to God because there was nothing else that was going free me from the despair I was in. He answered my prayer, I felt a sense of a burden lifted and God decided that I would have another chapter in boxing…I thank God that when I asked Him for help that night on Halloween, He found me a way back. I had faith in God that if He wanted me to be back in the ring, He would give me the strength to do it. But this was more than just about returning to boxing; this was about returning to sanity.’
The Bible is a source of strength for him. He has an app on his phone that lets him know the number of days in a row he has read the Bible. He acknowledges: ‘Reading my Bible every day is very important to me and helps my state of mind in a significant way.’ He refers to Job, explaining that he was ‘one of the wealthiest men in the world and then he lost it all, everything he had. He was tormented and even his closest friends turned against him and pressurized him to deny God. But he stood firm and God eventually blessed him with more than he had ever had – and that in many ways is my story.’
He believes too that he has received God’s grace in order to share it with others. ‘It was to demonstrate His power and to show people around the world who are struggling in life that there is a way [out of] the deepest pits of helplessness… By the grace of God I have been placed in a position, on a worldwide stage through boxing, to be able to help others, and that means so much more to me than what I’ve ever done in the ring.’ He describes this as ‘my true purpose in this life.’
Tyson Fury looks to be in a good place; as he puts it: ‘when God is on your side, who should you be afraid of? Nobody.’