Tyson Fury has enjoyed huge success in the boxing ring but his biggest fight has been waged against depression and anxiety, “I’m a normal man who makes mistakes on a daily basis like everybody else..” he says.
As part of a nationwide tour, he visited Hastings to tell his story to a packed audience at the White Rock Theatre,
Rob Griffin was there to hear what he had to say.
Winning the heavyweight boxing championship of the world should have been the happiest moment of Tyson Fury’s life.
To dethrone the great Wladimir Klitschko – who was unbeaten for nine years – and take his WBA (Super), IBF, WBO and IBO belts was a remarkable achievement.
But for Tyson, the victory would see him spiral into depression, contemplate suicide and balloon to a dangerously unhealthy 28 stone.
“The high of it all only lasted five minutes,” he recalls. “When I went to the press conference afterwards I was very deflated. I couldn’t really be bothered being there.”
Instead of euphoria, he just felt sadness. After returning home, he sank deeper into depression. The days became increasingly dark.
“I lost the urge to live anymore,” he says. “It was a terrible moment and it went from months to years. I felt like I was going to commit suicide for 12 months until I attempted it.”
It was only when he was in his car, heading at speed towards a bridge, that he had a sudden moment of clarity. This would prove to be a turning point.
“I heard something say, ‘Don’t do this. This is not how you’re supposed to go out. Think of your family, think of your kids. You’re going to destroy a lot of people’s lives’,” he recalls.
He pulled up on the side of the road, shaking and crying: “I was in a right state. For the first time in my life I knew I needed to seek professional help.”
The time since has been a period of realisation, recovery and reflection for the self-styled Gypsy King, who is now 31. The journey has been mentally and physically challenging.
It’s also one that has also taken him around the country, telling his life story to fans in packed out auditoriums, including the White Rock Theatre in Hastings.
With unflinching honesty, he tells the audience that the suicidal feelings were due to having fulfilled his long-held ambition of being heavyweight champion of the world.
“I’d achieved everything I’d ever set out to do,” he says. “I thought, ‘There’s nothing more for me to do in life. I’m accomplished. I’ve achieved what I wanted to do. I’m ready to die’.”
He suggests a lot of his problems stem from bottling up how he was feeling. It’s something he attributes to his upbringing in a family of fighters.
“I come from a family where no-one is really open with each other,” he says. “No-one talks or shows emotion, shows love, none of that. It’s hard to open up about that sort of stuff.”
Added to this was his determination not to be seen as weak.
“I was always my family’s hero,” he explains. “They all looked up to me for inspiration and drive…I was frightened to death to be open.”
However, keeping it bottled up was slowly killing him inside. Tyson likens it to constantly battling yourself, 24-hours-a-day.
“I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy,” he says. “Sometimes I didn’t go to sleep for three or four days in a row as my mind wouldn’t let me. It was terrible.”
Anxiety attacks, he insists, are the worst things he’s ever experienced.
“It’s like having a bottle of champagne, with the cork half out, and you keep shaking it,” he says. “It’s going to go boom. That’s what happened to me. I had a mental breakdown.
Even he thought it would end up with him in a padded room. The thought terrified him.
“I had money, I had fame, I had achievements, I had a family – but it meant nothing because in my own mind I was mentally unstable,” he says. “It took me nearly 12 months to get over that breakdown. I didn’t think I was ever going to get right.”
Tyson, a deeply religious man, used to pray to get back “normal”. Not to be a boxer or become thin, just to think straight.
“I took a lot for granted throughout my life and career, but now I appreciate every day I’m thinking straight and in a well mind,” he says. “Things we take for granted are so precious and we don’t know it.”
While counselling opened the door to his mind, it was left to a young trainer by the name of Ben Davison to get Tyson back in shape. The critics immediately questioned his choice.
“When I hired him as a trainer everyone said I was definitely mentally unwell,” he says. “No-one in their right mind would allow a 24-year-old to train the heavyweight champion.”
Tyson didn’t care – and his instincts proved right: “He did a very good job. He got me back fit and wanting to fight again, where I never wanted to before,” he says.
Of course, his comeback wasn’t without its challenges.
“You never beat mental health. It’s something that stays with you forever.”
By Tyson’s own admission he was very difficult to handle, temperamental, totally unstable and in need of looking after like a child.
“One minute I wanted to train, the next I didn’t,” he says. “I was very indecisive, couldn’t commit to anything and very mentally unwell.”
Fortunately, Ben wasn’t deterred. He kept working with him every day, edging him ever closer back to full fitness.
There was also one other figure that fuelled his comeback: Deontay Wilder, who had established himself as the man to beat in the years Tyson was away.
In fact, the heavy-handed American inadvertently fired up his rival with a social media post in which he questioned whether Tyson would ever return.
“I was going for a run – although it was only about 300 yards as I was 28 stone and fat as a pig – and saw it on Instagram,” recalls Tyson.
It was the extra incentive he needed. “I thought, ‘You know what Deontay, for that little message you’ve done there, I’m going to come back and punch your face in’.”
His comeback fight was against Sefer Seferi in June 2018 – which saw his opponent pulled out of the contest after four rounds – and he followed that up with a unanimous decision win over Francesco Pianeta two months later.
He then asked Frank Warren to arrange a fight with Wilder. Tyson recalls that the veteran promoter asked him if he was mad!
“I said, ‘I’m not, I want the fight. I don’t want to be a boxer just to be a boxer, I want to be the best or I’m not doing it’.”
Warren wasn’t the only apprehensive voice. Even Tyson’s father counselled against the fight, warning that Wilder would hurt him.
“I was upset and nearly cried because for the first time he didn’t believe in me,” recalls Tyson. “I went to America for a ten week training camp and for seven of them my dad wouldn’t speak to me on the phone in the hope I’d return home and listen to his advice.”
However, nothing would deter Tyson.
The subsequent fight, which took place at the Staples Centre in Los Angeles at the start of December 2018, was a classic that ended in a draw.
Despite getting knocked down twice – including once in the 12th round when everyone believed he was out cold – Tyson’s performance was fantastic.
In fact, many observers believe he put on a boxing masterclass and was desperately unlucky not to have been awarded the win.
For Tyson, his reaction to the judges’ decision illustrated just how far he’d come. The old Tyson, he suggests, would have reacted badly.
If anything could have sent him back to the dark place, it would have been that result.
“Two minutes after the result it was in my rear view mirror,” he insists. “I wanted to show people who were suffering at that time that no matter what comes your way, and no matter how many times you get put down in life, you can always get back up and continue.”
However, he scoffs at the idea he’s overcome his demons completely. “You never beat mental health. It’s something that stays with you forever.”
It can, however, be maintained and managed. For Tyson, exercise is his therapy. “I train every day,” he says. “Training is my medicine. People ask why I box and it’s because I love to box. It keeps me motivated and focused on something.”
It’s also clear he gets satisfaction from telling his story and encouraging others that may be suffering in a similar way.
“It keeps me on track,” he admits. “The fact I’m doing a job and helping other people along the way, makes it all the sweeter. It does keep me focused that’s for sure.”
Since the Wilder fight, Tyson has beaten Tom Schwarz and Otto Wallin. At the time of writing, a re-match with Wilder is due to take place in February 2020.
However, the fights in the ring are a sideshow to his mental health battles and to that end his motto is simple: He hopes to be a better person tomorrow than he was today.
“I’m not a saint, I’m not a special person,” he says. “I’m a normal man who makes mistakes on a daily basis like everybody else. I will probably keep making mistakes the rest of my life. We’re only human after all.”
What’s important, he maintains, is being healthy and happy.
“All I ever want is to be happy because I know what it’s like to be very, very sad,” he says. “No matter how much money or anything you’ve got in your life, if you haven’t got happiness then you’ve got nothing, so remember that.”