Missed opportunities abound in Tyson Fury's lineal title defense vs. Otto Wallin

Kevin Iole
Combat columnist
Tyson Fury and Otto Wallin will meet in a heavyweight bout on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas. (Ethan Miller/Getty Images)

LAS VEGAS — There hasn’t been a boxer since Muhammad Ali who combined charm, wit, irreverence, back story and ability the way Tyson Fury does.

That doesn’t mean that Fury is remotely close to the kind of star that Ali was, or that he’ll ever get there. It does mean that Fury is one of the few boxers who has the ability to lift the sport and create new fans.

He’s been brilliant in selling his fight with Otto Wallin on Saturday at T-Mobile Arena for the lineal heavyweight title on Mexican Independence Day weekend. This is traditionally one of the biggest weekends in the year in Las Vegas, and stars such as Canelo Alvarez and Oscar De La Hoya would bring tens of thousands of tourists to town to celebrate the holiday with a fight.

When Alvarez couldn’t come to terms on a deal to fight on Saturday, Fury stepped in to ensure there was a show like the Mexican fans had been used to coming to town to see.

And, boy, has he sold it. At the post-fight news conference the other day, a reporter from Mexico City told Fury that since Fury had been calling himself an honorary Mexican, he would ask him a question in Spanish.

Fury listened earnestly as the question went on — and on and on and on — before answering.

“Well, yes, I am the Gypsy King, ‘El Rey Gitanos,’” Fury said. “It’s a privilege to be boxing on Mexican Independence weekend. I look forward to putting on a fantastic show and, yes, I do love big cuddly toys and crayons.”

It was vintage Fury.

Sell it as he has, though, there seems surprisingly little buzz about the fight in town. And while Fury correctly notes that he never looks ahead and trains for each fight as if it’s the most significant of his life, his decision to avoid any discussion of his upcoming bout with WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder might have been a mistake in retrospect.

He’s wanted to show his respect to Wallin by not looking ahead. Fury, who suffers from depression and who just two years ago had suicidal thoughts, knows himself better than anyone, clearly, and maybe he can’t perform at the level he wants if he’s not solely focused on the immediate goal.

This is his second fight in Las Vegas in three months, and both have been against what oddsmakers suggest are tomato cans. Tom Schwarz clearly didn’t belong in the ring with Fury, and while Wallin is a more talented, highly regarded opponent, he’s still not expected to be much of a threat. Fury is a -2500 favorite at the MGM Grand sportsbook.

Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder fought to a split draw on Dec. 1, 2018 at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. (AP Foto/Mark J. Terrill)

Fury has already signed to fight Wilder on Feb. 22 in a rematch of their 2018 bout, which ended in a split draw. It will be a joint pay-per-view with Fox and ESPN and since Fox has the Super Bowl on Feb. 2, 2020, it will use a lot of that time to promote the fight.

That’s why it has a chance to be a massive pay-per-view.

But it seems that perhaps Fury, as well as officials with Top Rank and ESPN, missed the boat a bit. The Fury-Wallin fight is streaming on ESPN+ instead of on ESPN itself. The Disney Company, which owns ESPN, has made a significant commitment to streaming and is trying to build ESPN+ and is using Fury in that regard.

The UFC also has a show on ESPN+ on Saturday and it features an incredible main event between Donald Cerrone and Justin Gaethje that should be one of the best fights of the year. For boxing fans, Cerrone-Gaethje figures to be the MMA equivalent to boxing’s great Arturo Gatti-Micky Ward series of bouts. There will be far more fight fans watching Cerrone-Gaethje than will watch Fury-Wallin.

Top Rank executives, though, have repeatedly said that the Schwarz fight and Saturday’s bouts are an opportunity for them to build Fury with the American fan base. Of his 29 pro bouts, 25 have been in Europe and Top Rank is hoping that having him appear in the U.S. regularly will help him build an audience.

That could have been better served by going on ESPN, where far more eyeballs would see the fight and, theoretically, the post-fight interview where Fury begins to talk about Wilder than there will be on ESPN+. Fury was placed on ESPN+, the smallest possible outlet, rather than the largest, the television network. It doesn’t make a ton of sense if the long-term goal of all involved is to maximize the pay-per-view with Wilder.

Fury chose not to discuss Wilder much, if at all, during fight week because he said he’s never going to allow himself to get caught looking ahead. Promoter Bob Arum, in trying to hype Wallin’s chances, noted that another Swede 60 years ago, Ingemar Johansson, came to the U.S. and knocked out Floyd Patterson to win the heavyweight title.

“Is Otto Wallin going to knock out ‘El Rey Gitanos?’” Fury asked. “Definitely not, because the fact is, I don’t underestimate anybody. I give everybody the ultimate respect. Even if I’m fighting a guy who has had 20 fights and has lost 20, I train for him like he’s had 20 knockouts in a row. I’ve never failed to prepare.

“I’ve trained hard for this fight, as hard as I trained for Wilder, as hard as I’ve trained for anybody. I’ve not overlooked him. I’ve been in America for five weeks training. I was in Spain two weeks before that and I was at home two weeks before that. I’m as strong as I’ve ever been. I feel very, very fit and very, very accurate. We’ve been working on different things in the gym.”

That’s what nearly every fighter says, though in Fury’s case, it is believable. He looked magnificent at a public workout: fit, trim and extremely quick and agile for a man so large.

But Fury is one of the brightest men in the sport, and he’s able to do more than one thing at a time. If he’d spent only a little bit of his time with the media during this camp building the fight with Wilder, it would have been like laying the foundation for what is sure to come.

Wallin is far superior to Schwarz and will undoubtedly provide a stiffer test than the German did in June, when he crumbled the moment Fury put his foot on the accelerator and revved the engine just a tiny bit.

This bout may get into the second half, and it may even go the distance, because Wallin is a professional and not inept.

There’s not much of a buzz around town for the fight, though, and the media turnout is slim. One is left to wonder what might have been had Fury taken a different approach in promoting this show.

When Ali was moving toward his fight with Joe Frazier, he kept up the chatter no matter who he was fighting or what he was doing. He did the same when he was hoping to land a shot with then-champion George Foreman. He used other fights to build the really big one.

Fury is capable of the same, but chose not to do so.

Hopefully, it won’t matter and the rematch in February will not only be compelling in the ring but do big business. That will be good for everyone.

If it doesn’t, though, part of the blame will lie on those involved in Saturday’s show for passing on a glorious opportunity to sell it.

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