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Tyson Fury vs. Oleksandr Usyk: The ‘Gypsy King,’ known for his mind games, may have finally met his match

As one of the most bombastic and unpredictable heavyweight champions since the man he was named after, Hall of Famer Mike Tyson, it has become custom for WBC and lineal king Tyson Fury to say one thing on a specific topic only to change his opinion entirely the following day. 

Part carnival barker, comedian and an expert on all things mental warfare, this is simply par for the course in the Tyson Fury experience.  

But as Fury (34-0-1, 24 KOs) settles in for what could be the most difficult threat to his championship reign on Saturday when he meets WBA, WBO and IBF titleholder Oleksandr Usyk in the first four-belt, undisputed heavyweight championship fight in boxing history, it has been interesting to hear a recent change in tune from the “Gyspy King” just days out from their long-awaited clash in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. 

After years of attempting to embarrass, humiliate and rile up Usyk through his steady use of comedic insults — from referring to the former undisputed cruiserweight champion as everything from a middleweight and a rabbit to calling him “a little sausage” — recent days have seen Fury, 35, do nothing but compliment Usyk’s impressive resume as a former Olympic gold medalist who twice upset Anthony Joshua in recent years to become the unified heavyweight champion. 

The shift marked a sharp turn from Fury’s previous tactics like posting odd social media videos accusing Usyk of asking for too much money and delaying the fight, even though it was actually Fury who spent the last year-plus being accused of avoiding him. Or the time five months ago, at their kickoff press conference, when Fury pushed his forehead into Usyk, as an attempt to intimidate him during their face off, only to be pushed back as the two literally butted heads in a test of strength and machismo. 

Given his advantages in size, which include seven inches in reach and six inches in height, Fury remains a slight betting favorite as the clock ticks closer toward a fight so historically important that some have called it the sport’s biggest since Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao shattered pay-per-view records in 2015. But after years of using his mind to gain a mental edge over just about everyone he has stepped into the ring with, it has become fascinating to ponder whether Fury has finally met an opponent with the type of mental fortitude that he simply can’t break. 

And it has all begged an interesting question: Has Fury, ever the wily fox, finally met his match? 

When asked about Fury’s shift in tactics this week during a sitdown with TNT Sports, Usyk didn’t mince words about how impenetrable his own mental foundation continues to be. 

“It’s a waste of time because it does not work. For me, I have focus and I have a dream,” Usyk said. “[When I look at him,] I don’t see his eyes, I see like this [Usyk points to his nose,] like a sniper. I watch when my opponent is nervous. It is like my target. 

“I don’t think about Tyson Fury or what Tyson Fury says because Tyson is bipolar. One week, Tyson says I’m a bad guy. One week, Tyson says I’m a good guy. But I don’t know where is this Tyson, you know? I think Tyson is a good man. For me, it’s true because he is a father, a son and a champion. But Tyson plays mind play. This is my life, I’m not playing.”

A native of war-torn Ukraine, who put his career on hold for a full year in 2023 to serve his country on the frontlines of its ongoing conflict with Russia, Usyk has spent the majority of his career carving out a unique resume, legacy and personality. 

Although he has come around to the English language, Usyk does much of his talking through strategic facial expressions and reactions. Armed with dry humor and a sly chuckle stolen from the Joker character of “Batman” fame, Usyk is always on, always ready and never easy to completely interpret what his true feelings and intentions are with each answer. 

Even though Fury has built a historic reputation as a decorated champion whose toughness and size are just as much of a reason for his success as the fact that he brings the speed of a middleweight to the division, he has still yet to face another heavyweight as skilled, thoughtful and crafty as the southpaw. 

So what does Fury think about Usyk’s claim that he can’t be shaken by any form of mind games? 

“I think when people talk like that, I am already in their mind,” Fury told CBS Sports on Wednesday. “I’m like Doctor X, I’m already in his mind, living rent free inside of it. Every time he wakes up in the middle of the night, he sees Tyson Fury’s face. When he brushes his teeth after waking up in the morning, he sees my face. When he closes his eyes at night, he sees my face. Every time he sees my face, his heart beats very quick. Judgment day is coming.”

From Fury’s perspective, he has never had an issue with Usyk as a fighter, and claims to have been consistent in giving him his praise. But it’s hard to avoid the reality that fight week has seen Fury shift to a much more complimentary tone. 

“I have always respected his boxing credentials and I have never questioned those,” Fury said. “I have called him an ugly rabbit and an ugly dosser many times and I’ll stand by that. However, I have never once questioned his credentials as a boxer. It’s not about how he looks or how much gapped his teeth are or how ugly he is. It’s about boxing fights. So, that aside, I can respect his achievements as a boxer and as a man.”

Much of the unknown regarding the handicapping of Saturday’s fight surrounds Fury, despite the fact that he’s two years younger than the 37-year-old Usyk. Fury not only appears to have accrued more miles on him physically both inside and out of the ring, some critics have debated whether he has ever been the same from a 2021 trilogy win over Deontay Wilder, which saw Fury get dropped twice by one of the hardest punchers in heavyweight history. 

It’s a debate that isn’t without holes, however, as Fury looked better than ever just six months after the third Wilder fight when he knocked Dillian Whyte out with a single uppercut in Round 6. But it’s a topic that resurfaced aggressively last October, when Fury was criticized for scheduling a big-money fight in Saudi Arabia against former UFC champion Francis Ngannou just months before the original date to fight Usyk (which was postponed in February by a Fury cut in training camp). 

Fury weighed in at the heaviest of his career — just shy of 278 pounds — and was lucky to survive with a disputed split-decision win against his novice foe after being dropped hard in Round 3. Not only did Fury look slow and unfocused, he was forced to hold and jab from the outside just to survive on activity alone against the bigger puncher. 

With a history of fighting up or down to the level of his competition, it was easy to brush off the Ngannou fight as a survive-and-advance type of thing on a night where he was clearly not himself. But Fury has never been one to make excuses and refuses to when reflecting upon his performance. 

“You can only do what you can do on the night. That’s it,” Fury said. “I never make excuses about performances — good, bad or indifferent. You just move on. As soon as these fights have happened, the next morning, they are not of interest to me anymore. It’s over and it’s finished. Even this fight, the undisputed, it’s the biggest fight this century and the first time it has happened this century. However, Sunday morning it’s in the past and is a forgotten memory for me. I just go on and do what I have to do.

“I had a fantastic training camp and had a fantastic fight [against Ngannou]. I got laid, got paid and got out of there. There is nothing more to say.”

The one topic Fury does have a lot to say in regards to the talk he has heard about whether or not he will be able to handle the technical wizardry of what Usyk does as likely the most skilled opponent Fury has faced as a professional. 

“When people ask me about Usyk, it’s not what I have to worry about against Usyk. It’s what he has to worry about me,” Fury said. “I only think about what I’m going to do and I never think about what the opponent is going to do. I don’t think he can handle what I am about to dish out.”

Fury said that due to Usyk being a lighter fighter, and one who relies upon speed and feinting, he expects to weigh in around 267 pounds. While the strategy will make him leaner, it’s a far cry from the 247 pounds he weighed to outdazzle Wladmir Klitschko in his breakthrough upset of 2015 or the 256 pounds he weighed against Wilder in their first meeting of 2018. 

At this weight, Fury can retain enough speed while still remaining solid enough to sit down on his punches, which has been a focus under SugarHill Steward, and should be a necessity against such a dazzling mover as Usyk. 

“I’m just looking forward to going in there and doing a demolition job,” Fury said. 

Fury has faced a number of hulking threats like Klitshcko and Wilder only to rely upon a mixture of smarts and guile to disarm them. He has also used his size and unquestioned fighting heart to survive past a number of smaller and difficult foes like Steve Cunningham and Otto Wallin in some of his closest fights. 

But Fury has never defeated anyone who can put the entire package together exactly like Usyk. A rare and unique fighter who won’t be lured off of his game by any mental warfare tricks and is daring enough to endure whatever it takes to get his hand raised for his beloved home country. 

Fury may have transitioned from comedic disrespect to being overly complimentary of Usyk this week in a move that suggests, regardless of true intention, that he respects the challenge across from him. But it’s clear he believes the difference is that there’s nothing Usyk will be able to do to stop him from getting the job done.  

“I think after he has had 350 amateur fights and 21 professional fights, I believe we have seen it all. I have seen everything he has had to offer and I think I can deal with it,” Fury said. “It’s going to be very difficult [for Usyk]. I don’t think he has ever been in the ring with a T-rex before. He has fought four heavyweights and none of them are like me.” 

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