Twelve years ago, a number of respected fighters in Detroit were seeing things in Tyson Fury the rest of the world would come to discover many years later, writes Declan Warrington
Tyson Fury was a bullish 21-year-old when, in 2010, and partly owing to the influence of Andy Lee, he made his way to Detroit to work under the late, great Emanuel Steward at the relocated Kronk. Their respective commitments prevented them from working together beyond Fury’s 13th professional fight – a decision victory over Zack Page in Quebec, Canada – but the experience left a lasting impression on Fury, who a decade later recruited SugarHill Steward to be his trainer, and as a consequence has since evolved. Johnathon Banks, Dmitry Salita and Cornelius “K9” Bundrage were among those to witness Fury’s arrival at the iconic gym, where, like Steward, they quickly became convinced of his ability to become the best heavyweight in the world
What do you recall of your first sight of Tyson Fury at the cramped Kronk Gym?
Johnathon Banks: I already knew Tyson Fury from travelling around with Andy Lee, so it wasn’t a shock to me like it was everybody else. He was exactly who he is today – a charismatic guy, a people person, and not scared of anything. I observe everybody who comes into the gym. He was just comfortable; being himself. To the naked eye it could be intimidating going to a place that developed so many world champions if you’re walking in there for the first time, or with someone like Emanuel Steward. But if Emanuel was walking in the gym with somebody, you must be somebody.
A lot of [the other fighters] were surprised at how big he was. A lot of them were like, “Wow, this dude is big, but can he fight?”. Then they said, “He walked in with Emanuel – he must be able to fight”.
I was living at Emanuel’s house, so I already knew what was going on [with Fury’s visit]. We spent more time together when we went into [Wladimir Klitschko’s training] camp, to Austria. As a fighter goes – man, I couldn’t wait to get in the ring and spar him. It was a good time. Especially somebody so big.
Dmitry Salita: I remember walking in one day and seeing this big, tall white guy. I introduced myself. He said, “I’m Tyson Fury”. I said, “Not your nickname – what’s your real name?”. He said, “No, my real name’s Tyson Fury”. “Woah, man, you were born to fight.” He was a very cool guy – we quickly established a friendship. I saw him train for the first couple of days with Emanuel, and at first it just looked like another guy. But a week or 10 days later I saw him spar, and
I was like “This guy’s really good”. The change was like day and night.
I had no idea he was English until I spoke to him. There weren’t a lot of white guys at the Kronk, in Detroit, training with Emanuel Steward. SugarHill was there, working with Emanuel and training me, and Andy Lee was there also. “K9” Bundrage was there; Adonis Stevenson; Johnathon Banks as a fighter. It was Andy [Lee] that brought him to the Kronk. It was talent-packed. The Kronk’s simple – maybe one ring, three or four bags, and that’s it. Most of the work happens in that ring. Emanuel saw things no one else saw, and they’re all coming through. Tyson was very humble and down to earth, and a very likeable guy.
Cornelius Bundrage: He was definitely noticeable, being 6ft 9ins. How can you not notice him? When he came in he wanted to spar with me. I was telling him, “You’re a heavyweight”, but I eventually sparred him, and he showed the skills to become what he is today. It was a surprise [to see him]. Where’s the young man come from, to Michigan? Nobody knew who he was – just Andy Lee’s cousin. But I had a good time with him – he’s a real good dude. He just showed up out of nowhere. “This white kid’s here; he says he’s going to be champion of the world.”
What did the Kronk regulars gradually make of him, both as a fighter and a character?
JB: Everybody loved him. He was a fighter’s fighter. If you come to the gym and show you’re a fighter – that’s what it’s all about. Somebody who holds their own and is a people person – you can’t help it.
DS: As a fighter, “White boy got rhythm”. He was doing things in a ring that, stereotypically, white guys don’t do so much. He was so big and so athletic and flexible that it made him stand out. He was impressive, and had rhythm, and grace, and style.
He was a positive, good guy, and I liked seeing him when I came to the gym. He was open, funny, and humble.
It’s hard [to make an impression at the Kronk] because when you get in the ring everyone’s going to try to kick your ass. Seriously. For Tyson, an English guy, coming to America, his sparring sessions weren’t easy. It’s unsanctioned fights at the Kronk – it’s known for ring wars.
CB: I believe [the other fighters recognised how talented he was] once Emanuel Steward started going off with him. Emanuel Steward is not going to mess with you if you not the goods – if you don’t have the talent. The crazy part about it is I was the guy you had to go through if you came from out of town. The first person Andy Lee sparred with was me. The first person Tyson Fury sparred with was me. Adonis Stevenson… If you couldn’t get through me, you was getting sent home. [Steward] would look at you train or spar with me – [whether] you had skills or not. Someone from Canada I almost knocked out – Emanuel Steward sent them home.
What did you learn from watching him train with Emanuel Steward?
JB: You could see, the way Emanuel had him in the ring with the pads – it’s very rare for a big guy to move like that. The first thing Emanuel started teaching him was movement.
I saw [that he was special] when he was doing padwork. Again, you’ve got a big man that’s coordinated; he can move like a light-heavyweight, and he don’t get tired, and he knows he’s got a good rhythm and he knows how to box. That’s a recipe for disaster for any opponent. His movement is natural.
DS: Emanuel and SugarHill have a certain style of training. They believe really strongly in the basics, and combine the foundations of a European and American style of boxing. It’s a good stance, good balance, basic punches, and very strong basics. Their padwork emphasises a lot of footwork, and power through the legs. Padwork with SugarHill is harder than sparring – he never lets you rest. Tyson was very impressive. He doesn’t look like the fittest guy in the world, but he is.
Tyson was there to learn. Emanuel was a great trainer because he was able to understand people and their personalities, and their perspectives, and make the best of them.
There’s few people who know boxing at a real, detailed level like Tyson. He can be a trainer – he understands the minute details of styles that make a real difference. He knows the soul and intricacies of it, and can look at a fighter and see that. Him and SugarHill see boxing the same way.
CB: He caught on fast, whatever Emanuel Steward was tryna teach him. He was a real quick learner. Good pop. [But] every time he swings it ain’t gotta be real, real hard, and you can’t teach that. It took me a long time to realise you can’t try to knock everybody out. “I gotta set my shots up.” Tyson Fury knew how to set his shots up.
One of his best attributes is that he believes in himself. He believes that he’s great. Muhammad Ali told everybody before we knew, “I am the greatest”. He believes he’s the best, and that’s what makes him the fighter he is. You can’t tell him what he can’t do. He had the confidence to come all the way from the United Kingdom to Detroit to meet Emanuel Steward. He knew he was going to be world champion. Told Emanuel Steward. Told me. Told the whole world. Guess what? He became world champion. Confidence, man. Confidence. Desire. He has it all, man. He has it all. Emanuel Steward’s watching from heaven, and he would be proud. [Eating] popcorn, and enjoying the ride.
What about when he sparred?
JB: We had fun. It was good. We definitely went at it. We weren’t sitting around, looking like we were playing. With a guy like Tyson, the first thing I’m gonna do is get on the inside. He could fight on the inside as well as the outside, but I’d rather fight him on the inside because I can be more effective. I remember him leaning on me, and me trying to push him off, and punches. He’s good inside and out. Any big man who knows how to move is a special fighter – I don’t care if he don’t know how to fight, if he can move, you can pretty much make up everything else. He’s a big man, so he’s strong. He might not have had what everyone calls that one-punch knockout power, but he’s a very strong dude. I can’t even say [if I was hurting him]. I doubt it. I was maybe185lbs, 195lbs. Tyson’s not a guy who gets hurt easily.
DS: He was doing things heavyweights don’t normally do. Throwing combinations; a sharp jab; being elusive; [showing] flexibility, and he picked that up quickly.
CB: I’m looking at this giant that wanna spar with me, and I’m thinking he might cause me not to be able to fight. But he assured me that he knew how to work. Man, I was very impressed with his skills, because even though he was a 6ft 9ins heavyweight, he was able to box with me. He didn’t even try to load up – none of that. “This guy knows how to box.” He knows how to relax. He can box with a welterweight; a lightweight. He had real, good skills and knew how to take something off his punches. That’s why he can go the rounds; can get up from getting caught by Deontay Wilder. He knows how to relax.
The average heavyweight gonna try knock you out. I couldn’t spar with Mike Tyson – he didn’t know how to control his punches. I was amazed at Tyson Fury. He kept telling me, “Come on, man, let’s spar”. “Na, man, bro.” When I got in there with him I was really surprised. “Man, this guy knows how to work.” It was the first round – I knew he was special then and there. No punches he threw were hard – from that point on I knew he was gonna be world champ. He was very elusive; very unpredictable. You can’t teach that – you got it or you don’t. It kinda reminded you, a bigger version with more skills, of Prince Naseem [Hamed].
It’s well-known Emanuel Steward admired him. What did he say about him in private?
JB: Emanuel said, “Nobody’s thinking about this guy, but this guy, I guarantee, will be heavyweight champion of the world”. We were in camp in Austria, and he said, “Johnathon, he’s different”. He told me about Tyson, and he called me and said: “You would not believe, I just gave padwork to the hardest hitting heavyweight to ever touch my pads. I was just doing this clinic down in Alabama, and I got this kid named Deontay Wilder. I guarantee he’ll be next heavyweight champion of the world.” There was two guys he was talking about. He talked about Fury longer because he worked with Fury. “He’s going to be one of the hardest guys to beat. He doesn’t care. He’ll do whatever it takes to get victory inside the ring. He’ll fight however he needs to fight.”
DS: He said to me, “This guy’s going to be special”. Shortly after that trip Emanuel said he was going to be one of the greatest heavyweights of his generation.
CS: He briefly told me he was special. Even though Tyson Fury wasn’t world champ at the time and I was, he was the man. I remember Emanuel Steward wrapping his hands and watching me spar. Emanuel knew. “This guy’s going to be that guy in the future.” I saw the skills, but I couldn’t envision what he would be today.
To what extent do you think that trip shaped Fury into the fighter he is today?
JB: [His success] doesn’t surprise me at all. I knew for a fact, when he hired SugarHill, it was only straight up from there. They got along – that’s just how it was. [And] Fury believed in Emanuel. Everything a fighter goes through can be to their downfall or development. In this instance it may have been a development. SugarHill’s made him at least 10 times more dangerous than he was before.
DS: SugarHill trained most of Emanuel’s fighters. Emanuel would overlook all the progress, but SugarHill did the pad work and bag work, and most of the work in the gym. Tyson built a relationship with SugarHill, and they clicked right away for the Deontay Wilder rematch [in 2020]. He was there two or three weeks [back in 2010]. Through little changes, Emanuel was able to make a big difference.
CS: If you gonna be the best – especially when Emanuel Steward was alive – you was training with the best. Everybody from around the country came to be trained by Emanuel Steward. Everybody and their cousin. I don’t know if Tyson Fury would have been as good of a fighter without training with Emanuel Steward. The crazy part is Emanuel Steward didn’t really get his chance to mould Tyson Fury; he was already a good fighter. He won a world title without Emanuel and SugarHill.
What’s your relationship like with him today, 12 years on?
JB: I still think the same thing as the day I first met him. When you see the antics and the dressing up in a batman outfit, that’s stuff I just laugh at. I got to know who he was. All the antics, I just look at him and smile, because I got to know him before all the other people, lights and cameras was around. None of that stuff bothers me. Tyson’s just being Tyson.
The press conference of him and Wladimir [in 2015], he kept looking at me and saying, “JB! JB!”, because we hadn’t seen each other in a long time. A lot of media were asking me questions about Tyson Fury. “Listen, I’ve known Tyson Fury for a long time. I just think it’s funny. He’s a funny guy – he likes to have fun.” I already knew what he was bringing to the table.
DS: He doesn’t think he’s better than anybody else, as a person or fighter. He’s the same way today he was 10 years ago.
CB: We didn’t get a chance to talk a whole lot [back then]. He was interested in being champion of the world – he was in it for business. [But] he didn’t forget. When I reached out to him on Twitter and talked about being his trainer, he’d just gained all that weight – he said he was going to reach back out to me once he got his weight back down. He was a very nice guy – he’d give you the shirt off his back if you could fit in it. He’d take care of you. He’s a funny dude. When you see him loud and saying certain things to catch you off-guard, he don’t mean no harm, he just has a lot of energy, man. A lot of energy. He was as tall as the ceiling. He believed in himself.
Him and SugarHill don’t train here in Michigan, and I haven’t reached out to him since. I’m quite sure if I see him we’d kick it and everything. SugarHill, I’m proud of him, man, and Tyson Fury. Kronk lives on.