LIKE so many relationships, it began with a phone call. More accurately, a call to arms.
The call was received by Andy Lee, a former WBO middleweight champion, and made by Tyson Fury, a former WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight champion. It was unexpected if not unusual. Unexpected because it had been some time since they last spoke yet not entirely unusual because Fury and Lee had long been supporters of one another and in both coming from traveller backgrounds have more than just their profession in common.
Still, when his phone started to ring, Andy Lee was surprised to see Tyson Fury’s name appear on its screen. Confused, too, once the initial wave of small talk subsided and he got to wondering what had inspired Fury to reach out to him. “Andy,” Fury eventually said, “I need a new coach.”
Of all the potential paths their conversation might have taken, this was one Lee didn’t see coming. As far as he was aware Fury was happy with Ben Davison, his current coach, and, moreover, was in the early stages of preparing for a February 22 rematch with Deontay Wilder in Las Vegas. Fury elaborated by saying, “I need to bring somebody into the camp with a bit more experience,” but still Lee was confused. “Okay,” he replied, “but what about Ben?”
The answer to this question was not only the key to the riddle but crucial in terms of putting Lee’s mind at ease. “Because whenever I’ve been around Ben or listened to Ben, he’s very impressive,” Lee told Boxing News. “When I’ve watched them together, I’ve always thought it’s a great relationship they have.”
Fury told Lee not to worry. He confirmed Davison would still be involved and then moments later the two of them, Fury and Lee, were discussing several potential coaches the former world heavyweight champion could draft into his training camp to add some extra flavour to his preparations.
“We talked about coaches we both knew, mostly in America but also in England,” Lee recalled. “We talked through everybody and the one person I said after a while was SugarHill (Steward). Tyson then said, ‘Andy, that is exactly who I was thinking.’”
Lee thought the two of them would hit it off and that their personalities would blend well. But Fury, having briefly worked with Javan ‘SugarHill’ Steward during his time at Emanuel Steward’s Kronk gym in Detroit, suspected this anyway. “He will also work well with Ben,” Lee added. “He will have you punching correctly, your balance will improve, and you’ll be a lot more imposing.”
With Fury sold on the idea, Lee was asked to call SugarHill on the ‘Gypsy King’s behalf. Then, days later, Lee received further contact from Fury, this time in the form of a text message. By now Fury and SugarHill had agreed to work together but Fury wanted more. Specifically, he wanted to double down on the old Detroit magic.
“As an infant of a coach, training two guys at very different levels to where Tyson is, to get a chance to work with a guy who is going to be heavyweight champion of the world is a priceless experience,” said Lee, 35, who lived with SugarHill during his years in Detroit. “Even though I have commitments to other boxers, and I’m a husband and a dad, I just couldn’t say no.”
If this all sounds too smooth to be true, it’s because it was.
“But then whatever happened between Tyson and Ben happened,” Lee went on. “I haven’t asked Tyson about it and I don’t really want or need to know. All I did was send Ben a message saying, ‘I’m sorry we’re not going to be working together.’ I was looking forward to it.”
Lee’s own work with Fury began in Los Angeles, where the pair spent some time together while SugarHill dealt with his other boxers, and has since continued in Las Vegas, where Lee has been based since Monday, February 3.
“I won’t say anything while SugarHill is teaching or training Tyson,” he said. “I won’t even have a word in between rounds. I will talk after the action has stopped and say my piece.
“It’s a collaborative effort. Tyson knows himself what he needs to do. I’m coming in having never trained or worked with him before in this kind of role. So, you have to take on board what he says and how he feels.
“He’s as much of an asset as anyone because of his boxing brain. He’s really, really attuned and has a depth of knowledge about how he fights. He’s also been in there with Wilder. That’s an insight that’s invaluable. So, you have to take that into account as well.”
The impression one gets is that SugarHill has been doing much of the heavy lifting inside the ring, while Lee ensures Fury’s mind is exactly where it needs to be when away from the ring. Whatever the particulars, though, it’s safe to say this: as disciples of Emanuel Steward, both SugarHill and Lee are conduits of greatness.
“A lot of the work we do is in the gym but a lot of the work that I do anyway is outside, sitting around the table talking,” said Lee, who was trained by Steward until the Kronk legend passed away in 2012. “Tyson, from what I could detect early on, likes to sit around and talk and have a debrief, and a big part of the job is talking things through and affirming what we’re doing.
“What really impressed me with Tyson is that he is extremely focused and serious about his training. You see him from the outside and he’s always joking and messing around in interviews. But when he’s training he is so focused and switched on.
“You’d be surprised how many fighters, big-name fighters, cut corners even at this level and don’t do what he does in training. They say one thing but are doing another. I’ve seen it. I’ve been around it. They bring in easy sparring, they cheat on their diet, or they just don’t train. But Tyson’s doing everything correct and that’s all you can ask for, isn’t it?
“He is also eating unbelievably well; he hasn’t had one day when he’s had a treat or a bar of chocolate or a can of Diet Coke. He used to drink Diet Coke all the time.
“I’m touching wood here but it’s going extremely well, the training camp. Everyone is in good spirits and it’s all very calm and peaceful. It’s harmony. There’s no chaos. It’s just a good feeling. We’re enjoying going to the gym every day.”
That three old friends are enjoying catching up and reminiscing about old times should come as no surprise. Nor will SugarHill’s appointment come as any great surprise to those aware of his ability as a trainer (and indeed the fact he is Emanuel Steward’s nephew).
“It’s his attention to detail,” Lee said of his friend’s qualities. “He won’t overcomplicate anything. He keeps the focus on very good, sound basics. It’s all based on good balance.
“He puts a lot of emphasis on repetition and practicing even the simplest of things over and over. It might be a feint and a jab or a feint and a one-two and he’ll have you repeating it. You think it’s Boxing 101, the stuff you would learn as a kid, but he will drill it until it is absolutely right.
“Also, he’s got a good personality. He keeps the mood light and has fun outside the gym. It seems a good fit so far and Tyson is very committed to the learning.”
In many ways they are all learning. Fury, 29-0-1 (20), is learning from two men he knows well, yet with whom he has never previously worked, and Lee and SugarHill, meanwhile, are learning what it’s like to collaborate on a project with a WBC world heavyweight championship up for grabs should they get it right.
“I’ve watched the first fight countless times, and other fights of his, and no matter what you say about his technique, Wilder gets it done,” said Lee. “He’s winning all these fights by knockout and you have to respect that. We’re under no illusions how hard this fight is. If you switch off at any moment, he will take you out.
“But the two knockdowns Tyson suffered in that first fight occurred when he wasn’t looking at Wilder. The first happened when he was almost stuck in the corner and bobbing to get low and his head kind of got stuck down there. He then got caught behind the head. That can happen.
“When Tyson had his back to the ropes, he was very switched on defensively, very alert, but when he got the centre of the ring in the 12th round he just had that little lapse because he was in the centre of the ring. Again, he dipped down and turned away. He couldn’t see the punch because he wasn’t even looking in the direction of it.
“It sounds very simple, but this time Tyson will need to keep his eyes on Wilder. So long as Tyson keeps his eyes on him, even if he gets hit, the brain will subconsciously recognise and prepare him for what’s coming. He will react. If you don’t see it, you can’t react.”
For as much as this was an opportunity too good to refuse, Lee is not the type to kid himself, or anyone else, or preach from a script designed only to deceive. Instead, he says what he sees and speaks only what he believes and, in this case, says what he has seen in Fury these past few weeks has not only encouraged him but justified his decision to join the camp.
“I have spoken to Tyson before other fights, and even before the (Wladimir) Klitschko fight, and he was always very disparaging about himself,” Lee said. “He would be putting himself down. He would say to me, ‘I’m s**t and I’m going to get knocked out. What am I doing this for? F**k it, I’ll just take the money.’
“But this time he has been unwavering in his belief in himself. He’s convinced he’s going to knock Wilder out and that he’s going to put it on him. People think it’s a joke. They think it’s reverse psychology for us to be putting this message out there. But that’s what he’s training for.
“I don’t see any reason why he can’t do it, either. He’s huge, he has all the ability, and now he has the technique and is learning in this camp how to punch correctly, the way he should as a big man. I don’t think you’ll see the flicking.
“It would be stupid to disregard the style that has taken him to this point already. No one else can do what he does. No one else can perform with that frame the way he does. But I think what you’re going to see is a mix of that with correct punching behind it and him not looking to pull away from punches or get out before they have even landed. He will be looking to commit to punches and then get back on defence.”
Even a momentary lapse in this department – defence – can turn victory into defeat in the presence of Wilder, as poor Luis Ortiz can attest. However, where Fury is concerned, almost as vital as defence is momentum, which now, unlike before, he has in abundance.
“Ahead of the first fight he was coming back from almost three years off and had two comeback fights that weren’t really fights,” said Lee. “Since then, he has had a dominant win against (Tom) Schwarz and a really competitive fight against (Otto) Wallin.
“More importantly, he’s had consistent training. Think about where he was previously. He was weighing something like 24 stone at one point and came down to fight Wilder within six months of his comeback. Now he’s had over a year of training, fighting, being a boxer and having the mindset of a boxer. He’s only going to be better.
“There will obviously be some fear there but if he beats Wilder – by any means, but especially if he knocks him out – where does that put Tyson? It puts him in the conversation as one of the greatest heavyweights of all time. The way things are in this day and age, with social media and the news, he will be a superstar. He will be one of the biggest sports stars in the world. I think that’s his motivation.”
This Saturday the relationship between SugarHill and Andy Lee will be as congenial and laidback as their respective demeanours. It will see Javan adopt the role of head coach between rounds, the one tasked with delivering instructions to Fury, and Andy, also in the corner, offer his input to Hill during the process of rounds unfolding. “SugarHill will be the only voice you hear in the corner,” Lee wanted to make clear, even if aware his and SugarHill’s voices, though different in accent and tone, will ultimately relay the same message, one passed down from a place higher up. “After the first training session we were lying in the ring and I said to SugarHill, ‘Isn’t this crazy? Here we are after all these years, training together and getting ready to win the heavyweight championship together.’ He then said, ‘Yeah. Emanuel would have loved this.’”