I remember seeing horse-drawn gypsy wagons rolling down country roads when I was a boy growing up in rural England. These colorful conveyances and the people who traveled in them fascinated me. Their semi-nomadic lifestyle seemed terribly romantic -- a perception I shared with my father, who always spoke well of them.
One sunny afternoon, he took me to a gypsy encampment where an old woman invited us into her ornately appointed trailer and made us tea. We didn't tell my mother about it when we got home. She believed gypsies were thieves who snatched washing off the clotheslines and stole babies. Sadly, that narrow-minded attitude was the prevailing one at the time and, to a significant degree, remains so today.
A 2011 report issued by the human rights watchdog, Amnesty International, said "systematic discrimination is taking place against up to 10 million Romany across Europe." It's been that way for a long time: Starting with the Enclosure Act of 1857, which prevented gypsies from camping on village greens, Britain has passed many additional laws that have made the old gypsy way of life virtually impossible. It should, therefore, have come as no surprise when undefeated heavyweight contender Tyson Fury lashed out at the discrimination he and his people have endured.
"We're nothing in this society," Fury told Boxing News. "We're considered as being no better than dirt on people's shoes. We can be shoved around because of those views. We can be abused because we have no rights. That's the way it has always been and that's the way it will always be."
There are two groups of "gypsies" in the United Kingdom -- the Romany and the Irish Travellers. It's believed the Romany emerged from the Indian subcontinent sometime during the 13th century and migrated west to Europe. The Irish Travellers are a distinct Irish ethnic minority who separated from the settled Irish community at least 1,000 years ago. Fury is a fiercely proud Irish Traveller.
The Romany and the Irish Travellers share similar cultures, including a rich tradition of bare-knuckle boxing. Although there are occasionally large sums of money at stake, these illegal fights are generally fought to settle feuds and other disputes. It is vicious stuff and breeds men ready-made for the ring.
Boxing has always welcomed charismatic outlaws, and gypsies were at home right from the start. Not only could they fight, gypsies cut a dashing figure and led audaciously free lives that the rest of us could only imagine -- both of which help them stand out in a crowded field of hard cases.
The most famous was "Gypsy" Jem Mace, a world champion and Victorian-era superstar. Despite his rough-and-tumble profession, the globetrotting Mace was a renaissance man who, besides being a gifted prizefighter, was also an accomplished fiddler, publican, hotelier and both a circus performer and proprietor. He was an acquaintance of Charles Dickens, visited Queen Victoria and is widely recognized as "The Father of Modern Boxing" because of the advanced fighting techniques he employed. There is, however, an inconvenient caveat: Mace might not have been a gypsy.
"The assertion, oft repeated, that I have gypsy blood in my veins, is completely untrue," wrote Mace in his autobiography, "50 Years a Fighter." That position is reinforced by Graham Gordon in his comprehensive 2008 biography, "Master of the Ring: The Extraordinary Life of Jem Mace, Father of Boxing and the First World Wide Sports Star." Both Mace and Gordon attribute the "Gypsy" appellation to the fact that Jem's cousin and lifelong friend, Pooley Mace, was half-Romany. Even so, some doubt remains.
In his bio, "Gypsy Jem Mace: First Heavyweight Champion of The World," Mace's great-great grandson, Jeremy Poolman, wrote, "It was his gypsy need for freedom that had him walking by the age of six months" and "what made him wander dirt lanes for hours as a boy." Moreover, the dust jacket for Poolman's book claims Jem was "the son of a Norfolk cabinet-maker and a Hungarian gypsy." It is also possible that Jem denied his gypsy heritage simply because of the social stigma attached. We will probably never know for sure, but does it matter all that much? He looked and fought the part. In the world of sports and entertainment image is often more important than fact.
One of the earliest and most intriguing gypsy boxers was Benjamin Boswell, who led a double life as both a highwayman and professional pugilist. During the first half of the 18th century he was a regular performer at the "Great Booth at Tottenham-Court," where patrons paid up to three shillings to see him fight. According to Pugnus' "History of the Prize Ring," Boswell used his fighting career "as a blind for his more disreputable pursuits." Nothing is known about Boswell's life after his fighting days were over, but in his book "Up To Scratch," historian Tony Gee speculated that it's "highly probable that he resorted to the profession of highwayman on a more regular basis."
The roll call of successful gypsy boxers since Boswell's time is long, but men such as George "Digger" Stanley (said to have been the grandson of gypsy queen Alice Stanley); Johnny Frankham (who fought two epic battles with Chris Finnegan, winning the British title in the first and losing it in the rematch); Francie Barrett (a member of the 1996 Irish Olympic team); and Michael Gomez (sometimes called the "Irish Mexican") would make any shortlist. Other than Fury, today's most prominent gypsy boxer is Billy Joe Saunders -- a Romany from Hertfordshire who represented the United Kingdom at the 2008 Olympics. He is currently 16-0 (10 KOs) as a pro and the reigning British and Commonwealth middleweight champion.
It is, nevertheless, the 6-foot-9 Fury who has the best chance to eclipse Mace as the most famous gypsy fighter of all time.
"It is important to remember with Fury that he is only 24. This is someone who might not reach full physical, emotional or psychological maturity for another 10 years," said Tris Dixon, editor of Boxing News. "My knocks on Tyson were always the same: too many changes in trainers, not sitting down on his punches and not punching his weight. I felt a high-profile trainer would inspire him, and he learned a great deal about how the big boys do it when he was working [as a sparring partner] with Emanuel Steward and Wladimir Klitschko. But under his uncle Peter, he appears to have improved his conditioning and in-fight discipline, and both of those are the key. Fury has a lot of tools at his disposal -- height and reach being the obvious ones -- but he throws nice combinations for a big man and also works the body. He can fight, but he can box, too, and there is no need to rush him with the Klitschkos getting on in years."
Fury, 20-0 (14 KOs), is currently embroiled in a feud with Liverpool's David Price, bronze medal winner in the 2008 Olympics and 15-0 (13 KOs) as a pro. Fury is clearly not concerned with being politically correct and has aimed a barrage of homophobic slurs at Price in an attempt to bait him into a showdown. That sort of tactic may have alienated a few fans but nowhere near as many as it attracted. Fury's growing legion of supporters appears to revel in his outrageous comments and tweets, and a match with Price would be a soccer stadium-size attraction in the UK. If the fight were held tomorrow, Price, a more polished and harder-hitting boxer, would be the favorite. But that's what they said when Mace fought Tom Allen in 1870.
Mace had been busy making easy money touring and boxing exhibitions, and hadn't engaged in a serious fight in almost four years. He was also smaller and nine years older than Allen. Even so, Jem's superior skill carried him to a 10th-round victory and a $2,500 purse. Today, there is a life-size statue of Mace and Allen near the spot where they fought at LaSalle's Landing, in what is now the city of Kenner, La.
If a statue of Fury is ever erected, the best thing about it will be that we'll know for sure that the fighter immortalized in bronze is truly a gypsy.