How Ireland missed out on it's first official world heavyweight champion in Tyson Fury
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How Ireland missed out on it's first official world heavyweight champion in Tyson Fury

IRISH boxing is full of near misses and hard luck stories but this latest one didn't even happen in the ring.

Instead, four years after leaving his training camp to travel with Mick Hennessey, his second-generation Irish promoter, to trace his ancestral roots, Tyson Fury became the seventh Britain rather than the first Irishman to be crowned heavyweight champion of the world.

What could have been a magical night in Irish boxing history was instead a very British affair. Fury, the Manchester born traveller whose family are originally from Galway, walked behind the Union Jack rather than the tricolour and then after standing to God Save the Queen, dethroned Wladimir Klitschko to realise his dream.

Well, one of them, anyway. In 2011, his journey of self-discovery ended in disappointment. He and Hennessey (whose father is from Wexford) had employed a genealogist to assist in their search for the requisite paperwork needed to gain an Irish passport. Yet they couldn't find it. Beating Klitschko ultimately proved to be easier than beating the system.

"I want to be Irish but Ireland doesn't seem to want me," Fury said four years ago.

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And so his victory on Saturday over the Ukrainian will be remembered as a great British – rather than a great Irish – sporting moment, although afterwards Fury, generously, made a point of thanking the Irish, as well as the British, fans who had travelled across to Dusseldorf to watch him become champion.

British Tyson Fury celebrates after the WBA, IBF, WBO and IBO title bout against Ukrainian world heavyweight boxing champion Wladimir Klitschko in Duesseldorf, western Germany, on November 28, 2015. Fury won the fight after 12 Rounds of Boxing. AFP PHOTO / PATRIK STOLLARZ / AFP / PATRIK STOLLARZ        (Photo credit should read PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images) Fury celebrates with his new WBA, IBF, WBO and IBO title (PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images)

They'd been there on earlier journeys, too, there when he represented Ireland as an amateur seven years ago, there when he and Hennessey were conducting their own version of Who do you think you are? in 2011.

“I’m Irish,” Fury said when we met on that trip. “I may not have been born here but it is what I feel. Ireland doesn’t seem to want me but I want what is my birthright, namely to represent my country.

“I’m not doing this for profit because when you think about it, Britain has a population of 60 million people compared to the five million who live in Ireland. So from a business perspective, it would make sense to fly under a British flag. But that would be me denying who I am and where I came from.

“I’m not some politician trying to win a few votes by flying an Irish flag. I’m not a footballer wanting to get a passport so he can play for the international team. I’m a Fury, cousins of the musicians (The Furey’s and Davy Arthur) on my father’s side and cousins of Andy Lee’s family on my mother’s. How Irish are they?

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“But I can’t get an Irish passport. Becoming the heavyweight champion of the world is not as hard a fight as proving my Irishness.”

World heavyweight boxing champion Wladimir Klitschko (L) of Ukraine defends against Britain's Tyson Fury during their  WBA, IBF, WBO and IBO title bout in Duesseldorf, western Germany, on November 28, 2015.   Fury dethroned  Klitschko in a 12round decision to become world heavyweight champion. AFP PHOTO / PATRIK STOLLARZ / AFP / PATRIK STOLLARZ        (Photo credit should read PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images) Klitschko struggled with Fury's contrasting styles throughout (PATRIK STOLLARZ/AFP/Getty Images)

The intensity of this battle came down to paperwork – or more to the point, a lack thereof. And for this, neither the IABA nor IPBA, could be blamed because with Fury unable to furnish them with details of his father John’s birthplace in Galway, their hands were tied.

“Dad is from a traveller background and in the 1960s, when he was born, the tradition was to get the child baptised but not registered," Fury said. “I’ve been a regular visitor to my grandfather’s grave out west. I know what I am. All I need is proof.”

It couldn't be found. And so the history books will show that Fury stepped into the Dusseldorf ring as an Englishman and not the first Irishman to fight for the world heavyweight title since Jem Roche lost inside a round to Tommy Burns in 1908.

If he had his way, it would have been a different story.

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"This means a lot to Tyson," Hennessey said of Fury's search for his roots back in 2011 over dinner in the Citywest hotel in Dublin's suburbs.

Two things were apparent that afternoon. Firstly, that Fury had started to worship God and also his body. Two years earlier, when we'd first met, he seized upon a packet of crisps at a Hunky Dory's promotional event and made short work of them inside a minute. Some of his opponents at that time weren't even lasting that long.

Then he was carrying a lot of flab. By 2011, and tellingly, last weekend, he was toned. "It's important," Hennessey said as his protege quietly said grace before his meal, a chicken dish minus the trimmings while Hennessey and this correspondent tucked into the menu with wild abandon. "Myself and Tyson have talked a lot about it."

It wasn't the only thing they talked about. That year, 2011, Fury had become a father and had seen his own father lose his freedom – jailed for gauging a man's eye out. Hennessey did what he could to fill the void. "He's a lovely man," Hennessey said. "There's aggression in the ring but wait until you see this guy around his family. He's so gentle."

Mick Hennessey, Fury's promotor and close friend [Picture: Getty] Mick Hennessey, Fury's promotor and close friend [Picture: Getty]
While it was apparent the two men shared a bond, as well as a business arrangement, you feared it would end badly, simply because so many promoter-boxer relationships do. At the time, Hennessey was hurting badly. He'd managed Carl Froch through the quiet years when the paycheques were in the thousands not the millions and then saw Froch leave for another promoter. Darren Barker, who would also go on to become a world champion, also decamped to Matchroom.

Visibly pained, he outlined the toughness of his trade. "When your television contract goes, your phone stops ringing," he said. "You suddenly discover that people who you thought were friends don't want to know." He considered quitting the sport then but partially through loyalty to Fury and partially because he believed in the big man when few others did, he stuck around. "Tyson and I are on a journey," he said.

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And Saturday saw it reach its conclusion. “A real Jerry Maguire story,” Fury, who had numerous offers to leave Hennessey, said. The gratitude was genuine. Hennessey said: “When things went sour, Tyson put his arm around me and said, ‘You believed in me when I needed it and whatever it takes, whatever rollercoaster we get on I am going to be with you, if it means fighting for nothing I will be with you’.

“It’s incredibly rare in boxing. To come across a young man like that who is such a showman but also has that humanity, that loyalty. It’s a rare quality. A lot of other people are telling lies and working to scripts. Tyson says what he is thinking.”

Back then he was thinking of being a world champion. It seemed unlikely. Sometimes, though, dreams come true.