After watching Tyson Fury's performance Saturday night at the O2 Arena in London, I'm ready to make an audacious claim: at this point in time, he is, bar-none, pound-for-pound, the best in the game, rivaled only by some of the sport's historical greats. In fact, as far as my research has revealed, Fury is bettered only by Philadelphia's own legendary heavyweight Joe Frazier, who recorded a number of r&b and soul singles during the 1970's, released by Motown, Capital, and a few other small labels. Smokin' Joe's decisive edge, as I see it, is not necessarily his voice (which is strong, if a little thin) but his delivery, to which he brings some of the precise timing we've seen from him in the ring.
Fury entered the ring to the tune of Elvis Presley's "Trouble" (from 1958), performed by an Elvis impersonator awaiting him inside the ropes. Fury dominated his foe Christian Hammer, causing the Romania-born/Germany-based fighter to quit on his stool before the ninth frame. Following the victory, Fury seized the microphone from announcer Jimmy Lennon Jr. "We've had an Elvis singing me in. I'm gonna do a bit of Elvis meself," Fury declared, launching into a soaring, sonorous a cappella rendition of "Walkin' in Memphis" with modified lyrics:
Put on my blue suede shoes and I boarded the plane
Touched down in the land where the skies are blue, even in the pouring rain
W.C. in Memphis, would you look down over me
Hey I got a first class ticket and now I'm fly as a guy can be
And I was walkin' in London
I was walkin' with my feet on the field
I was walkin' in London
And man you know how I feel- I WANT KLITSCHKO!
(It must be noted that Fury misattributed the tune, which was actually recorded by singer-songwriter Marc Cohn in 1991, though the lyrics do reference Presley.)
This is not Fury's first reference to Elvis Presley. After his dominant defeat of Dereck Chisora in their second meeting last November, Fury was recorded singing Presley's "In the Ghetto," a song he has also broken into at several interviews and press events. Fury, whose heritage is among the Irish Traveller people, has regularly invoked Elvis, evidencing a winking self-awareness of his role in the limelight.
In "The Elvis Spectacle and the Cultural Industries," Douglas Kellner writes, "Elvis began the rock music spectacle in which a combination of performance, recording and media technology, and an omnipresent culture industry ready to assiduously market the newest product and hottest commodity used sonic synergies to produce popular stars and cultural icons...the young Elvis provides a new synthesis of the energies and experiences that would constitute the American drama of the decades to come- a complicated passion play of culture, race, sexuality, and class that is still going on today." Elvis is not just a high-watermark in popular culture and the celebrity industry; he has become a synecdoche for the entire phenomenon of pop.
The inflection of Elvis imagery into Fury's act directs our attention to the spectacle aspect of the sport, acknowledging the boxing ring's multi-valenced symbolism as stage, pedestal, and sacrificial altar. So too does it treat the fighter as more than a material figure; at a certain level of professional success and fame, the boxer becomes a cathexis of cultural narratives, fantasies, and projections. Indeed, the unique frisson of boxing derives in no small part from the interplay between the event fanfare/hyperbolized warrior spectacle and the intense encounter with the presence and ramifications of actual physical bodies in contact.
The procession of Fury's entire pageant- ring entrance, bout, and post-battle serenade- reveals deeper nuances. Fury's selection of "Trouble" as his arrival theme was clever, a fresh selection with a suitable bit of menace ("If you're looking for trouble/You came to the right place/If you're looking for trouble/Just look right in my face"). How interesting that the fighter opted to use an Elvis impersonator, a species inextricably tied to the intentional triviality and affectionate but self-aware rosy nostalgia of kitsch culture, rather than just playing a recording of the original song. A celebrity impersonator act is an exercise of consensual, cooperative play-acting between a performer and an audience. All parties are conscious of the artifice and acquiesce to it, allowing the semblance to stand in for, and indeed, act as the genuine artifact.
The ideological function of iconographic positions of cultural station works on a similar dynamic. In 1462, the English judge Sir John Fortescue articulated a conception of the monarchy that saw the royal office as a union of the mortal body of the king ("the Body natural") with the abstract, ostensibly divine-imbued authority of the position ("the Body politic"). Expanding on these ideas, jurist Edmund Plowden wrote in 1550, "the Body politic that cannot be seen or handled is constituted for the direction of the people and these two bodies are incorporated in one person...the Body politic includes the Body natural." The Body politic is a transcendent essence that passes onto whoever steps into the role. It is from this tradition that the well-known formulation emerges: "The king is dead. Long live the king." To wear the outward appearances of the position, and to be accepted, however cynically, by an audience, was to become vested with its attendant power.
Is it coincidence, then, that Fury has chosen to associate himself with a pop imago bestowed with the mantle "The King"? Doesn't the station of the Heavyweight Champion of the World have its own mythic charge, its own Body politic? In this context, what could Fury's use of an Elvis impersonator mean other than a sly nod to the distinction between the human fact of the boxer and his function as an image-bearer? Casting himself as The One True King, challenger to Wladmir Klitschko's heavyweight throne, Fury performs an act of ontological superimposition, at once embodied "in body" (that is, with the focus and presence of mind demanded by the actual ring encounter) as well as the embodiment of a social imagination.
But Fury is an upstart, and not content to simply toy with the signifiers of presage. He is not just walking to the tune of history, but interceding it it, claiming his own place among the ranks of its iconographic personae. If his use of the Elvis impersonator was an acknowledgement of the role-play in his public presentation, his own post-fight performance was a gesture of superseding the play, becoming the Elvis himself. I will not just be a champion, his act seemed to say, I will be the champion!
Unless this is just another case of Tyson Fury goofing off.
I'll be back next week with a treatise on Manny Pacquiao's new Filipino fight song, "Lalaban Ako Para sa Pilipino." In The Plague of Fantasies, Slavoj Žižek wrote, "After the Fascist Leader finishes his public speech and the crowd applauds, the Leader acknowledges himself as the addressee of the applause (he stares at a distant point, bows to the public, or something similar), while the Stalinist leader (for example, the general secretary of the Party, after finishing his report to the congress) stands up himself and starts to applaud. This change signals a fundamentally different discursive position: the Stalinist leader is also compelled to applaud, since the true addressee of the people's applause is not himself, but the big Other of History whose humble servant-instrument he is." Is Pacman's distinctly anti-sensationalizing clumsy-but-heartfelt balladry a depoliticized execution of the same dynamic? Is Manny, a devout Christian and "man of the people," attempting to assert his mere-mortal status and group himself among the denizens performing the endless karaoke of history's song? Tune in next time!