Wrestling fans were surprised when, during the inaugural episode of SmackDown on Fox, WWE superstar Braun Strowman and lineal heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury shared a mid-match staredown. The surprise was amplified moments later when Fury jumped the guardrail and it became evident there was something bigger at play between Fury, Strowman and WWE.
As it turned out, a deal had been made to bring Fury in for a one-time match against Strowman at WWE's Oct. 31 Crown Jewel event in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Fury's involvement would, it has been theorized, build him up as a bigger star and make his planned February rematch with Deontay Wilder an even bigger fight. The decision to climb into the WWE ring materialized very quickly, as Fury explained on CBS Sports' State of Combat podcast [listen and subscribe here].
"Isn't it awesome?" Fury said. "I was offered the opportunity after my last fight. Always wanted to do something with WWE, always been a big fan, always been very interested but never really had the right timing. Everything came together really quick, the deal was done immediately, I was on a plane and headed to L.A. That's just the way the cookie has crumbled. So far, so good. I'm really happy to be a part of it and I hope it can be a historical event and an event I look well in and not stink the place out. That's why I'm over here training and doing the best I can."
There are, of course, concerns when an athlete decides to venture outside his comfort zone. It's not unheard of for a boxer to dabble in other sports. Manny Pacquiao has played pro basketball in the Philippine Basketball Association. Roy Jones Jr. even once played in a semi-pro basketball game the morning of his title defense against Eric Lucas. Jones won when Lucas retired between rounds 11 and 12.
But professional wrestling is a different animal. Yes, the action is predetermined, but it's also intensely physical and, at times, hard hitting. Given Fury received more than 40 stitches due to cuts suffered his September clash with Otto Wallin, the potential exists to have a move go slightly wrong, reopen the cut and further delay the highly-anticipated rematch with Wilder. And accidents do tend to happen more frequently with inexperienced wrestlers than those who've spent years honing their craft. Fury brushed off those concerns, however.
"With the fight game, I'm not out of my element in any ring," Fury said. "It's all combat, it's all entertainment, and I feel quite comfortable in any ring doing any one-on-one combat with any person on the planet. My management, my promotional people, trainer, father, brother, everyone said it's probably not a good idea and not the right time. 'You may get injured' and this and that and 'what if?' this and 'what if?' that.
"I don't think I can live a life of what ifs and being super cautious. What will happen will happen in life and there's not much I can do about it. I'm just going to take the bull by the horn, hold onto it with both hands and enjoy the ride.
Paul Levesque, WWE's executive vice president of talent, live events and creative (who you may know better as Triple H), praised the work Fury has put in at WWE's Performance Center. Fury told CBS Sports he has been working with top trainers and WWE Hall of Fame members in Orlando, Florida, to pick up the keys to being a pro wrestler capable of putting on a show on a massive pay-per-view.
"There's very few that I've seen over the years that have that little certain special next level," Levesque said on the State of Combat podcast. "Tyson is one of those people. Within 30 minutes of being in the ring, I could see that look in his eye and his drive and the way he was focused on everything. I was like, 'Oh my god, this is going to be epic.' He's a different level of athlete. That's why he is where he is and there's very few people who have it. I've worked with the best of the best, and there's very few people who can take it to that level and he has.
"He's picking this up extremely quickly. We're working with him on everything, but he's like a sponge. It's because he's a fan and he wants this to be special. He wants this to be something that's remembered, that his kids will remember, that he's proud of and they're proud of and that lasts because it was epic. He's approaching it that way and it shows. This is going to surprised a lot of people and it's going to blow a lot of people's minds."
Like any outside-the-box situation in wrestling, the decision to place an outsider in a prominent place on a card has brought out critics. A segment of fans have argued against the idea, saying it takes opportunities away from full-time WWE roster members who may benefit from a PPV slot against a star like Strowman. Levesque shot back at those critics by attempting to paint a picture of what this match means for the future.
"It's all about building platform," Levesque said. "If somebody was to say to me, 'Why don't I get the shot with Braun Strowman?' Look, when Braun Strowman gets done wrestling Tyson Fury at Crown Jewel, when he comes away from that, he's going to be a global household name beyond what he ever was before that fight. Then, when they get that opportunity, it's a whole other ballgame. This brings eyeballs from outside. This brings eyeballs from the sporting world. This brings eyeballs from the boxing world, from everything.
"The opportunity for us to work with Tyson Fury is huge for Braun Strowman -- and for WWE. It raises his visibility to the world and as an entertainer. It's good for everybody. The people who look at it and just say, in this moment I wish they gave it to this person? That's just short-term thinking. It's short-sighted if they could see the bigger picture. To me, these things are successful when somebody like Tyson comes in and they're passionate about this. Why they should love it? Because he is like them. He's a fan. He loves this and he's a fan."
Fury has also heard negative comments from a specific, high-profile critic of his work. Matchroom Boxing promoter Eddie Hearn and Fury have a heated history that dates back years. After Fury and Strowman engaged in a pull-apart brawl on TV that saw Fury "lay out" several members of a "security team" with punches, Hearn slammed Fury's wrestling skills as "terrible" while admitting the situation was good for exposure.
"I'm not so worried about the critics, but Eddie Hearn has been a long-term hater," Fury said. "The fact that I'm doing this, it hurts so bad for him because it's not his heavyweight who has zero charisma. He's just jealous, you know? That's coming from a jealous guy from a jealous outfit. Listen, I'm not too concerned what Eddie Hearn says or anybody else like Eddie. But you know, for the casual fans and critics of me going from boxing into wrestling, you know, you've got to live life.
"Me being a fan of this all my life, to have this opportunity just like any other fan would jump at this opportunity. And I am jumping at this opportunity. I'm not going to pretend I'm the world's greatest wrestler and I'm not going to pretend I've been here for two years practicing, but the one thing I will give is 100 percent as I always do. I can't be given flack for trying my best and doing something I love to do.
"We're only human, and we're going to do our best and do what we've got to do. The one thing I can guarantee is: It's going to be exciting, I'm going to put on a good show, Braun is going to put on a good show and, most of all, the WWE's big showing in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, is going to be a success."