“I know I introduced him to the canvas,” grins the first man to knock Tyson Fury down, the man who started a chorus of questions about whether the future world heavyweight champion could take a smack.
It was a fight that the young and cocksure Fury chose for himself, an opponent that he chased to Canada and back over a barbaric year, a grudge match he did ultimately win but also one which raised troubling concerns.
The big lesson for the first man to knock Tyson Fury down? “He has a will to come back up”. He is no stranger to a mid-fight crisis, Fury, despite his 31 undefeated fights but at the time, with the giant heavyweight on the seat of his pants in his hometown, eyes were rolled.
Neven Pajkic was the challenger to Fury’s Commonwealth title in 2011 but, more interestingly, he was an early indicator of the engaging and attractive rivalries that the British heavyweight could drum up.
“He has an ugly face,” Pajkic said at the press conference.
Fury replied: “I like his hair-cut but when will he get it finished?”
Notably the 22-year-old Fury said: “If Pajkic gives me a hard fight I will retire because if I can’t handle him, I’ll never unify the division.”
In the second round of their fight in Manchester, Fury was floored for the first time as a professional. Pajkic knocked him down with an overhand right and Fury’s hometown crowd gasped. The hellacious round ended with Fury absorbing another massive punch and desperately clinging on.
“I only cracked him with 30 percent,” Pajkic exclusively tells Sky Sports nine years later. “I didn’t expect him to go down. I practised the right hand, left hook. To my surprise, he fell after the first punch.
“I hoped he would be groggy with the right hand then I would finish him off with the left hook. The right hand was supposed to be a set-up. I wish he hadn’t gone down because the left hook was coming and would have put him out.”
Pajkic won just five of his 18 fights by knockout but had seen Fury caught with a hurtful punch in his previous fight, just two months prior.
“Fury fought a guy I had beaten, Nicolai Firtha. A tough guy,” Pajkic said. “That fight told me everything I needed to know. Guys who study their opponents? I get it. But it’s a dog-fight, that’s it. I did what I always did – head down, move forwards, swing.”
Pajkic knew Fury had been hurt before.
“With the same punch that I dropped him with. I knew that. And I practised that punch.”
Tellingly Fury weathered the storm and charged right back into the danger zone – in the very next round he floored Pajkic twice and brought up a 17th undefeated fight.
“I gave myself a scare,” he admitted afterwards.
“He overcame adversity on that night and showed his championship mentality,” Pajkic told Sky Sports.
The same spirit would allow Fury to defy logic by climbing off the canvas against Deontay Wilder in the 12th round of their first WBC title fight eight years later.
Two years after Pajkic, Fury was on the canvas again so a worrying pattern was threatening to emerge. Steve Cunningham, a former cruiserweight and a far smaller man who had knocked out less than half of his opponents, did the damage in 2013.
“Any man can go down,” Pajkic said when asked if he exploited a future weakness in Fury.
“There is no man that can’t go down. If 250lbs cracks you on the chin, you are going down.
“Fury keeps his hands down often and drops the left shoulder when he jabs, so he leaves himself exposed more than he should.
“But going down? He has a will to come back up. That’s what makes him different.”
Could Pajkic offer advice on how to catch Fury off-guard? “I could give him advice on how not to be knocked down! I don’t want him to be knocked down again. I’m enjoying the show.”
What began as a nasty rivalry with insults chucked in both directions ended with Pajkic, who is now a Hollywood stuntman who rejected a job doubling for Vinnie Jones because he didn’t want to shave his head, claiming a moral victory.
“I told Fury that I’m better at one thing – I’m prettier,” he joked. “He told the media that he is better looking and everyone laughed.
“But two media members came to me afterwards and said I’m much better-looking than Fury. Which I know isn’t much of an achievement.”
The story of the first man to knock Tyson Fury down actually began a year earlier, in 2010, a chapter that includes a forgotten fight in Canada with the legendary Emmanuel Steward in the Brit’s corner.
Fury, the English champion, set his sights on Pajkic, the Canadian champion, for a Commonwealth title fight. He even ventured to Canada and sat ringside at a Pajkic fight causing a scuffle. The Canadian, to fend off his mouthy visitor, threw a sweaty towel at him.
“They told me he was in the audience,” Pajkic remembered. “I didn’t know, at the time, they were trying to make a fight between us. Fury wanted to start a commotion to promote a fight – which worked! I fell into the trap.
“I was surprised how big he was. I don’t usually look up at a man, you know?
“I got into his head too. He talked trash, I talked trash. I’m a better trash talker than him but I had less media attention.”
The scene is not dissimilar to a cold New York night in 2016. Deontay Wilder had just retained his WBC title when, suddenly, Fury rose from his ringside seat and a new rivalry was born.
In 2010 the stars were seemingly aligning for Fury – his previous fight in the UK had been televised in the US and a chance arose for a spot on a major undercard in Quebec City, Canada. Jean Pascal and Bernard Hopkins’ drew in the main-event while Paulie Malignaggi, Daniel Jacobs and Peter Quillin all won.
What better time to fight Canada’s best heavyweight, Pajkic?
“I’m a champion ready for all challenges that come my way and I thought all boxers were the same, but obviously not in Neven’s case,” Fury said when his preferred match-up could not be made.
Instead, Fury fought late-notice opponent Zack Page who had won just 21 out of 55 fights, but had been knocked out only three times in 33 losses. Fury, too heavy at 19st 2lbs, laboured to an eight-round decision win.
“Zack Page was crafty,” Sugarhill Steward, Fury’s current trainer, exclusively told Sky Sports. “He knew how to survive, how to read his opponents. He had a lot of tricks and was a dangerous fighter. He was the right opponent for Tyson.”
The fight is notable as the only time that the voice in Fury’s corner was Emmanuel Steward, the Hall of Fame trainer and uncle to Sugarhill.
Intriguingly Fury, then 21, had been training at the Austrian base belonging to Wladimir Klitschko, the world heavyweight champion that he would eventually bring down.
“He is a very nice fellow, helpful and a great boxer,” Fury said.
A bond formed between Fury and the Stewards – Emmanuel, the trainer who rebuilt Klitschko’s career and Sugarhill, who was then learning his trade. Last year, Fury called on Sugarhill to become his new trainer and they devised the plan which comprehensively ended Wilder’s reign.
“Emmanuel was training Wladimir, I was training Andy Lee, Johnathon Banks, Tyson Fury and Hughie Fury,” Sugarhill remembers of 2010.
“In Wladimir’s training camps, Emmanuel wouldn’t train anyone else.”
But Emmanuel travelled to Canada to be in Fury’s corner.
“Wladimir was lenient, he wasn’t strict,” Sugarhill said. “He wouldn’t say: ‘Don’t mess with other fighters’.
“Emmanuel was a professional. I’m the same. I left Tyson’s most recent training camp twice for other fights. You only miss one day. How bad can that be?
“Emmanuel said Tyson had unbelievable co-ordination for a man of his size. He is exceptionally co-ordinated and fast.
“They enjoyed each other’s company. That’s how Emmanuel was with his fighters. Tyson has fond memories of Emmanuel, he told me recently. We would just talk for hours about Emmanuel’s knowledge of boxing and life.”
This was a tumultuous period in Fury’s career. He looked below-par in Canada, was hurt by Firtha, knocked down by Pajkic although he did cruise past Derek Chisora as well. Previously John McDermott was denied by a controversial decision which, he told Sky Sports, is still a source of bitterness.
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