Tyson Fury's 'Invisible opponent' for CALM is a power move for mental health

More than two years in the making, the ad from Seven Stones and AMV BBDO, is a hard-hitting metaphor for the battle for good mental health.

Boxer Tyson Fury’s name alone speaks of power, strength and brawn. So his role as a mental health ambassador might seem incongruous at first sight.

But it’s a role that Fury has actively and independently pursued - and one that he has as good as sealed with this new ad – a first TV offering from Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM).

The spot opens with Fury striding towards a boxing ring, camera panning to an expectant crowd braced for a brutal showdown. Brooding, foreboding music promises this will be a fight to remember.

To begin with, it appears that Fury is warming up in the ring, dodging punches, skipping lightly out of harm’s way with that impossible grace of professional boxers. It’s disconcerting to suddenly realise Fury is actually already fighting an opponent – and an invisible one at that. The punches come thick and fast and Tyson is floored, as members of the audience clamp their hands over their mouths in shock.

Text appears across the screen, stating: “Sometimes the toughest opponents are the ones you can’t see,” as Fury gasps and eventually struggles to his feet. “Don’t fight it alone,” continues the film, listing the helpline number for the charity and its mission statement “united against suicide.”

CALM – which offers a helpline and web chat service to those who are struggling – said visits to its website from 18- to 24-year-olds have risen by 100% in the past year. There are 18 deaths by suicide every day in the UK, of which 75% are male, and suicide remains the single biggest killer of men under 45 in the UK.

The ad, entitled "The invisible opponent", is powerful, insightful and humbling, not least because it features such a supposed hardman of sport admitting vulnerability. The ad's soundtrack, Morning Of, by composer Colin Stetson who also wrote the score for horror film Hereditary, adds to the unsettling air of the ad.

Created by Seven Stones and Abbott Mead Vickers BBDO, the film was due to be released ahead of Fury’s scheduled fight against Deontay Wilder on 24 July, which has been delayed after Fury tested positive for Covid. His world heavyweight title defence against Wilder has now been rearranged for 9 October.

The footage in the ad is genuine, taken from two previous fights between Fury and Wilder. Its transformation into a fight with one of the opponents cut out was a painstaking, time-consuming process.

Dan Russell (pictured below), managing director at Seven Stones, told Campaign: “We went to BT Sport HQ and spent many, many hours there, looking through footage. They have multiple cameras shooting the fight, so we went through all those different camera angles and came away with about seven hours-worth of footage.”

Dan Russell

After a process of editing and choosing the best shots, it then fell to post-production company MPC to process the footage frame by frame, painting out Wilder – a mammoth task by anyone’s standards. To give this some context, with 25 frames a second, MPC retouched more than 1,000 frames for the ad.

Writer and creative director Zac Ellis said: “We did consider reshooting the bits in between, but it actually felt more credible and authentic to use the genuine footage, it really hammered home the message a bit more."

Russell said: “And it wasn’t just cutting Wilder and rebuilding the bits of Tyson where a glove had been in the way – at points they had to reconstruct the audience, it was literally rebuilding the shots.”

Back in 2015, Fury was embroiled in a battle with drugs, depression and suicidal thoughts. Even though he had shocked the world by defeating boxing royalty Wladimir Klitschko that November, Fury was ready to end it all by driving his Ferrari into a bridge at 190mph.

“I just wanted to die so bad,” Fury told Joe Rogan's podcast in 2018. “I gave up on life, but as I was heading to the bridge, I heard a voice saying: ‘Don’t do this, Tyson. Think about your kids, your family, your sons and daughter growing up without a dad.’"

“I said I’d never think about taking my own life again.”

Eighteen months later, Fury produced a remarkable ring return, rising off the canvas in the final seconds to draw with Wilder in December 2018.

The concept for the ad was born of an incident during the coverage of BBC Sports Personality of the Year, when Fury delivered an emotional speech about mental health as he was interviewed by Gary Lineker.

Fury, whose bout with Wilder earlier that same month had been a draw, seemed reluctant to discuss the sport, stating instead: "I should be WBC heavyweight champion of the world and everybody knows it.

"Many men would have stayed down after getting knocked down heavily by Deontay Wilder. I wanted to show the world that anything was possible.

"And no matter what you've been through in your life and no matter what you are going through, you must always, always get up and keep going forward and fight back.

"We need to spread the word on mental health more in sport. There are a lot of people living in darkness and are too afraid and come out and speak about it in public.

"But if I can do it, anybody can do it, a big heavyweight champion, I’m supposed to be a tough guy.”

Ellis told Campaign: “He got knocked out pretty hard and a normal guy would have not got up from that. But he managed to, and that was such an iconic moment seeing him get up off the canvas. The fight was drawn even though a lot of people say he deserved to win, but then he had this opportunity on Sports Personality to push himself and address the fight. 

"And he said: 'No I'm not interested, I just want to send a message out that you must always get up.' In my mind he secured himself as a brilliant mental health ambassador. He’s been quite vocal about having his own demons and being close to suicide in the past. It felt like that moment lent itself to something, that’s how the the idea transpired, it almost wrote itself to be honest.”

More than two-and-a-half years in the making, it feels likely that Covid had a role to play in the delay between the lightbulb moment and getting the idea off the ground, but that wasn’t quite the case.

Recruiting Fury for the campaign was a no-brainer but reaching the boxer himself was a fraught with difficulty, such is the ring of steel around him.

With their contacts getting them nowhere, at one point Ellis and Russell learned Fury was appearing in person at a book signing in Canary Wharf and raced across London to join the mile-long queue in the hope of approaching him personally. They had been waiting for nearly an hour when it dawned on them their plan was likely to be fruitless.

Russell said: “We suddenly had this realisation that we would have looked like a bunch of kids walking up to him and announcing ‘Hey man you want to be in my ad?' and we were pretty sure he’d either knock us out, or his heavies would escort us from the premises.”

Ellis persevered with the idea, however, much like “a dog with a bone” according to Russell, and the crucial contact was finally made.

Ellis said: “I just I roped in everybody I knew, and luckily enough, I've got some very talented and and lovely friends who are just decent human beings who care about the well-being of others.”

Simon Gunning, CALM's chief executive, said: “In the UK, 125 people die by suicide every week – with 75% of those deaths being male. That’s not OK, and it doesn’t have to be that way. That's why now, more than ever, we must continue to challenge the stigma that prevents people from seeking the help they need.

"Like many of us, Tyson Fury has fought invisible opponents. And we hope this campaign starts a new conversation about the impact of mental health challenges, because the more we talk about it, the more we normalise being open about what we’re going through, the more we can get support when we need it.

"We want to inspire people who might be going through tough times to take that first, crucial step and reach out to family, friends, or the CALM helpline before they reach the point of crisis. Whatever your battle, CALM is here, in your corner.”

The campaign will be officially introduced by ITV during Love Island on Friday evening. Planned by the7stars, it will be backed up by video on-demand and YouTube, as well as across JCDecaux UK’s Transvision screens nationwide.

Social media will focus on the core film and engage influencers to drive reach and to encourage conversation about the topic, using the hashtag #InvisibleOpponent. 

If you’re struggling or worried about someone, CALM's helpline and webchat are open from 5pm until midnight. Call CALM on 0800 58 58 58, or chat to their trained helpline staff online. No matter who you are or what you're going through, it's free, anonymous and confidential.

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