Tyson Fury versus Francis Ngannou was known as The Baddest Man on the Planet, and while Fury won the boxing match, it was Ngannou who left Saudi Arabia as the baddest man on the planet. He over-performed to the extent that he looked excellent, and like a professional boxer – at times even more so than Fury, who so often looked awkward, and ultimately piss-poor.
I was as surprised as I was proud of Ngannou’s performance – largely because I was a two-sport athlete who moved from kickboxing into boxing. He’s wanted to box for a long time – and to make the kind of money he’s not been able to make in UFC – and made such an impression he can remain a heavyweight contender. There are a lot of modern-day heavyweights who seem reluctant to sign to fight each other; Ngannou won’t hesitate to fight any of them.
He was technically solid, with the necessary fundamentals and a good game plan that was applied with poise and discipline. He also has size, strength, power, balance, athleticism and reflexes. In any other weight division that wouldn’t be enough for him, but at heavyweight it is – being a heavyweight is almost a different sport to being a fighter at a lighter weight. Whether he beats other contenders like Anthony Joshua and Deontay Wilder is a different question – and I don’t believe he does. But I do believe he belongs in the ring with them.
Ngannou has long been viewed as a mixed martial artist, but he came from kickboxing – and world-class kickboxers can have world-class hands. The style, stance, defence, hand positioning and gloves used in kickboxing are far closer to boxing than they are to MMA; there’s far more relevance and nuance.
If Fury struggled to motivate himself to properly prepare for a fight the entire world was watching that’s entirely on him, but until we know what he did in his training camp we can’t be certain he was physically underprepared. What we can be certain about is how much ring rust he displayed, and how he was underprepared psychologically. It also didn’t help him that Ngannou’s responses to what he was doing were awkward; he responded differently to how a high-level fighter would, and Fury also has previous in fighting at the level of his opposition.
The fight with Oleksandr Usyk was never going to happen in December, so soon after Fury-Ngannou. January and February have already been mentioned as alternative dates, but I don’t expect to see Fury-Usyk happen before the spring. Yet between today and whenever that fight is scheduled for I expect Fury to have been humbled enough by Ngannou that by then he’ll be at his very best.
He’ll also know that he has a legitimate reason to have a rematch with Ngannou, and he’s unpredictable enough that that being his next fight can’t be ruled out – it’s a less dangerous fight than one with the phenomenal Usyk, and the money for Fury-Ngannou II would be huge. If Fury-Usyk is next – which would be for the best of the heavyweight division – what we saw against Ngannou shouldn’t change anything. Those previously believing Fury has too many advantages against the smaller fighter in Usyk, and aware that he’d be happy to beat Usyk by ensuring an ugly fight, shouldn’t feel any differently.
Instead of the champions – Fury and Usyk – Ngannou became the biggest target in the heavyweight division overnight. Wilder and Joshua should be racing to fight him next. Recording a win over him would be a huge statement, less dangerous than fights against each other, and perhaps even more lucrative. For Joshua in particular, a victory over Ngannou – and Joshua would be the favourite – is a huge callout to Fury. “Look what I did to the guy who beat Fury.” Fury-Joshua would become even bigger.
Fury-Ngannou was far from bad for boxing. It brought a lot of eyes to the sport, and was dramatic and unexpectedly entertaining. But it will also encourage other mixed martial artists to think they can do what Ngannou did when they can’t. Ngannou’s a special athlete, and he’s fighting at heavyweight. Other heavyweights might make boxing work for them; those in the lighter weight divisions can’t.
More boxer versus mixed martial artist match-ups have become inevitable. But it’s also worth remembering that Dana White’s not about to allow UFC champions to cross over to boxing and make huge paydays in boxing without him also getting paid. It’s not going to be the leading active mixed martial artists – it’s going to be those ejected, or retired, from the UFC against potentially top-level boxers. Those fights will be neither entertaining nor competitive.