What the hell just happened?
Or what in the hell almost just happened?
Tyson Fury climbed off the deck to eke out a split decision win over Francis Ngannou in a historic Saudi Arabian 10-round showpiece that far exceeded many meagre expectations.
In his professional boxing debut, Francis Ngannou gave the world heavyweight champion and the lineal ruler absolute hell, cutting him on the forehead in round two, flooring the Gypsy King with a terrific left hook in round three and giving him a nightmarish round eight.
For long periods in the contest, it seemed like Ngannou might have scuppered the grand plans of all involved to stage the heavyweight unification fight between Fury and the owner of the remaining belts Oleksandr Usyk.
The Riyadh crowd sat mesmerised, bewildered and shocked that Fury failed to put a dent in the former UFC heavyweight champion, who probed forward conservatively, switching stances, not buying into Fury’s feints or hype, and landing hefty shots of his own, firmly earning Fury’s respect.
Ngannou came oh-so-close to scoring what would have been one of the biggest shocks in sporting history, winning on one scorecard 95-94 but losing on the others by margins of 96-93 and 95-94.
“That definitely wasn’t in the script,” conceded Fury. “[Ngannou’s a] Helluva fighter, strong… better boxer than we thought he would be. Listen, he’s a very awkward man, good puncher and I respect him a lot. He’s very awkward… He’s given me one of my toughest fights in the last 10 years.”
Fury said he had not been hurt with the knockdown, just that he “got back up and got back to my boxing” but he was sent sprawling by the underdog.
“I don’t know how close it was but I got the win and that’s what it was,” lamented Fury, who said he’d felt ring rust from the 11 months off.
“It was a good rough fight,” Fury added. “Perfect.”
But the story was not just that Fury had got away with one, but that Ngannou was incredible. He might even be a major factor in the division and seek other lucrative fights with the likes of Deontay Wilder and Anthony Joshua. A couple of hours ago, that would have been laughable to anyone outside of Fury’s inner-circle.
“I’m feeling great, I feel fantastic,” said a remarkably joyful Ngannou, whose stock has skyrocketed. “I’m very happy. It didn’t go my way. I’m just a fighter and I’m ready to fight any time again soon. We can run it back. This was my first boxing match and I will come back even stronger. Now I know I can do this shit. Hey, get ready. I worked hard, I gave my best. I’m going to go back with my team and look what we can do next to improve and come back higher. Tonight I felt the temperature of the water [of boxing].”
Fury, 35, now has 34 wins against a draw without defeat. Ngannou is now 0-1.
Ngannou is 37 and had been out of action far longer than Fury. He did not mention ring rust, only that the experience will make him a better boxer in his future endeavours.
And yet Fury, who danced to Pretty Woman on his way to the ring, got away with one tonight.
The WBC champion had looked comfortable enough initially. In front of a history-making, star-studded audience, Fury soon scored with a short chopping right hand that caused him to smile knowingly. Fury knew he was the big favourite, expected to win well and put on a show. It certainly was a show.
The Englishman peppered Ngannou with jabs and when Ngannou threw a right to the body near the end of the round, Fury grinned once again. He was firmly in his comfort zone.
There was absolutely no sign of the mayhem that was around the corner.
Fury was patient in the second, leading with his left hook, double jabbing and both switched southpaw. Fury landed a right hand and Ngannou shouted, ‘Come on’. And Fury was bleeding from a cut on his forehead.
Fury stayed southpaw for a while, Ngannou changed back to orthodox and was growing in confidence and ambition in the third. The challenger was surprising many with his competence and Fury was content to flick out his jab from either stance.
Then, an emboldened Fury launched forwards behind two long left-rights but Ngannou absorbed them and fired back with a left hook, nailing Fury high on top of his head and dramatically sending Fury crashing to the canvas.
That would have been enough for Ngannou to leave with his stock having risen. But he wasn’t done.
Fury was looking uncomfortable, blinking, dabbing at his head with his right glove and readily accepting clinches.
This was a Fury, by the way, who was up late at last night’s glittery gala dinner and not preparing through fight week as he usually would, but Ngannou did similar things all week and they both fulfilled endless obligations.
Fury stayed southpaw for long portions of the fought. Ngannou just missed a huge right hand and alarmingly Fury showed signs of slowing in the fourth as he tried to line Ngannou up with raking right hands.
Ngannou, however was strong, continuously switching stances and Fury could not do anything with him.
The stoic Cameroonian kept walking forwards, but he did so in a measured manner.
Fury attempted some right uppercuts but narrowly missed, and a right near the end of the fifth from the giant champion couldn’t deter Ngannou. Nothing could.
Fury thumped home a couple of jabs to open his account in the sixth, then collected points with good right hands, straights and uppercuts. But still Ngannou could not be budged.
He was raw but effective, patient and consistent. And Ngannou was landing southpaw left hands in the seventh that Fury was not answering.
Fury lost his balance on the way in during the same session. Ngannou was a pleasant surprise. He was decent in both stances, he wasn’t tiring or gassing terribly. He was prepared and he’d done his homework. And Fury was short on answers.
In fact, he couldn’t halt Ngannou’s charge and nothing he threw discouraged Ngannou, who pounced forwards behind two more long lefts again.
This wasn’t a ruse or an act. It was a fight and Fury was behind and taking big shots in close. Aggressive Ngannou’s mouth was bloody but Fury appeared to be in dire straits during a rocky and ragged eighth round.
The crowd was in a stunned silence. Fury looked there to be taken. His face was reddening and his own shots just bounced off Ngannou’s head.
The ninth and 10th rounds were similar. Ngannou was no longer leading but Fury was reluctant to engage. Neither presented any openings and neither took any chances and the final 20 seconds finished in a quiet stalemate with both content to hear the bell.
A few weeks ago in Las Vegas, I asked Ngannou if he thought his only chance to beat Fury was to stop him early, or if he believed he could win on points.
“That’s what I’m going to do — outbox him,” he told me.
I didn’t believe him. How could I? Who could?
He’s made millions of believers with this performance. Many will criticise Fury, and that’s understandable. It was always a no-win exercise for him in a sporting if not monetary sense.
Fury will move towards the lucrative unification fight with Oleksandr Uysk, back in Saudi Arabia. His marked-up face leads one to believe December 23 might be too soon, and promoter Frank Warren would not commit to it, saying he would let Fury rest up and Warren would leave him alone.
Usyk, however, was licking his lips. Tonight, he might have seen a heavyweight champion who had looked almost unbeatable in recent times be ready for the taking.
The Ukrainian hero smiled and said, “Let’s go.”