Anthony Joshua-Francis Ngannou: When illogical becomes logical

By this point, it’s hard to hate the player or the game. 

For a couple of years, the heavyweight division was said to be holding boxing back. There were four major names, Anthony Joshua, Oleksandr Usyk, Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder.

We got Fury-Wilder three times. We got Joshua-Usyk twice. But when you look at great eras gone by, the top guns always fight each other, bar the odd exception. Ali fought Frazier three times, he boxed Foreman, he boxed Norton. Norton boxed Foreman, Foreman fought Frazier… You get the picture.

While all fight fans wanted to see was a modern-day Round Robin of sorts, Fury fought the likes of Dillian Whyte and a washed Dereck Chisora, Wilder did next to nothing but popped up for a couple of minutes against Robert Helenius and Joshua rebuilt from Usyk, fighting Jermain Franklin, Helenius and Otto Wallin. Usyk, in all of this, had a battle with Daniel Dubois last August and came through some rocky patches to win.

Those were seven fights there was no great clamour for, even if they might have done smart business at the Box Office and made some people a lot of money.

Talk from fight fans was that the best were not fighting the best.

Time has moved on, of course. 

Wilder was knocked down the pecking order by the emphatic nature of his loss to Joseph Parker last month. Zhilei Zhang has emerged as a real problem to any of the major players after becoming the irresistible force to Joe Joyce’s immovable object and stopping the Englishman twice. 

Fury’s stock dipped last October, in the ring at least if not commercially, when he surprisingly toiled to a 10-round decision over heavyweight wildcard/debutant Francis Ngannou, climbing off the deck from the shock knockdown of the year to win on points.

Ngannou’s stock, conversely, rose dramatically. He was just a debutant, but he had given the division’s No. 1 fits, and wreaked so much havoc that the proposed Fury-Usyk fight had to be kicked back a couple of months, leaving the December 23 slot in Saudi vacant, which eventually saw the Day of Reckoning card built and rolled out in a matter of weeks.

Joshua’s stock is high following his dismantling of Wallin.

So it seems almost logical in these illogical times that he and Ngannou makes sense. Joshua fought three times last year, and he is coming off the best win of the three outings. 

If he wants to beat the drum for a Fury fight – and Fury beats Usyk next month – and if Joshua does a better job on Ngannou than Fury did, then that contest is an easier sell.

Imagine if Joshua hammers Ngannou, the way so many believed Fury would?

Would that make him the favourite, at least for some, if he finally boxed Fury? Is the giant champion from Morecambe on the decline? Has AJ reinvented himself and spending a couple of years mixing and matching trainers?

There are plenty who will roll their eyes at another crossover fight between a UFC star and a boxer. I get it. It is not like the previous one did gangbusters at the US box office. But, optimistically, this fight could lead to more being unlocked. 

The bottleneck of heavyweights has been smashed wide open thanks to the funds sloshing into the division from Saudi Arabia. We are not only getting fights we wanted and needed but we are getting fights we didn’t know we wanted or needed, with Wilder-Zhang reportedly heading onto the AJ-Ngannou undercard.

The heavyweight chessboard is increasingly filled with fascinating pieces now a cycle of sorts seems to be forming. There looks to be the chance for most of the top big men to box three or four times a year, make a lot of cash and the floodgates to open for the fights that fans have longed for.

The likes of Hrgovic, Kabayel, Dubois, Sanchez and Anderson could all feature.

Yes, 0-1 Ngannou against former two-time heavyweight champion Joshua is wild. But in the current climate it makes peculiar sense, business-wise, strategy-wise and in terms of getting to the fights we crave.

The issue of sportswashing has not suddenly left now the log-jam of big fights between big men seems to be over. There is plenty of work still to do on that front, and it’s impossible for some to turn a blind eye towards. Others, and plenty of them, couldn’t care a jot. The fights are here, and they are coming thick and fast.

From a sporting perspective, and having this era’s top stars fighting one another… money talks the loudest. That is why fighters fight.

Sometimes sport is linked to passion, sometimes it is linked to business. Some are happy to fuse both but high-level boxing – at this level – is all about the money and it’s all about the business. You can hate the player, you can hate the game or you can love both, it’s irrelevant.

If the money is there, the fights will be made. And it seems as though there is enough money to go round for some considerable time to come.