When the final bell sounded Saturday at the lavish new Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, it almost didn’t matter what the judges had to say. Francis Ngannou came out on top before ring announcer Michael Buffer had even bothered to walk over and grab the scorecards to read them to the world.
The former UFC heavyweight champion proved the entire boxing world wrong in emphatic fashion Saturday with his performance against Tyson Fury, who entered the bout not only as the WBC and lineal heavyweight champion but who also was earning recognition in many corners as one of the greatest heavyweight boxers ever.
Well, forget about that for the time being.
He struggled to beat an MMA fighter who is not only 37 years old, and who was competing for the first time in 22 months, but who was making his professional boxing debut.
Boxing journalists, including this one, almost unanimously predicted a one-sided whipping by Fury. One promoter told Yahoo Sports the bout “was a disgrace,” and shouldn’t have been sanctioned. A trainer posting about the fight on Facebook refused to identify Ngannou by name, snidely referring to him as “the MMA guy.”
Few in any line of work in boxing gave Ngannou much of a chance, though who could blame them? MMA fighters almost always went down when they fought boxers in these crossover bouts. Yes, legendary former UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva won a split decision over an end-of-the-line boxer Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. in 2021, but that was the rarity. Chavez was horrendously out of shape and Silva edged him on the cards.
Jake Paul, a social media star who has yet to prove he’s a quality boxer, not only defeated Silva, but also former UFC welterweight champion Tyron Woodley, former Bellator and ONE champion Ben Askren, as well as long-time UFC star Nate Diaz.
Ngannou was brilliant in this bout, despite the loss by split decision.
Ed Garner scored the bout 95-94 for Ngannou, but he was overruled by Alan Krebs and Juan Carlos Pelayo, who had it 95-94 and 96-93, respectively, for “The Gypsy King.”
That allowed Fury to remain undefeated despite one of his worst performances in years. Fury looked out of shape and was huffing and puffing badly by the seventh round. He went off as a 14-1 favorite but he was never in command at any moment of this fight.
Ngannou dropped him with a left hook in the third, opened a small cut on Fury’s forehead and then bloodied Fury in the nose and the mouth.
Ngannou came up a winner on all sides. He earned a career-high payday that play-by-play man Joe Tessitore said on the ESPN+ pay-per-view broadcast was $10 million plus upside.
Ngannou in January was granted his release by the UFC and declined a bout that would have paid him $12 million to fight Jon Jones for its heavyweight title. The major sticking point is that Ngannou wanted to box and the UFC didn’t want to allow it.
So Ngannou was released and signed with the Professional Fighters League in May when the PFL agreed to allow him to box.
Ngannou grew up in Cameroon in abject poverty, but had read a lot about former undisputed heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson.
He wanted to box from the time he was a child, and when he finally got the opportunity to do so, he was 37 years old and pitted against the world’s No. 1 heavyweight.
“I’m a fighter, and I’m ready to fight any time,” Ngannou said after barely missing becoming the lineal boxing heavyweight champion. Fury’s WBC belt wasn’t on the line, but as the lineal champion, that title sure was and Ngannou nearly won it.
“We can run it back again, and I’m sure I will get better. This was my first boxing match. It was a great experience. I’m not giving any excuse. I know I came up short. But I’m going to go back and work harder with a little more experience and a little more feeling of the game. And I will come back even stronger.”
When he comes back, it likely will be in Saudi Arabia again, but it will be in the PFL smart cage as an MMA fighter and not as a boxer, Peter Murray, the PFL’s CEO told Yahoo Sports.
Murray didn’t seem at all inclined to even consider another boxing match for Ngannou.
“Tyson may have won a split decision, but Francis won the crowd and rightfully so,” Murray told Yahoo Sports by telephone from Riyadh. “Francis is the best combat sports athlete in the world and he delivered an incredible performance tonight in his first boxing match against the best heavyweight in the world.
“Francis is committed to competing in the cage and we’re excited about 2024 when Francis returns to compete in the PFL, perhaps right here in Saudi Arabia.”
Fury said he’d give Ngannou a rematch but said he was focusing on facing unified champion Oleksandr Usyk first. That fight, for the undisputed boxing heavyweight title, is scheduled to be on Dec. 23 in Riyadh, but it may be delayed given the length and difficulty of the fight for Fury on Saturday.
Ngannou didn’t look awkward or out of place as a boxer, and he looked no worse than either Dillian Whyte or Derek Chisora, Fury’s last two opponents whom he stopped in six and 10 rounds, respectively.
Mike Tyson was billed as Ngannou’s trainer in the build-up, but that was mostly for publicity purposes. He didn’t even work the corner Saturday. But the man who prepared him, Dewey Cooper, did yeoman’s duty.
Cooper had Ngannou in shape, looking very much like a seasoned professional heavyweight, and he gave sage advice in the corner.
Like Ngannou, Cooper made a name for himself in the boxing world Saturday, and earned the respect of many.
Ngannou is now poised to close out his fighting career with untold riches. From a young boy who was forced to work the mines growing up in Cameroon, Ngannou scored what he said was the biggest payday of his career, and now he’s lined up for many more.
When he does fight Fury again, he’ll cash a much larger check than he got Saturday even if the check he received was, as he said, more than he’d made in his entire MMA career.
Fury is a lot better than he showed, and being out of shape didn’t help him in the least. He has a lot of room to get better and no doubt will look a lot more like the guy who scored back-to-back knockouts over Deontay Wilder than he did the one who struggled with Ngannou.
But to ignore Ngannou’s role in Fury’s struggles would be wrong. Ngannou said he would do this and ignored the catcalls and the snide remarks that gave him no chance.
He trained diligently and carried himself with class. He fought like a champion and proved he’s got a future as a boxer despite a loss in his first outing.