Bradley’s take Understanding the Joshua vs. Ngannou matchup


There is a saying in the streets: “Mess around and find out.” That’s precisely what Tyson Fury encountered when he stepped into the ring against Francis Ngannou in December. It was supposed to be a quick money grab and an easy night for the lineal heavyweight boxing champion. However, he discovered that the former UFC heavyweight champion was more than a barking dog!

Ngannou can fight, maybe not to the standards of a high-level boxer but to the level of a master combatant — like an excellent old handyman. On Friday in Saudi Arabia, Ngannou faces another challenger, Anthony Joshua. Yes, I called Joshua the challenger because many people, including myself, felt Ngannou beat the long-reigning champ, Fury.

Joshua is here to challenge Ngannou, not the other way around, because Joshua, deep down inside, cannot put to rest that Fury has been proclaimed the best heavyweight in England and the world, the successor to Lennox Lewis. Joshua wants to do something Fury couldn’t do, but should have done, against the inexperienced boxer in Ngannou. That is to knock him into oblivion.

Joshua seems to love competition and is once again motivated by the pursuit of self-worth and self-perseverance. The Joshua I saw in the ring last December against Otto Wallin was vintage post-Olympic Joshua. He was sharp, efficient and explosive but, more importantly, sure of himself. This battle between Joshua and Ngannou should keep us on the edge of our seats, as success in the ring is seizing opportunities created by both participants and capitalizing on each other’s mistakes, leaving little room for luck.

Understanding the matchup

To understand the driving force within a fighter, one must note that individuals are born with instincts and a finely tuned system crucial for self-preservation. We all have something to fight for in life. The expression “he’s got heart” or “she’s got heart” is usually said by observers watching a grueling prizefight with a fighter on the brink of defeat, digging deep to overcome failure. These moments encapsulate a fighter’s spirit, show their discipline, and explain their mentality. Ngannou epitomizes this warrior spirit by being willing to face his internal monster, which is the king of defeats: self-doubt. And he’s showing that fighter’s spirit by participating in just his second professional fight against another heavy hitter in Joshua, someone who has battled self-doubt himself after suffering several letdowns over the last few years, but seems to have found his confidence.

Uncertainty is a psychological killer for athletes in any sport or situation in life. Based on Joshua’s success in his last fight, his confidence heading into this battle is higher than I’ve seen in years. And Ngannou’s confidence should be solid after 10 grueling rounds against Fury, where he dropped Fury with a left hook in Round 3. I assure you that Ngannou has gained valuable experience to help him believe he can win against AJ. Remember, the pressure is all on Joshua, just like it was all on Fury. All Ngannou has to do is go the distance — win, lose or draw — and it can be easily interpreted as a moral victory.

Understanding Ngannou’s game

Ngannou is a powerhouse in the fighting world. He possesses immense physical and mental strength, along with lightning-fast reflexes honed through years of experience in mixed martial arts. His instincts, awareness, ability to absorb punches, and devastating punching power, make him a problem for any heavyweight in boxing.

Ngannou’s transition to boxing shows his versatility and understanding of combat. He seamlessly adjusted his fighting stance from the squared-shoulders MMA style to a more traditional boxing stance, feet slightly bladed and shoulders width apart. In boxing, Ngannou’s strategy is straightforward: hit the opponent harder and more frequently in the scoring area to earn points or knock him out. He targets the entire front part of the upper torso to score.

On defense, Ngannou responds quickly to oncoming offense in a combative fashion, counterpunching with force and/or agility. Ngannou’s elite concentration allows him to think quickly and read his opponent’s tells or tendencies. His main concern is to catch his opponents by surprise, just as he caught Fury mistakenly getting overly aggressive and confident. That leaves room for error and an opportunity to land a vicious shot.

Ngannou switches stances, occasionally fighting southpaw, which provides another layer of confusion for his opponents, sometimes forcing 50/50 awkward exchanges that will favor him, as he has dynamite in both hands. It was remarkable witnessing his footwork and how well he moved inside the ring against Fury. Even the way he jabbed his way in and out of danger.

Understanding Joshua’s game

There should be no secret that Joshua is far superior to Ngannou as a boxer. His skill set is polished, proven and shown to be ruthless. AJ has been through ups and downs, like the stock market. He has heard many critics, including myself, not believe in him. The key to his newfound success is his activity, and believe it or not, all his trainer changes have brightened and extended his boxing knowledge, as he’s taken a little from each one. Ben Davison, Joshua’s third and most recent trainer, is like a golden egg on Easter Sunday. He has a wealth of boxing knowledge and can provide Joshua with the right game plan to defeat Ngannou. He sees things that other boxing enthusiasts don’t.

Importantly, Davison knows Fury from his years of working in the champ’s corner, and that has played a role in helping Joshua get his confidence back. Many fighters strategically place formidable opponents in their paths to prove a point to fans and themselves. Wallin, who cut Fury over his eye and was close to defeating him, was the first test for Joshua. Now it’s Ngannou. Joshua has set out to conquer both of Fury’s most formidable adversaries; if Joshua wins on Friday, the next target on his radar will be Wilder, who had a memorable trilogy with Fury.

Joshua’s relentless hunger for challenges during tough times in his career has only fueled his fire, pushing him constantly to give his best. His secret weapon? The devastating power in his right hand, thrown straight or under in uppercut form. Joshua’s patience and commitment to following a game plan have opened new pathways in his natural ability. Joshua is dangerous, especially in his most recent state. I would be surprised if this fight against Ngannou goes the distance.

Ngannou is rugged but ripe for this version of AJ as long as Joshua remains focused and keeps his distance while moving forward or backward and refraining from being timed by Ngannou’s big, looping punches. Stay behind his solid jab and use excellent defense. He should be able to generate a knockout off his jab setups and feints. But if Ngannou gets inside and can clinch, punch and bully Joshua, he can shock the world with a devastating knockout. AJ isn’t perfect defensively, and Ngannou should look to pressure and take it to AJ in spots.

How the fight could play out

Joshua excels on the outside and at mid-range, applying his jab to set up power shots effectively. Following the insight of his previous trainer, Derrick James, AJ is now integrating subtle footwork maneuvers to secure advantageous positions in the ring. Visualize Joshua as part of a protractor, with the opponent as the center point and AJ as the pencil moving strategically left and right. By slightly adjusting his lateral movements, AJ can create angles that will throw off Ngannou, turning him in circles. During his battle with Fury, Ngannou fell for various feints and fakes early on, lowering his guards, pulling strength back and leaving himself vulnerable. Fury capitalized on this by converting his jab into a potent left hook followed by a right cross, exploiting Ngannou’s defensive holes. Joshua may adopt a similar feint game, but with a twist — incorporating his authoritative jab to follow up on the feints. Unlike Fury’s floating jab technique, Joshua’s jab is forceful and commanding, serving to both push back opponents and assert control in the ring.

Joshua’s jab is like a long stick, powerful enough to immobilize his opponents momentarily. This brief pause lets AJ unleash his deadly right cross with both feet planted firmly on the canvas, executing his most lethal combination, the 1-2. While Ngannou’s chin will face a test as Joshua is a bigger puncher than Fury, Ngannou has endured many hard punches from a 4-ounce gloves in the UFC cage. And we’ve seen Joshua knocked down by a far less powerful puncher than Ngannou, Andy Ruiz Jr., who stopped the former unified champ in 2019.

Despite AJ’s impressive physical and mental condition now, the power of Ngannou’s punch cannot be overlooked. It only takes one to overturn any Joshua dominance in the fight. Even when Joshua is in control, Ngannou is a persistent threat until the final bell. AJ must proceed carefully and be mindful that a hurt Ngannou remains lethal and is capable of mounting a counterattack at any moment. Ngannou reminds me of Kimbo Slice, but with a more sophisticated understanding of combat. He is like a formidable street fighter turned professional boxer. His performance against Fury showcased his inner bully and grits, traits likely to resurface against Joshua.

Ngannou should physically engage Joshua and use head controls, arm locks and pull-downs to unleash sneaky uppercuts and body shots, just as he did against Fury. Surprisingly, Ngannou managed to outmaneuver Fury at times, using lateral footwork and sharp timing to land shots. Even if Fury wasn’t at his best, Ngannou had him second-guessing, and Fury was unable to find a successful strategy and a comfortable rhythm. In this fight, Ngannou should apply pressure and force an inside fight, where he can wear down Joshua with his bruising, hard shots. With the hardest punch ever recorded at the UFC Performance Institute to his name, Ngannou is bound to take his toll, whether his punches land on Joshua’s arms, body or head.

Who wins?

The outcome of this fight will likely be determined by who can better withstand the other’s power. Doubting Joshua’s ability to outperform Ngannou isn’t easy, given that determination is an intangible quality, observed rather than measured. The winner will emerge through timing, intelligence, power, punch resistance and sheer determination. If Ngannou’s timing against Fury is anything to go by, he will likely find the moment to land the knockout punch on Joshua. I’m taking the underdog here, Francis Ngannou.

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