Tyson Fury kept his undefeated record intact, but the star of the show on Saturday night was Francis Ngannou. The MMA heavyweight, who narrowly lost to arguably the best boxing heavyweight of his generation by split decision, simultaneously put boxing’s heavyweight division on notice while making himself one of the biggest attractions in all of combat sports. Marc Raimondi, Michael Coppinger and Brett Okamoto hit on what’s next for Fury and Ngannou while highlighting the biggest takeaways from a drama-filled and action-packed night in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Ngannou seizes the moment, proves his doubters wrong
Raimondi: Ngannou signed with PFL on May 16, months after leaving the UFC on bad terms. He was a rarity in MMA, a fighter who departed the UFC while still being a sitting undisputed champion. Ngannou was the UFC heavyweight titleholder. But he didn’t see eye-to-eye with the promotion on his combat sports future.
When Ngannou’s contract with PFL was announced, it received a lukewarm reaction. Yes, it was lucrative and had some interesting perks, like an equity role in PFL’s expansion into his home continent of Africa. But for MMA fans, it was met with skepticism. Ngannou wouldn’t fight in PFL for almost another year, and there were no apparent, high-profile opponents for him on the roster. He had not fought in MMA since January 2022.
A phrase started to emerge on social media. Fans felt like Ngannou, based on the quotes of UFC CEO Dana White, turned down money that would have made him the highest-paid heavyweight in UFC history. Many said Ngannou “fumbled the bag.” In other words, he had the opportunity to earn an incredible amount of cash and threw it out the window.
One day, people will stop doubting Ngannou, the man who left squalor in his native Cameroon and overcame time spent in a Spanish prison and being homeless on the streets of Paris to achieve athletic glory. Maybe that day was Saturday, after one of the most remarkable performances in the history of combat sports.
Ngannou lost a split decision in a boxing match with Fury, the lineal boxing heavyweight champion, that was a loss in record only. Ngannou, making his pro boxing debut, dropped Fury with a left hook in the third round and stood and boxed with the all-time great through the fight’s final bell in the 10th, nearly pulling off the upset. Fury barely won on the scorecards. Ngannou was poised and strategic, changing to southpaw midway through the fight. He wasn’t the bull-in-a-china-shop power puncher fans had seen in many of his UFC fights. Ngannou boxed with skill, finesse and smarts, clearly shocking Fury on several occasions with just how good he was and how much he had prepared. Ngannou’s coaches, Eric Nicksick and Dewey Cooper (and, of course, Mike Tyson), deserve a ton of credit, as well. Fury didn’t show them anything they had not practiced.
In an era where MMA greats have had difficulty beating YouTuber Jake Paul in boxing, Ngannou came within inches of beating the best heavyweight on the planet. Fury had cuts and bruising on his face afterward. Ngannou didn’t have a mark on him. It was one of the most awe-inspiring performances in the long history of boxing. While there were a lot of hyperbolic statements made this week in Saudi Arabia, that one is not included.
Win or lose, Ngannou was going to make a ton of money Saturday, somewhere in the range of $10 million. That’s exponentially more than he made in his UFC fights. Just getting the fight with Fury, a massive name and excellent boxer, was a victory for Ngannou. He won before he even stepped in the ring, which, by the way, rose from below the arena during a Lil’ Baby musical performance before the main event.
Anything else was going to be gravy. Now, Ngannou’s plate is full. He has his deal with PFL for a pay-per-view MMA main event next year that will pay him well. Opponent to be determined. After Saturday, Ngannou will surely have suitors on the boxing side, too. He fought competitively with Fury, so why wouldn’t there be a market for him against other big-name heavyweights like Anthony Joshua or Deontay Wilder?
The next big boxing heavyweight star happens to be an MMA fighter who stepped in the ring for the first time at age 37. Who knew? Well, Ngannou did.
In September 2022, the UFC held its first show in France and Ngannou was in attendance. This was before the messy split. I had a chance to talk with the then-champ after the ceremonial weigh-ins, and he was pretty emotional.
Ngannou told me that just down the street from where we were — at the Accor Arena in Paris — was the Parc de Bercy. It was the place Ngannou walked to every morning while homeless to wash his face and brush his teeth. A few blocks from the arena was the parking garage where he slept at night.
That was only about 10 years ago. This week, Ngannou carried a designer duffel that read “fumbled the bag” on the side. Tyson was in his corner Saturday night. The other Tyson’s butt was on the mat. And the kid who started working at a sand quarry at age 10 in his small village of Batié achieved combat sports immortality.
There’s no doubting Ngannou any longer.
Fury wins, but leaves room for doubters as Usyk awaits title fight
Coppinger: Fury sat on the ring mat in Saudi Arabia with a bewildered look. Surely, he wondered if this was all a dream. Fury is no stranger to the canvas; he entered the fight having been knocked down six times in his previous 34 fights. Four of those knockdowns were produced by the right hand of Wilder, perhaps the biggest puncher in heavyweight boxing championship history, during their trilogy.
But now, Fury was on the deck in Round 3 of his bout vs. Ngannou. The fight had appeared to be a glorified warm-up for Oleksandr Usyk, whom Fury already signed to meet later this year for the undisputed heavyweight championship.
After all, the bout with Ngannou wasn’t for Fury’s WBC heavyweight title, and it was 10 rounds, not 12. And while Ngannou is the former UFC heavyweight champion, he was making his pro boxing debut.
There was curiosity surrounding Fury-Ngannou, to be sure. Mostly, it revolved around how seriously Fury would take it. Would Fury carry Ngannou for a few rounds and then knock him out as Floyd Mayweather appeared to do in his fight with Conor McGregor in 2017?
How could Fury avoid an injury that would delay his planned Dec. 23 matchup with Usyk? In which round would Fury score his sixth consecutive knockout?
Instead, Fury found himself on the canvas in Round 3, courtesy of a counter left hook from Ngannou that landed on the temple.
“That definitely wasn’t in the script,” Fury said. “… He’s a very awkward man, and he’s a good puncher, and I respect him a lot. … He’s given me probably one of my toughest fights in the last 10 years.”
Now, Fury must deal with the disappointment of his performance, even in victory. And yes, he made tens of millions of dollars for this star-studded event. He remains the lineal and WBC heavyweight champion. And yes, his fight with Usyk — perhaps the biggest in boxing — remains intact. “It will be our next fight, guaranteed,” said Fury.
The deal to fight Usyk for the undisputed championship, what was set to be a rare meeting of heavyweights on the pound-for-pound list, contains a two-way rematch clause, virtually ensuring the pair will have two fights in Saudi Arabia.
But what is Fury’s form now, at 35, following surgeries to his elbows, a punishing trilogy with Wilder and all the wear and tear of carrying around 270-plus pounds and being punched in the face by a similarly sized man? It’s likely Fury will fall from the pound-for-pound list after this performance.
And now, Usyk could be favored to defeat Fury, too. Usyk was ringside and watched as Fury flailed at Ngannou and was confused by his awkward style. You know who’s even more awkward and more experienced? Usyk, of course.
The southpaw is a master of angles, an Olympic gold medalist boxer from Ukraine who also won the undisputed cruiserweight championship. Usyk showed in two wins over Joshua that he could perform at heavyweight and carry heavyweight power.
Perhaps Fury didn’t take Ngannou seriously. Who could blame him, with a fight already signed with Usyk? But Fury insisted he had a hard 12-week training camp for Ngannou and made no excuses.
Ngannou is seemingly far better than anyone anticipated. But Fury, at the top of his game, still should have handled him. And he’ll have to be at his best if he’s going to solve the Usyk puzzle.
Despite Fury’s razor-thin decision win over Ngannou, the bout against Usyk remains the biggest in boxing. It might be even bigger now that Fury showed this much vulnerability.
Usyk is waiting, whether it’s Dec. 23 or sometime next year, and his chances seem better than ever to hand Fury his first pro loss. Fury’s stock took a major hit with this shocking performance.
The good news for Fury: He’ll have the chance to erase it all with a pair of fights against Usyk.
Fury-Ngannou was a fight, party, spectacle and one-of-a-kind experience
Okamoto: I have covered a lot of events in combat sports, including “spectacles” like Mayweather vs. McGregor, but I have genuinely never seen anything like this. The impact of Saudi Arabia’s money into combat sports, and sports in general, throws every rule and limitation we’ve ever known about events out the window.
Saturday was a mix of so many stars from so many various worlds. On the red carpet, you had Vince McMahon and The Undertaker on one side and Kanye West and Eminem on the other. All of boxing royalty was in attendance. Soccer’s galacticos — Ronaldo (R9), Cristiano Ronaldo (CR7) and Luis Figo — were there. Lil’ Baby, Becky G and Skrillex performed. Conor McGregor even showed up — on time.
And one got the feeling that Saturday is just the beginning. McMahon couldn’t help but take credit for starting this trend with the WWE. The UFC is headed to Saudi for the first time in March. The region is bought in on sports, and that seems unlikely to change anytime soon. And as long as the Saudis are willing to throw the party, the guests will come. Saturday’s event took place in an arena that was constructed around the clock in just 60 days. The Crown Prince of Saudi oversaw the ring from his private luxury box, over every other seat in the house. The decor of that box was similar to something one might see at a five-star spa.
Fury-Ngannou was a fight, sure. But it was also a show. A party. It’s easy to create an atmosphere of high energy when you combine so many successful personalities in one room and spend that kind of money on hosting the event. And again, as that continues, the guest list will remain full. I’ll return to my first statement on this, which I heard repeated by many others all week — the world has never seen anything quite like this.