Less than 90 days ago, Francis Ngannou had never stepped through the ropes for a professional boxing match.
We knew Ngannou possessed crushing power, but that was all displayed in the Octagon, where he reigned as UFC heavyweight champion.
The 37-year-old was viewed as little more than a worthy dance partner for a boxing superfight heading into his October meeting with Tyson Fury.
However, Ngannou showed he was far more than that when he dropped the heavyweight boxing champion in Round 3 and even won the fight on one of the three scorecards.
Now, Ngannou has an incredible opportunity to prove the performance was no fluke when he faces former heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua on March 8 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Truly, what Ngannou is doing is unprecedented: his first two professional boxing matches will take place vs. future Hall of Famers, who are still among the sport’s heavyweight elite.
Joshua looked his best in years when he stopped Otto Wallin in five rounds last month. Can he build upon his resurgent 2023 campaign? Will Ngannou shock the world again? Let’s take an early look at the key storylines for Joshua vs. Ngannou:
Ngannou looks to prove performance vs. Fury was no fluke
When you break it down, it’s quite stunning how effective Ngannou was against Fury. Fury entered the bout a -1400 favorite, but looked confused at times and unable to find his timing.
The Cameroonian showed a keen sense of range control with his jab, pairing that with his power and awkward style to make Fury hesitant to attack. Ngannou also showed the ability to place his punches. His left hook landed on Fury’s temple for the sole knockdown of the bout.
Now, how much of that success was due to Fury? He’s the best heavyweight in the world — a status he’ll look to cement when he meets Oleksandr Usyk on Feb. 17 in Riyadh — but maybe Fury didn’t take Ngannou seriously.
Fury swears he trained hard for 12 weeks to prepare for Ngannou, but his father said otherwise. Even if he did train properly, it’s plausible he underestimated Ngannou.
There’s little chance Joshua will make the same mistake after the way Ngannou boxed. And now there’s 10 rounds of Ngannou boxing tape for Joshua and trainer Ben Davison to study.
Often in combat sports, young fighters find success until opponents and coaches can study their weaknesses. If Ngannou can trouble Joshua — let alone defeat him — there’s no doubt he’s for real.
If Ngannou springs the upset, he’s a title contender. What if he loses?
It depends on how he loses. Consensus fan opinion suggested Ngannou deserved the decision against Fury. He also won the fight on one scorecard. And even if he didn’t, flooring “The Gypsy King” was a win in and of itself.
In his second boxing match, more will be expected of Ngannou. If he drops another spirited decision, there’s no doubt he’s a bona fide heavyweight contender.
If he loses a wide decision but is competitive, he’ll still be a contender and, with his name recognition, should find his way to another lucrative boxing match.
But if he’s uncompetitive over 10 rounds or is knocked out early, it could spell the end of Ngannou’s amazing run.
And if he pulls off the shocker and defeats Joshua, then Ngannou will be in line for a crack at the winner of Fury-Usyk and another meaningful bout in the meantime, whether it’s Zhilei Zhang, Deontay Wilder or Joseph Parker.
Speaking of Wilder, wasn’t he supposed to fight Joshua in March?
Indeed he was. Wilder and Joshua even struck a deal ahead of their Dec. 23 doubleheader that featured them in separate bouts.
Wilder, one of the most vaunted punchers in heavyweight history, was a -700 favorite to defeat Parker. Instead, Parker won every round and was the one who threatened to score the KO.
In the main event, Joshua handled business when he fractured the nose of Wallin — who gave Fury all he could handle in 2019 — to remain on the Saudi Arabia card.
The deal was contingent on both Joshua and Wilder winning, so organizers turned to Ngannou following Wilder’s loss.
What does this fight mean for Joshua?
Joshua was all but written off after back-to-back losses to Usyk in 2021 and 2022. There’s no shame in losing to a fighter the likes of Usyk, but boxing is a cruel business, and it wasn’t just those two losses.
Really, Joshua hasn’t looked the same since his shocking 2019 loss to Andy Ruiz Jr. Before that bout, Joshua was a seek-and-destroy fighter with tremendous power. After winning the Olympic gold medal in 2012, he quickly won the heavyweight title and made some quality defenses.
Namely, he rallied from a knockdown to knockout Hall of Famer Wladimir Klitschko in ESPN’s 2017 Fight of the Year and easily outpointed Parker the following year.
Joshua also regained his titles from Ruiz in December 2019, but he did so with a cautious, safety-first boxing approach that left fans wanting more. And over his next few fights, Joshua wasn’t much more aggressive, which was likely the remnants of his TKO loss to Ruiz.
“He knows that he is vulnerable and he knows that he can get hurt and dropped and stopped and lose fights,” Wallin told ESPN ahead of their fight. ” … What made him good was that he was aggressive, good puncher and seeking a stoppage type of guy. But he’s changed a lot and he’s lost some of what made him good.”
But against Wallin, Joshua was once again aggressive. He sought the stoppage and showed off his power. He battered Wallin with his jab, broke his nose and forced him to retire on his stool following Round 5.
It’s little coincidence the performance came in Joshua’s third fight of 2023. Activity is vital in boxing. The win also came in his first fight, with Davison leading his corner.
Now, a confident and rejuvenated Joshua has his chance to prove he’s truly back with a dominant performance vs. Ngannou that should set him up for a future fight with Fury.
Joshua is ESPN’s No. 3 heavyweight behind Fury and Usyk.