By Elliot Worsell

PERHAPS the only thing stranger than the sight of Francis Ngannou dropping Tyson Fury and giving him all he could handle for 10 rounds was how quickly a cynical spectacle like that – to put it kindly – was then excused and glorified in the aftermath.

Suddenly, despite the fight being roundly and rightly criticised beforehand, all you had were apologists; people eager to give Ngannou his due credit and concede they were wrong to have ridiculed him and his chances; people who said they had now learned not to write off any “fighter”, even those who have never before boxed.

It was, in summary, a rather bizarre reaction to a rather bizarre fight. Worse, this overcompensating, knee-jerk reaction did nothing to deter fights of that ilk from happening again in the future. In fact, by virtue of reneging on your original stance – a strong one, and the right one – and inferring that everything was now all right because Ngannou impressed you and shocked Fury, you encouraged more of the same.

Yet it didn’t have to be that way. Instead, two things can be true at once: firstly, it is true that Ngannou shone and came ever so close to beating Fury on his pro debut, and secondly, it is true that the idea of Ngannou fighting world-class heavyweights should have both begun and ended there on October 28.

But why, you might ask, should that be the case if Ngannou managed to drop Fury and almost beat him? In answer to that I would say this: because the “spectacle” aspect of these fights – some prefer the term “freak show” – cannot simply be eradicated due to how well the unwelcome guest does in the fight itself. Indeed, the original issue is not with the guest at all but instead what the guest represents.

Ideally, rather than watching famous people live out a fantasy for loads of money, we want to be watching world-class boxing between world-class boxers on a regular basis. What we definitely don’t want are fights between world-class boxers and mixed martial artists, regardless of the physical strength of the mixed martial artist in question, and regardless of how beloved he is by rich and powerful men in the Middle East.

Promote it as much you want, and appropriately pitch it as some kind of video game (“Knockout Chaos” is the tagline), but the only question raised when contemplating Friday’s (March 8) 10-round heavyweight fight between Ngannou, 0-1 (0), and Anthony Joshua, 27-3 (23), is this: Why?

It’s not a fight anyone was calling for, even after Ngannou, 37, impressed against Fury, nor is it a fight anyone really needs to see in 2024. That doesn’t mean it won’t be fun, or that Ngannou won’t have success, but still, like Fury vs. Ngannou, it feels like a sporting spectacle with innumerable asterisks attached to it. It’s both real and not real. It both means something and doesn’t. It both impacts the heavyweight division and smacks of exhibition.

Joshua and Ngannou during filming for ‘Face Off’ on DAZN (Mark Robinson Matchroom Boxing)

For Joshua, that’s seemingly not an issue. Now 34, he appears to know his place in the division and while there is talk of another run at the world heavyweight title he can also see the financial sense in taking a bout like this in the meantime. In fairness to Joshua, too, this fight, very much a stopgap, comes just three months after his last one, a December stoppage of Otto Wallin, and follows a year in which he fought three times. It is not, in other words, something he has been building towards for very long, nor something that slows him down or gets in the way. He has been busy enough to have at least “earned” a spectacle fight like this – maybe – and will presumably be targeting more serious jobs for the summer.

As for Ngannou, who six months ago Eddie Hearn, Joshua’s promoter, told us would lose against Southern Arena champion Johnny Fisher, Friday’s fight is yet another no-lose proposition. With expectation still fairly low, albeit not quite as low as when fighting Fury, any success Ngannou has against Joshua will be roundly celebrated and perhaps, as was the case against Fury, exaggerated to some extent, too. Lose badly, meanwhile, and Ngannou will simply do what many expected him to do before fighting Fury: return to mixed martial arts and see out his fighting days there. (In fact, with him now promoted by the Professional Fighters League [PFL] and in line to fight Renan Ferreira for some “super” belt, there is already talk of Ngannou having his next fight in MMA.)

For now, though, we must treat Ngannou as we did in October; that is, as a boxer. We must consider his abilities with a straight face – easier to do now, of course – and we must view him as a live threat to Joshua in Riyadh despite having not won a professional fight. This time, thankfully, we do at least have 10 rounds as proof of what Ngannou can do in a boxing ring and we should also feel encouraged to know these 10 rounds were against a fighter in Fury who many feel is a heavyweight better than Anthony Joshua.

That Ngannou held his own with Fury that night can only reflect well on the Cameroonian. After all, with many predicting he would fold and fold early, Ngannou not only confounded these doubters on the night but offered Fury problems he had never previously encountered in his 16-year professional career. For Ngannou to achieve that alone, when deemed beforehand to be basic and a man of limited skill, was both the story of the fight and the mark of true success for the former UFC heavyweight champion.

In terms of how and why this happened, a lot can probably be attributed to Ngannou’s MMA career – this thing so many of us downplayed beforehand. Presumably that was what enabled Ngannou to physically manhandle Fury whenever in close and outwork him in spots where Fury was more interested in escaping than punching. It was also his time in MMA that had Ngannou viewing Fury’s pokes and prods – relatively speaking – as nothing much at all; certainly nothing to compare with being kicked in the head, caught with elbows, or subjected to ground-and-pound with an opponent in full mount. Indeed, there were moments in the Fury vs. Ngannou fight in which it appeared as though what we were watching was man against boy, just not in the way we expected to see the roles play out. Fury, yes, possessed all the ring craft and the experience, yet it was Ngannou who appeared the real “fighter” of the two; the one who pushed the pace, wanted to engage, and ultimately landed the heavier and more eye-catching blows.

Francis Ngannou and Tyson Fury exchange punches (FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images)

He didn’t win the fight, however. That was true not only according to two of the three judges but also those who watched the fight and refused to be completely engulfed by its unexpected nature. For although Ngannou certainly won rounds against Fury, and won the third (the round in which he dropped Fury) big, he still didn’t do quite enough to win the majority of them, nor build on that breakthrough moment in round three and put Fury in similar trouble in the subsequent rounds. It wasn’t for want of trying, but in the end Fury’s experience and nous did eventually get him over the line and let him leave the ring with his unbeaten record intact, albeit with his tail between his legs.

Now, of course, we must look at Ngannou as a contender – a boxing contender – rather than a fall guy oblivious to his fate. Whether he’s a worthy contender in the context of this next fight is up for debate, but clearly it is difficult to watch what Ngannou did against Fury, a man viewed by some as the world’s best heavyweight, and not give him the respect of saying that on that night he was far from out of place.

Which begs the question: If Ngannou showed he belongs in the ring against Tyson Fury four months ago, who’s to say he doesn’t belong in the ring against Anthony Joshua on Friday? Chances are we will discover – again – that he does belong, at least in a performance sense (maybe that’s all that matters), and this will then lead to additional boxing matches for Ngannou in the future. Indeed, it might even be considered a shock now if Ngannou finds himself overwhelmed and blasted out by Joshua early, which in itself is a sign of how opinion has shifted and how much Ngannou’s stock has grown. It also speaks to the weird paradox at work here, where on the one hand Ngannou has shown he is tough enough to live with world-class heavyweights, but, on the other, has done absolutely nothing to deserve being thrown in at this level in the first place.

Still, it’s happening and therefore we must treat it as a boxing match. There should be some intrigue, too, particularly now that we know Ngannou can handle himself and has no fear of elite heavyweights, irrespective of their reputation or experience. He won’t have to go chasing so much with Joshua, either, which will not only be music to his ears but present him with opportunities harder to find against Fury. They might come early rather than late, before tiredness sets in, but Ngannou seemingly has no issue starting fast and will likely attack Joshua with the same intensity with which he attacked Fury last year.

If true, this approach may then play into Joshua’s hands, of course, for the Londoner loves nothing more than an opponent with a leaky defence and a desire to get close. It is in that situation Joshua’s combination punching tends to flourish and he starts to resemble the destroyer his build and athleticism suggests he should be every time he fights. In those moments you will find that he commits more to his punches, and to the finish, than someone like Fury, for example. You will also discover his variety of punches, when committing, is superior to Fury’s, with them coming one after another and typically from different angles.

That element may take Ngannou by surprise; before he knows it, he may have received something big and be staring up at the lights. Yet, equally, there is every chance he receives something big, as he did now and again versus Fury, and simply soaks it up and keeps marching forward, undeterred. Because let’s face it, of all the things Francis Ngannou proved against Fury, and of all the things future Ngannou opponents need to be wary of, it’s his grit and his toughness and his scary ability to attack with no fear of what is coming back at him.

This becomes even more of an attribute, and adds even greater intrigue, when in the ring against someone like Joshua. He, after all, is a heavyweight who gains a lot of his confidence and momentum from making a dent in his opponent, especially in the early going, and sometimes panics and soon tires if the feeling of him landing his best shot is followed only by the sight of his opponent motioning for him to try again – harder this time.

With Ngannou, it is easy to see this scenario occurring, at which point we will then wait to assess how Joshua responds. Either he will struggle with the disrespect and reach a state of exhaustion due to both this and Ngannou’s incredible strength, or, and this is more likely, he will accept the invite and deliver Ngannou a repeat prescription until he is too woozy to ask for more. It may take 10 rounds to quieten him down completely, but in a boxing match one has to back Joshua to beat any mixed martial artist.