By Elliot Worsell
ALTHOUGH for weeks we looked for the best and most disparaging terms to describe tonight’s (October 28) heavyweight spectacle in Saudi Arabia between Tyson Fury and Francis Ngannou, by focusing solely on its potential to disappoint – or, at best, amuse – we were all wide of the mark. For it was not, despite our expectations, a travelling circus or a comedy act or a freakshow, but instead, thanks only to the performance of Francis Ngannou, something more akin to a bullfight; a bullfight, that is, in which the bull has not been sufficiently disorientated beforehand, or weakened by tranquilisers, and therefore still has enough about him to shock the matador and gore him, puncture an organ, and leave him crawling back to base with his tail between his legs.
In such an event, it is hard not to say to yourself, “Well, serves the matador right.” In Madrid, in 2018, for example, I witnessed something not far from that (albeit considerably less dramatic), and wondered as I did whether the joy I felt when seeing the matador get his comeuppance levelled out the shame I felt for watching this kind of “sport” in the first place. Either way, it would be a lie to say there wasn’t something glorious about seeing the tables turned and something so planned and choreographed, if still admittedly dangerous, go so wrong in view of a paying, bloodthirsty public.
A similar thing happened with Fury in Riyadh. He, like an unprepared matador, found himself sharing a ring with a bull in the form of Francis Ngannou who was stronger than he expected, more powerful than he expected, and too raw and ignorant to understand that in this rigged game ceding is not a weakness but the preference; the done thing.
More than that, Fury was tonight in with a bull who refused to be controlled, let alone tamed, which meant his movements were hard to read, predict and counteract. His timing was different, for instance, at least compared to other boxers Fury may have fought, and he also threw punches in moments during which most heavyweights, again in Fury’s experience, would think twice. In all, to try to understand Ngannou, or get to grips with him, became increasingly difficult for Fury once the rulebook had been torn up and all he was able to do was attempt to communicate with a fighter from another discipline in a language wholly different than his own.
This, in truth, was abundantly clear from as early as round two. Already, by that stage, Fury looked anything but comfortable in the presence of Ngannou and already Ngannou was letting his hands go without any fear of what may come back. A testament simply to his toughness, perhaps, what was also plain to see as the fight wore on was that Fury had nothing with which he could hurt Ngannou, whereas Ngannou, a man who before tonight had never thrown a punch in a professional boxing ring, was unsettling Fury with every blow he landed.
That, of all of the shocks in Saudi Arabia, was perhaps the greatest. It was also one punctuated in round three when Ngannou, coming out of an exchange, clipped Fury with a left hook around the top of the head to send the WBC heavyweight champion to the canvas for the seventh time in his professional career.
Point made, he needn’t have done much more than that, yet Ngannou, to his credit, then continued going after Fury in the subsequent rounds and landed plenty more punches he shouldn’t have been able to land given the disparity in levels of boxing experience.
That he was able to land these punches says as much about Ngannou’s bravery as anything else, for not once did the Cameroonian, a former UFC heavyweight champion, look to cruise, hide in clinches, or react to Fury’s efforts to get the pace to drop or, even better, his opponent to take it easy. Game face on at all times, Ngannou of course had his limitations as a boxer, but on account of the raw ingredients he displayed, both mental and physical, one was left to wonder what he could have become if, on his crazy journey to mixed martial arts stardom, he had instead pursued boxing as a youngster, as was his original plan.
Now 37, Ngannou’s future in boxing, if he wants one, won’t be long and probably won’t be full of titles, either. But still, there can be no arguing that for 10 rounds in Riyadh he was performing on even terms with Tyson Fury and that, at times, it was him, of the two, who looked more in control, more comfortable in the situation, and more determined to prevent the fight going to the scorecards. That, in light of the context, and in light of how we, as a sport, view Tyson Fury, is nothing short of remarkable. If only in the eyes of one judge, he event beat Fury tonight (Ed Garner had him winning 95-94, while the other judges, Alan Kreb and Juan Carlos Pelayo, had it 95-94 and 96-93 to Fury) and that alone should forever be a source of pride for a man ridiculed beforehand – not only by his opponent but all who exploited his name, inexperience and limitations for their own financial gain.
As for Fury, one must ask whether the reality of being clowned in a so-called circus event was his penance for treating boxing as little more than a sideshow for the last 18 months. Far from being at his best, only so much of what we saw from Fury tonight can be attributed to him being underprepared, if just mentally more than physically. Because the greater truth is that Fury has been operating on autopilot for some time now and has seemingly found power and comfort in having everything on his terms (both inside the ring and outside the ring). This, as a result, can often create in a man a level of contempt and entitlement, shaken only by another man, or opponent, whose goal is entirely at odds with his own. In Francis Ngannou, 0-1 (0), Fury may well have found that man.
Which is to say, although, on the face of it, the idea of Fury now fighting Oleksandr Usyk on December 23, or on any other date, seems riskier than ever, it could also be exactly what Tyson Fury, 34-0-1 (24), needs to get serious again. For there has been nothing serious about Fury for the past 18 months. He has, in fact, thrived in a circus of his own making and, until tonight, been able to book, control and discipline each of the performers and animals he has used to bring him both money and attention. Indeed, only tonight, when a bull stormed the circus tent and nobody knew the correct way to control it, did Fury realise the one commonality between boxing and mixed martial arts and the one trump card a fighter can use when crossing the divide is this: hunger. If you have it, you can bridge certain gaps, within reason. Without it, meanwhile, you are not only underprepared but you are weakened and vulnerable, just one wrong move away from becoming the matador whose moment of crisis is celebrated by spectators, each of them thinking to themselves, Yeah, well, he had it coming, didn’t he?