By Steve Bunce

ON MONDAY Tyson Fury sent a message and it was as predictable as the slow right hand that he threw in round three against Francis Ngannou.

Fury suggested that Ngannou should get on his knees and kiss his feet for the opportunity that he gave him last October. Remember, in that crazy fight, Ngannou danced as Fury climbed to his knees.

Ngannou, the king from the other code, had the perfect reply to both: Just 17 weeks ago he countered the sloppy right and dropped Fury, and on the red carpet, here in the Greek section of the neon Boulevard, he thanked Fury. The big lad, that’s Ngannou, drags around a fair bit of dignity.

The event to launch the week was a nice mixture of the glitz associated with the Saudis and enough old-school scrappers from the British boxing business to keep it very real. I never thought I would see Tony Borg waiting by an ornate fountain for a very large car to pick up him and Gavin Gwynne. On the back of the car was a sticker: GG O3. I guess that means that Team Gwynne had three giant, black four-wheel drive motors. A minimum of three, I guess. An hour later, stuck in a late, late night Riyadh jam, a car went by that had AJ 08 plastered on the back window. That sounds about right.

Bunce with Joshua

Thankfully, Gypsy John Fury got it right on Monday night. There were no topless entries, threats and challenges. Instead, John arrived in the only black wool polo being worn anywhere in the Middle East and was charming. That is, trust me, a better version of Gypsy John; funny, father, grandfather, scrapyard veteran and retired professional boxer. OK, and felon, I’m not trying to reinvent history, just offer an alternative.

“I’m my son’s harshest critic,” he warned, when talking of Tyson Fury’s latest social media posts. “He’s in a great shape.” And John is right and he is also a valid, insightful critic. He was developing into a top pundit before a few wayward remarks ended that little journey. It was a pity. Sadly, the knowledge gets lost once he starts challenging the world and swearing and stripping off.

And in this odd new world, the Medway Mauler, aka Louis Greene, treads the same red carpet route as Joshua and a few other rich giants. Greene then does the rounds, talks to the television people and the gathered locals. There is no escaping that line of microphones on the latest balmy night of Saudi boxing. The local media are, obviously, endlessly polite. They nod and ask nice questions as Zhilei Zhang and his translator make their way from one side to the other. Zhang raises a fist and offers a few “get Zhanged” soundbites. The local media love Ziyad Almanyouf. He is a real Saudi, a boxer before the revolution.

Joseph Parker, who is always the nicest man in town, seemed to be bouncing between guests at a wedding reception where there was a serious threat of violence. He was everywhere, shaking hands, hugging Joshua, smiling and just being Joe. In December, Wilder and his gang fell for the nice guy version. I watched bits of that fight with Parker recently in Dublin, and Wilder took a hiding in a lot of rounds.

Dewey Cooper, the man training Ngannou in the boxing arts, still looks like he needs to pinch himself. An hour after I landed I was interviewing Ngannou, and Cooper was down the other end of the stage taking selfies of himself with a big grin on his face. Why not? He was part of something to be proud of last October.

Ngannou found a story from his vaults about an old man with a walking stick, an even older motorbike and a journey the pair took. Ngannou then took the pair of us back to a long ago day on a long, hot African afternoon. We were on the stage, under the Saudi neon, but Ngannou had drifted back to his homeland. The theme of the story was: “What have you got to moan about?” It was a beauty of a tale. The story is about the life and times and tribulations of the old man with the cane. The man told Ngannou the story as they took a very long journey to the man’s home. The man gripping the fighter and talking in his ear as the night fell. Ngannou never charged him. Also, Ngannou never told me the story – it was a story about a story without the story. That sounds like boxing to me.

“And that is why,” he told me. “I’m happy and smile.” The little stories, real-life tales and the experiences are what make boxers interesting. But remember, not everyone with a story has a story. Ngannou has stories and so does Joshua; both have seen the extremes and looked long and hard at the alternatives.

“I was just listening to an interview we did 14 years ago,” Joshua told me, by way of greeting. That was at a time in his life when he could just about see a future with his fists; it was distant time and there were obstacles, but he could see that boxing might transform his life. He could start to dream of Olympic selection, he could dream of changing his life and everybody else he cared for. It was still a dream.

It’s weird, but Ngannou’s story was also, so he told me, set 14 years ago. This has got a One Day feel to it. What a contrast: Ngannou scraping a living taking pennies from people for a journey on the back of his old bike and Joshua, the other side of the world, but on the same side of the tracks, dreaming of a life he thought was out of reach. They both made it with their fists, their wits and their ambition. They scrapped wrecked bikes and tags and barriers and ignored critics to get to the latest stretch of red carpet. The grand arrival was just part of their journey.

There is a lot more happening at a red-carpet shindig in Riyadh than meets the eye.