RARE is to have two heavyweight fights topping a bill and for the four men involved to all be relatively quiet and subdued and, well, pleasant.

Typically in this scenario there would be at least one braggart, or showman, or salesman, and it would be on their shoulders the event would be carried. There would, in an ideal world, be a rivalry, too, meaning a couple of the heavyweights would have history or be simply willing to fake some animosity in order to have people show an interest in the fight.

None of this is true of Friday’s (March 8) event in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, however. Instead, we have in Anthony Joshua, Francis Ngannou, Zhilei Zhang and Joseph Parker four heavyweights who conduct themselves impeccably and feel no need to misbehave, act out of character, or spin a yarn. Fortunate in that respect – in so far as they are getting paid handsomely regardless of what happens – these four heavyweights are free to stroll around Riyadh like tourists rather than fighters and can focus solely on boxing; that is, their business.

In many ways, you could argue that this is how boxing should be, with the emphasis on the competition aspect rather than the selling aspect. But of course these four heavyweights will be only too aware that Friday is a rare exception and that traditionally more would be required from them in terms of the selling of their fights and their own individual publicity.

For now, though, they are excused from this responsibility and the atmosphere benefits as a result. We can, as fans, focus not on what they say to each other but what they do to each other on fight night: Joshua against Ngannou, and Ngannou against Joshua; Zhang against Parker, and Parker against Zhang. We can also assess the fights without being influenced or swayed by the hype and nonsense, so often a symptom of the sales push when fights aren’t blessed by Middle East money (and when revenue is an irrelevance).


IMPORTANCE

Joshua vs. Ngannou: This fight you feel is more important for one heavyweight than it is for the other. Which is to say, Ngannou, a mixed martial artist by trade, can afford to lose, just as he did against Tyson Fury in October, whereas Joshua, the actual boxer with ambitions to fight for the heavyweight title, cannot contemplate such a thing. It’s a very peculiar fight in that sense.

Zhang vs. Parker: Certainly, if we’re talking global relevance, this carries far more meaning than Joshua vs. Ngannou, which still feels like an exhibition bout regardless of Ngannou’s heroics against Fury last year. In these two, Zhang and Parker, you have genuine top 10 heavyweight contenders, with the winner as good as guaranteed a slot as challenger in an upcoming world heavyweight title fight.

WINNER: ZHANG VS. PARKER

Zhilei Zhang outboxes Joe Joyce at OVO Arena Wembley on September 23, 2023 in London, England (Stephen Pond/Getty Images)


STORY

Joshua vs. Ngannou: The story with this fight is less about Joshua’s role in it and more about Ngannou and how his role has changed entirely in the space of just six months. In October, he was deemed an irrelevance, someone whose dalliance with boxing would be short and sad, yet now he is all of a sudden a major player in the sport, someone Joshua was desperate to fight. Compelling or not, that makes it a story at least.

Zhang vs. Parker: Not unlike Joshua vs. Ngannou, this fight between Zhang and Parker seems to have arrived by accident, having never been planned or even predicted. Indeed, were it not for Parker upsetting Deontay Wilder in December, there is every chance he would be watching this event at home or from a ringside seat, with either Wilder in his place, or, more likely, Wilder fighting Joshua in the main event.

WINNER: JOSHUA VS. NGANNOU

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


SKILLS

Joshua vs. Ngannou: Regardless of how you felt Ngannou performed against Fury on his pro debut, there can be no denying he has a lot of ground to make up as far as skills go. He bridged this gap rather admirably with toughness and strength in October, but there is always the chance, so inexperienced is the Cameroonian, that an opponent such as Joshua might expose his flaws in the cruellest way possible.

Zhang vs. Parker: One could argue that Zhang, a decorated amateur and a southpaw whose speed and agility belies his size, is as good as it gets technique-wise in the heavyweight division. He is clearly up there with the likes of Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk, that’s for sure, and the ability he has to control the tempo and distance of a fight was no better exemplified than when he walked Joe Joyce into numerous traps last year. Parker, likewise, is a man with solid fundamentals whose ability to read a fight and carry out a game plan has been enhanced by the addition of Andy Lee to his training team.

WINNER: ZHANG VS. PARKER

Zhilei Zhang lands his left hand on Joe Joyce at the Copper Box Arena on April 15, 2023 in London, England

Zhang landed many left hands against Joyce (James Chance/Getty Images)


ENTERTAINMENT

Joshua vs. Ngannou: Few predicted Fury vs. Ngannou would be remotely entertaining when the pair met in 2023, yet Ngannou delivered on the night, not only forcing Fury to scrap but dropping him heavily in round three. Whether he can now do the same with Joshua remains to be seen, but we do at least enter this fight knowing things about Ngannou we perhaps didn’t know before. We know, for example, that he will make a fight of it for as long as the fight lasts and that he will attack Joshua with all the boldness of a man lacking both fear and experience. This could, who knows, play into Joshua’s hands and bring out the very best in him.

Zhang vs. Parker: Neither man is known to be particularly entertaining, it must be said, yet they still have moments from time to time. Zhang, for instance, was both clinical and exciting when stopping Joe Joyce twice last year, while Parker has had cameos of action too, most notably against Dillian Whyte in 2018 and Joyce in 2020. That said, with the best will in the world, it is hard to imagine a fight between Zhang and Parker as being anything other than a bit awkward and slow-paced. We shall see.

WINNER: JOSHUA VS. NGANNOU

Joshua against Otto Wallin (Richard Pelham/Getty Images)


FINAL RESULT: Joshua vs. Ngannou 2-2 Zhang vs. Parker

Ultimately, despite the similarities between the four fighters, these two heavyweight fights are very different, both in how they came about and how they will likely materialise when the bell rings. One might even argue that together, as a two-course meal, they represent everything you could possibly want from a night of heavyweight action – this despite the fact one of the three heavyweights involved has yet to win a professional boxing match.

Joseph Parker in Riyadh (Mark Robinson Matchroom Boxing)