By Thomas Hauser
ON SATURDAY, October 28, World Boxing Council heavyweight champion Tyson Fury and former UFC heavyweight champion Frances Ngannou fought in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia in a pay-per-view event that blurred the already-smudged line between trash boxing and legitimate sport.
In recent years, Fury has been the world’s most formidable boxer. Other fighters have enjoyed higher pound-for-pound standing. But no one who understands boxing has maintained that Terence Crawford, Naoye Inoue, Canelo Alvarez, or anyone else from a lighter weight division would be competitive against the 6-foot-9-inch, 277-pound Gypsy King.
Ngannou, age 37, is two years older than Fury, stands 6-feet-4-inches tall, and weighed in for his fight with Tyson at 272 pounds. Competing as a mixed martial artist, he’d compiled a 17-3 (12) record. But he’d never engaged in a professional boxing match.
The fight was contested in a regular boxing ring under the rules of professional boxing. Three judges were on hand to score the competition on a 10-point must system. Fury’s championship wasn’t at stake because Ngannou was unranked by the WBC. The bout was scheduled for 10 rounds.
33-0-1 (24 KOs) as a professional boxer vs. 0-0 as a professional boxer.
In boxing, truth is often stranger than fiction. Fury won a 96-93, 95-94, 94-95 split decision. But Tyson and boxing both lost. The big winner was Ngannou.
Fury-Ngannou marked the start of Riyadh Season – a government-sponsored entertainment and sports festival that has been held annually in Saudi Arabia since 2019.
“I need to be on my ‘A’ game because there’s more on the line now than a boxing fight,” Fury told the media. “If I lose to a number one contender, another champion, it’s like, ‘Well, he lost to a champion, whatever.’ But if I lose to an MMA guy, I’m never gonna be able to show me face in public again. People are gonna chuck it at me forever.”
Skepticism regarding the fight abounded. It looked like a money grab, plain and simple.
Marquel Martin (Ngannou’s manager) noted that Frances would earn more for fighting Fury than he’d made for his fourteen UFC bouts combined. “The bag is so big, “Martin told MMA Hour, “he may actually drop it on the way to the bank.”
Similarly, Fury told the Daily Mail, “I am looking for the biggest payday. I’m getting a bag, a fucking big bag too. I won’t feel bad when I am cashing my check in. I won’t care when I am eating ice cream and marshmallows all day, drinking Pina Coladas. I’m not thinking ‘what about those boxers?’ and all that shit.”
When asked for his thoughts on Fury-Ngannou, Anthony Joshua responded, “Three thoughts. One, I shouldn’t give a fuck. It’s none of my business. Two, why? He should have been fighting for the undisputed heavyweight championship of the world. Straight up. That’s nonsense. His fault. Three, if we’re acknowledging his business, good luck to the man. Do your thing.”
On September 29, it was announced that Fury and Oleksandr Usyk (who holds the WBA, IBF, and WBO heavyweight belts) had signed to fight each other in Riyadh under the auspices of The General Entertainment Authority of Saudi Arabia at a date to be determined. That deflected some of the criticism aimed at Fury for fighting Ngannou. It also enabled people to posit that Fury-Ngannou might be a plus since it meant that Fury would be in some semblance of shape when he began training for Usyk.
Meanwhile, the eruption of war between Israel and Hamas on October 7 sent an undercurrent of unease through the promotion.
The event organisers went to great lengths to propagate the notion that Fury-Ngannou would be a competitive fight.
Mike Tyson was brought in to “train” Ngannou, although his presence seemed more for publicity than training purposes. Speaking of his charge, Iron Mike declared, “He has what it takes to knock out anything or anybody standing in his way. Once he lands a punch on Tyson Fury’s jaw, he’s going to knock him out too. Nobody can survive that.”
Bob Arum (who promoted Fury in the United States and is the fighter’s link to ESPN) made his contribution saying, “It’s the same type of danger that Fury faces fighting Ngannou as when he fought Deontay Wilder.”
Here, it’s worth remembering that Arum had previously declared, “Tyson is Superman, both as an athlete and as an intellect.”
Moreover, while Ngannou is a big puncher by MMA standards, boxers hit harder than their MMA counterparts. Fury had survived three fights and three knockdowns against Deontay Wilder. It was hard to believe that Ngannou would hurt him, let alone knock him out.
In sum, Fury-Ngannou shaped up as an event, not a competitive fight. Putting the matter in perspective; in 1883, heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan embarked on an eight-month tour of America during which he visited every region of the country. To heighten interest in the tour, Sullivan agreed to fight any man at any stop and pay $1,000 ($30,000 in today’s dollars) to anyone who lasted four rounds against him under Queensberry Rules.
Sullivan’s biographer Michael Isenberg later wrote, “John L. was literally challenging all of America to fight.”
On occasion, a local resident accepted Sullivan’s offer. But no challenger lasted the requisite four rounds against him. Why not? Because boxing is a skill. Just because a man is big, strong, and knows how to fight doesn’t mean that he knows how to box.
Thus, Matt Christie wrote, “There are 1,385 active heavyweights below the ‘Gypsy King’ in [the heavyweight] rankings, all of whom have done more to deserve a boxing match with Fury than Ngannou.”
And Carl Froch proclaimed, “I don’t like swearing, but it’s a load of shit. This is a fucking sparring session, probably the easiest spar he’s ever had. I don’t care that Ngannou can punch. A mule can kick really hard. He’s never going to be able to line it up. Fury’s not going to be worried about getting hit by that monstrous punch because I’ve seen Ngannou on the pads and he looks terrible. He looks like what I’d expect a zero-fight novice to look like. Slow, awkward, stiff. How is he going to get near Fury? He’s going to get his head absolutely peppered off.”
Betting on Ngannou was like buying a lottery ticket. If he won, the payout would be good. But the chances of winning the bet were virtually nil.
There were questions as to how seriously Fury had trained for Ngannou and whether he’d carry Frances for a few rounds to put on a show. But the fact that Fury-Usyk was in the works made it less likely that Tyson would fool around and risk injury or a cut. Fury had a more formidable arsenal than Ngannou, a far superior delivery system, and a markedly better defense. He hadn’t scored a first-round knockout since fighting Hans-Jorg Blasko in 2010. But common sense suggested that a first-round stoppage was possible here.
Then the moment of reckoning arrived. Fury looked blubbery when he entered the ring. His timing was off and he fought most of the fight at a distance. Surprisingly, Ngannou sought to box with Tyson rather than outslug him. He was well-prepared and acquitted himself well. In the last minute of round three, he knocked Fury down with a left hook that landed high on the champion’s head. It was a two-point round in what had become a surprisingly competitive fight.
Oddly, it wasn’t a particularly entertaining fight. Fury showed no urgency and fought like he was in a sparring session. One of Tyson’s most effective tactics is to maul and brawl on the inside, muscle an opponent around, and wear him down by virtue of his own size and strength. That option wasn’t available here because of Ngannou’s size, stength, and MMA background.
The Punch Stats were close to even. The judges’ scorecards were on the mark.
What does Fury-Ngannou mean for boxing? Let’s start with the observation that Fury was a poor standard bearer for the sweet science on Saturday night.
As Lennox Lewis posted on social media after the fight, “The lion can’t let the shark come into the jungle and nearly beat him.”
Ngannou is a fighter, not a boxer. Boxing fans are quick to point out the skill level that separates legitimate boxers from mixed martial artists and social media influencers like Jake Paul and KSI. This viewpoint will be harder to sell in the future in light of Fury’s dismal performance in Riyadh.
Looking ahead, Fury against Oleksandr Usyk now becomes a lesser fight, although some people will view it as more competitive than they had before. Frank Warren (Fury’s promoter) says that, in light of Saturday’s happenings, Fury-Usyk will be pushed back from its projected December 23 date into 2024. This means that Tyson will have gone through all of 2023 without fighting a professional boxer.
Ngannou will command more large paydays for future boxing matches. Deontay Wilder, Anthony Joshua, and everyone else in the heavyweight division will want a piece of him.
Meanwhile, there’s one more matter to consider. As noted above, Fury-Ngannou was contested in Saudi Arabia.
Shortly before the fight, Frank Warren declared, “Some missed the point when I stated at the announcement of this fight that it was a game changer. It isn’t about this fight in isolation. It is more what it can lead to as Riyadh becomes the go-to destination for global sporting extravaganzas. This is a long-term vision that we intend to make sure boxing continues to be a big part of. Comparisons to the development of Las Vegas are not wildly off the mark. There were a good few sceptics when it was revealed that an entertainment capital was to be plonked in the middle of the Nevada desert.”
The Saudi government spent lavishly to bring entertainers like Eminem, Lil Baby, Becky G, Skrillex, and Kanye West to Riyadh for Fury-Ngannou. Boxing was represented by former heavyweight champions Mike Tyson, Lennox Lewis, Larry Holmes, Evander Holyfield, Buster Douglas, Riddick Bowe, Shannon Briggs, Roy Jones, and Frank Bruno in addition to Ray Leonard, Manny Pacquiao, Oscar De La Hoya, Roberto Duran, Ricky Hatton, Joe Calzaghe, Miguel Cotto, Antonio Tarver, Artur Beterbiev, Dmitry Bivol, Amir Khan, and Naseem Hamed. Oleksandr Usyk was onsite to keep an eye on his future opponent.
But there was an underside to the celebration.
As reported by Human Rights Watch, a retired teacher named Muhammad al-Ghamdi was sentenced to death in Saudi Arabia earlier this year for tweeting five comments that criticized corruption and human rights violations in The Kingdom. The legal proceedings were conducted pursuant to a Saudi Arabian law which prohibits “describing the King or the Crown Prince in a way that undermines religion or justice . . . supporting a terrorist ideology . . . communication with a terrorist entity . . . or publishing false news with the intention of executing a terrorist crime.”
According to the European Saudi Organisation for Human Rights, the Saudi government has executed at least 92 people in the first nine months of 2023. The UK-based human rights organization ALQST reported 148 executions in Saudi Arabia last year.
There was talk in Riyadh last week about what a progressive country Saudi Arabia has become. But no one thought it advisable to walk around Riyadh wearing a Jamal Khashoggi T-shirt in honour of the Washington Post journalist who was murdered and dismembered in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Istanbul on October 2, 2018, because he’d antagonised Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman by writing critically about him.
The thoughts of Elliot Worsell are instructive. “What kind of message does it send,” Worsell has asked, “if aligning with Saudi Arabia is the only way for the biggest fights to get made? Not a good one; that’s for sure. What’s just as worrying is how quickly it has all been normalised and accepted, this idea that the biggest heavyweight fights must take place in the Middle East. In some ways, it’s as though all the key players in the sport have settled for the Rosemary’s Baby approach to claiming power and securing what they want. They have cut a deal with the devil, sold their soul, and seen their fortunes change overnight. They have then impregnated the others with their dirty seed.”
Thomas Hauser’s email address is email@example.com. His most recent book – The Universal Sport: Two Years Inside Boxing – was published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honored Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, Hauser was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.