By Elliot Worsell

ALTHOUGH Francis Ngannou dropped Tyson Fury in October and caused him all manner of problems for the 10 rounds they shared, he ultimately came up short, with two of the three ringside judges sparing Fury’s blushes and voting in his favour.

Despite this, however, Ngannou still claimed the moral victory he had been seeking and smiled from ear to ear as a result. Post-fight, he could be seen celebrating with his friends and family at ringside, as though he had won, and when interviewed in the ring he happened to display none of the bitterness you often see from fighters who have just been edged on a split-decision.

Refreshing in so many ways, he was like this presumably because victory meant something different to Ngannou than it did to others. To Ngannou, victory was determined not by what was written down on three scorecards after 10 rounds but instead what he saw written on the face of his opponent, Tyson Fury; a man plenty had expected to not only defeat Ngannou but toy with him, embarrass him, and eventually send him – and his sport – a message.

That this never happened was a victory in itself, but more than that Ngannou had moments in the fight in which he hurt Fury, and flustered Fury, and had Fury looking like the novice learning on the job. In fact, Ngannou, against all odds, did to Fury what few other heavyweights have been able to do, particularly of late. He had him doubting himself. He brought worry to his wide eyes. He made a fighting man cautious. Moreover, he had Fury unsure whether fighting a man like Ngannou, perhaps the ultimate fighting man, had been the right decision in the first place.

Tyson Fury sits on his stool between rounds during his heavyweight fight against Francis Ngannou at Boulevard Hall on October 28, 2023 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (Justin Setterfield/Getty Images)

To achieve that was surely enough for Ngannou; his victory then punctuated by a now-iconic knockdown in round three. Yet there was more to come, too. The praise in the aftermath, for example, was both considerable and deserved. In addition, Ngannou, for being so impressive against Fury, was later invited back, soon destined to become one of Saudi Arabia’s go-to boxers whenever planning and chucking money at an event in Riyadh.

As unlikely as that may have seemed before the Fury fight, it was now a reality: Ngannou was wanted, wanted as a boxer, and would reap the rewards of giving Fury the fright of his life.

Francis Ngannou knocks down Tyson Fury (Getty Images)

This, of all things, has clearly irked Fury. Which is why, when interviewed by Sky Sports yesterday (March 6) in Riyadh, Fury, the WBC heavyweight champion, went so far as to call Ngannou “ungrateful” for not thanking him for giving him the opportunity in boxing. He then mentioned Ngannou having made approximately seven million pounds from their fight last year and said that this amount dwarfed the paydays the Cameroonian would have banked when competing as a heavyweight in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). What bugged Fury most of all, though, one sensed, was that Ngannou, rather than simply taking this money and the defeat and quietly returning to MMA, had decided to stick around in boxing and therefore become a constant reminder to Fury – and boxing fans – of what happened when the pair met six months ago. This, for Fury, is, at best, at inconvenience, and, at worst, the first real test of both his confidence and his ego.

After all, the longer Ngannou spends loitering in boxing, the more Fury will remain a part of his story, and vice versa. The more Ngannou is given the platform to speak, the more he will inevitably be asked about Fury and the more he will be encouraged to say things about Fury that Fury may not like.

This appears to be the case, too, with suddenly an animosity between the pair that wasn’t there before. Something suggested by Fury before yesterday’s press conference, the suspicion then became hard to deny when Ngannou singled out Fury, sitting in a front-row seat, and attempted to put him in his place.

“I tell you,” he said, “your only chance is in the ring – in the boxing ring – with the boxing rules. When you step off of that ring, you better stay five metres away before you start your shit. Because if I lose it, you’re going to have a really bad time, my friend. So respect the fact that boxing is protecting your arse. Because without that you are nothing in front of me. I would beat you every day; twice on Sunday.”

Having heard pretty much everything two boxers can possibly say to one another, it is easy to become conditioned to the nonsense and become almost immune to what is said and the meaning behind it. Yet, with Ngannou, owing perhaps to his unique journey, it was impossible to hear a line like, “Respect the fact that boxing is protecting your arse,” and not immediately stand to attention and wish to hear more, seduced by its sheer freshness and power.

Indeed, so chilling was the message Ngannou delivered to Fury, and so true was it in practical terms, when you watched Fury squirm upon hearing it you fully understood why. Likewise, when you saw the expression on the face of John Fury, seated alongside his son and normally quick to rip off his shirt and fire back, you then understood what it meant for fighting men to meet a fellow fighting man and appreciate, once and for all, that a fighting man can have a different surname and different ways in which to fight.

As for Francis Ngannou, no doubt he will have seen on the faces of the Furys yesterday not just acquiescence but another small victory. He may never actually beat Tyson Fury in a boxing ring, but never again will he be ridiculed, disrespected, or have his fighting prowess questioned by them. He has earned that at least.