By Elliot Worsell
IF you had told me that on Monday, October 30, two days after a “boxing match” between Tyson Fury and Francis Ngannou, I would spend my morning drawing up a list of five potential opponents for Francis Ngannou, in a boxing ring, I wouldn’t know which of us was crazier: you or me or Francis Ngannou.
On the one hand, being reduced to writing a “Top 5” list of anything for the sake of content will always eat away at one’s soul, just in general terms, but also, in this instance, to be doing one based around the boxing future of Francis Ngannou, a 37-year-old mixed martial artist, seems either an editorial oversight or a sick joke.
However, a joke it is not; a joke he is not. Rather, the truth is that Ngannou, whether you like it or not, is a professional boxer: his record is 0-1 (0). He was also, according to one judge (Ed Garner), the better boxer for the half an hour he spent in the company of Tyson Fury, the WBC heavyweight champion, on Saturday night (October 28) in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. That Ngannou ultimately lost, via split decision, is neither here nor there; the story itself was so much more; the performance itself won so many hearts.
After the fight, too, this fight in which he excelled, Ngannou said he was going to be sticking around. This, if true, will also mean he is welcomed back; a welcome different than before. Not just that, with his reputation now enhanced on account of his performance against Fury, there will in the coming months be no shortage of suitors for Ngannou at heavyweight. In fact, already Frank Warren, Fury’s promoter, has expressed an interest in working with the Cameroonian again, and there will no doubt be others as well, each of them prepared to tell the former UFC heavyweight champion, “Yeah, Francis, I always did love your work with the old ground and pound and hammer fists back in the day.”
As for future opponents, even on that front the goalposts have shifted somewhat in the last 48 hours. After all, whereas before the fight the consensus was that even a British-level heavyweight like Johnny Fisher would have his way with Ngannou, now the narrative being spun is decidedly different. Now, if you’ve been paying attention, the thought of Ngannou beating Fury in a rematch is not inconceivable at all. Now, according to excellent MMA journalists who also know more about boxing than the “smug boxing public”, Ngannou is, moreover, capable of beating any leading heavyweight you put in front of him; yeah, the lot of them; every last one of them.
That, of course, may have just been an exercise in trying to generate online attention (imagine), but who would dare argue with self-proclaimed combat sports experts anyway, particularly the ones whose knowledge stretches as far back as the night Conor McGregor outboxed Floyd Mayweather only to then be unfairly and controversially stopped in round 10.
Indeed, if wise enough to listen to these experts, we, the boxing fraternity, will soon come to understand that the idea of Fury vs. Ngannou was never a ridiculous or dangerous one in the first place. It was instead merely the latest example of a warrior daring to be great, that’s all, and anyone opposing it was being either discriminatory, small-minded, or smug.
Furthermore, why on earth can’t the 37-year-old Ngannou now beat every heavyweight boxer on the planet? Surely he has shown, during the 10 rounds he shared with Fury, that he is a master boxer (orthodox AND southpaw!) and that the boxing fans who wrote him off beforehand, regardless of their reasons for doing so, were just being – well, smug. (By the way, someone needs to tell the combat sports experts smug is probably the wrong word. That is to say, boxing fans are many things, absolutely, but smug, which implies some sense of superiority or position of power, certainly isn’t one of them.) Beat Fury – “Which he did!” they yell back at you – and there is every reason to believe Ngannou will beat everyone else, too, for that’s how it works, this dumb sport, isn’t it?
In truth, I don’t really know anymore.
Anyway, here are five potential fights – that is, boxing matches – for Francis Ngannou:
1) Tyson Fury, 34-0-1 (24)
It’s easy to say that the preferred option, if given the choice between Oleksandr Usyk or a return with Francis Ngannou, would be Ngannou again due to his lack of experience (still), but even of that I am not entirely sure at this stage. So troublesome was Ngannou for Fury, in fact, it’s hard to imagine any scenario whereby Fury would deem repeating that experience to be a remotely enjoyable one, irrespective of how much money is on the table. It remains a fight he would be expected to win, of course, but the risk-reward ratio is so unappealingly lopsided one wonders whether it’s better now to just cut his losses, grab the tail which hangs between his legs, and move on altogether.
2) Deontay Wilder, 43-2-1 (42)
One of the most remarkable things about Ngannou’s performance against Fury on Saturday night was the ability he showed to keep marching forward in spite of the punches Fury was throwing at him. That’s a testament to the African’s toughness, of course it is, but it’s a toughness, one suspects, as much mental as physical, especially when considering his life story and the hardship he has for years had to endure. Should Ngannou one day share a ring with Deontay Wilder, arguably boxing’s biggest puncher, this resilience would be tested like never before, yet, equally, there is an argument to be made that Ngannou, if in against Wilder rather than Fury, would perhaps have a better shot at landing his own punches as well. (I still can’t believe I’m actually writing this stuff.)
3) Zhilei Zhang, 26-1-1 (21)
“If that opportunity comes, I will definitely take it and grab it,” Zhilei Zhang told Boxing News when asked about the possibility of him one day sharing a ring with Ngannou. “He’s a novice boxer. No matter how you look at his last performance (against Fury), he’s a novice. And I want to get in there with him and show him what a professional boxing boss looks like.”
Speaking of bosses, the fact that Zhang is aligned with Frank Warren in some capacity should quicken the process of him getting in the ring with Ngannou, if, as mentioned, that is an opportunity he wants to pursue. Not only that, Zhang’s stock has never been higher than it is right now, owing to a couple of impressive stoppage wins against Joe Joyce, and he also has both the technical ability and the punch power to maybe trouble Ngannou in ways Fury was unable to at the weekend. (Yes, that is a sentence I just wrote with a straight face.)
4) Joe Joyce, 15-2 (14)
If Ngannou isn’t thrown back in with the top boys right away and would instead prefer to step down a level and approach things in a more conventional manner, he could do a lot worse than target Joe Joyce, another heavyweight with whom Frank Warren has a strong connection. Joyce, as mentioned, is coming off a couple of punishing defeats to Zhilei Zhang and, at 38, is, like Ngannou, aware of the precious nature of time and how all of a sudden it appears to be running out. Better yet, from a neutral’s point of view, there can be no fight more appealing for Ngannou – stylistically, that is – than one against someone like Joyce, a juggernaut after his own heart.
5) Derek Chisora, 34-13 (23)
For a more accurate barometer of Ngannou’s boxing ability and potential (yes, even at 37), the best option for him could be someone like Derek Chisora; everyone’s favourite win one-lose one heavyweight contender. With an affinity already for the Middle East, as well as even greater interest in making money, Chisora would likely be an easy man with whom to negotiate and, what is more, think of all the ways in which the fight, Chisora vs. Ngannou, could be sold. Not only would it be “War” vs. “The Terminator”, but you could also go heavy on the fact Chisora originally hails from Zimbabwe and Ngannou proudly represents Cameroon, therefore bringing even more eyeballs to a sport never more desperate to be seen.