It’s difficult to know what to expect ahead of Saturday’s heavyweight spectacle in Saudi Arabia as former UFC star Francis Ngannou makes his professional boxing debut against WBC and lineal champion Tyson Fury.
The 10-round main event of an ESPN+ pay-per-view card from Riyadh will be an official boxing match, and not an exhibition, although Fury’s world title will not be at stake in an event billed as a meeting between the two baddest men on the planet in all of combat sports.
Let’s take a closer look at the biggest storylines and questions entering this weekend’s crossover event.
1. It’s a mistake not having Tyson Fury’s heavyweight title at stake
The above is a sentence that I can’t believe I just typed given that Ngannou, who left his native Cameroon for France at age 26 to pursue boxing training (yet ended up sleeping in his car outside of an MMA gym in Paris), has zero pro boxing experience. While the 37-year-old Ngannou’s personal journey from MMA novice to UFC champion in just eight years is an impressive one, it’s simply not enough to warrant a shot at a real boxing title in his first pro fight. Right? Well, from the standpoint of traditional thinking, the answer would be yes. But considering that Fury-Ngannou is an unabashed entertainment spectacle designed to lure as many curious fans to shell out cash in order to see for themselves what happens next, there’s another argument to be had. Without a title at stake, the fight has just about zero meaning, which should affect the total number of PPV buys. And while few with an active pulse would ever outright predict an Ngannou upset, the mere threat of one — especially considering it would ruin the December four-belt, undisputed heavyweight title bout between Fury and unified champion Oleksandr Usyk — would provide enough legitimacy for the match that it would be difficult for any combat sports fan to outright avoid. Instead, Ngannou would likely need to do the impossible (defeating Fury) twice in order to reap the full reward of such an unlikely occurrence.
2. With all that said, Fury better not screw this up
While the last few years have almost spoiled boxing’s hardcore fan base with the amount of four-belt unification fights, there’s no division it matters more in than heavyweight. Long the gateway drug for casual boxing fans to reconnect with the sport, a healthy heavyweight division means everything for the long term health of the sport, which is why a fight like Usyk-Fury is so important. With four recognized champions in each division and a handful of unnecessary secondary titles floating around, things can become confusing for fans of all interest levels. But the prospect of having one name and one face atop its most important division for the first time in the four-belt era is juicy enough. Now imagine a fight between two unbeaten champions and future Hall of Famers in Usyk and Fury. It sounds like a match made in heaven. Only, Fury has done everything in his power this calendar year to avoid actually signing for the fight. And even though he came around in time to get said matchup on the books for December, the prospect of Fury facing Ngannou just two months before is a dangerous proposition given the possibility of cuts, which could delay the Usyk fight, or a more disastrous scenario of Ngannou pulling the upset. Entertaining a one-off against Ngannou for big money in Saudi Arabia is a great business move for Fury. Let’s just hope he doesn’t screw up the larger picture for the rest of the sport.
3. Ngannou’s choice of Mike Tyson as head trainer is interesting
Whether or not this decision comes in light of Conor McGregor sticking with his MMA coaching staff to prepare him for his 2017 boxing superfight against Floyd Mayweather only to come up empty in a stoppage defeat, the choice of Tyson as lead trainer is peculiar. Tyson, 57, has no formal experience in this area beyond his wealth of in-ring time put in as a former two-time heavyweight champion. And Ngannou isn’t the typical student considering he has never boxed professionally and there isn’t enough time to change his stance and style by hammering down on fundamentals. What Ngannou needs is unorthodox explosion, which is likely the area Tyson is focusing on. But what makes this choice of trainer so interesting, as it pertains to this exact matchup, is that Fury’s father, John, named his son after Tyson when he was born in 1988, during Tyson’s initial run as heavyweight champion. Fury was born premature and weighed only one pound, with doctors predicting he wouldn’t survive. According to family legend, John Fury told the doctors that his son would grow up to be heavyweight champion. To add even more weirdness to the situation, John Fury has been respectfully challenging Tyson to a bareknuckle fight for years.
4. Ngannou legitimately believes he can win
Given the constant headlines over the past year involving Ngannou, MMA fighter pay and the erosion of his relationship with UFC president Dana White, it would be easy to justify Ngannou’s relentless pursuit of the Fury fight as simply a money grab. But to know Ngannou’s story makes it difficult to categorize it as such. Ngannou’s life story, which will one day make an incredibly inspirational feature film, has seen him overcome the odds at just about every single turn. From being jailed for two months in a Spanish prison on his journey from Cameroon to France to defending his UFC title on one leg against Cyril Gane merely to fight out his MMA contract and secure true free agency, Ngannou has regularly placed principles above selfish financial gain. In fact, the major crux of his fallout with UFC surrounded his want to change athlete treatment for all fighters and break free from the Draconian contracts that still exist within UFC. Ngannou is pursuing Fury this aggressively because he actually believes he will win and is looking to cross off one of the most important boxes on his life bucket list. And even though the betting odds rightfully portray how unlikely it is that an upset takes place, the prospect of Ngannou landing one perfect punch against his quicker and longer 6-foot-9 opponent might be more far fetched of an idea than Ngannou ever winning a UFC title to begin with. Almost every aspect of his public adult life has been a difficult obstacle yet Ngannou has conquered each challenge he has faced along the way. Yes, this technically represents Ngannou’s first pro boxing match and it just happens to be against the greatest heavyweight of this century. But it’s also just that — a boxing match — for a man who has overcome so much to get to where he is today.