What was dismissed by critics as a mere money grab nearly turned into the biggest upset in boxing history on Saturday when former UFC star Francis Ngannou dropped WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury in his professional debut.
But regardless of how you scored this non-title bout, which headlined a pay-per-view card from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, the ripple effect is expected to be huge, especially for Fury, who must now prepare for a historic, four-belt undisputed title bout against Oleksandr Usyk amid a mountain of doubt and concern fresh off of a such a shocking scare against Ngannou.
Let’s take a detailed look at the biggest winners and losers from “The Battle of the Baddest.”
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5. MMA (especially PFL)
There doesn’t appear to be much juice left in the whole MMA vs. boxing debate, which dates back to a colorful 2008 “SportsCenter” argument between UFC analyst Joe Rogan and boxing promoter Lou DiBella. But if you’re still keeping score at home, the gravity of what Ngannou nearly accomplished is difficult not to overstate. Ngannou didn’t fight a 40-year-old, retired ex-boxing champion like Conor McGregor did unsuccessfully against Floyd Mayweather in 2017. This was Ngannou welcoming a younger, taller, longer and faster opponent who was unbeaten and, at age 35, much closer to the peak of his physical prime in Fury, who was considered boxing’s best heavyweight of this century. While an argument can be made that Ngannou could’ve gotten the decision, the way in which he disciplined Fury and forced him into survival mode from distance was enough of a victory for anyone used to watching MMA fighters essentially cash themselves out once they become popular enough by seeking a crossover boxing match. Ngannou not only bucked that trend by overachieving so brilliantly in his pro debut, his performance has to be considered a huge boon to PFL, which signed the former UFC champion in May and is expected to compete with UFC in 2024 when it launches a star-studded PPV division.
4. Marquel Martin
The former UFC employee and Season 10 cast member of “The Bachelorette” was originally a sports agent with CAA when he first started representing Ngannou. Martin quickly became public enemy No. 1 for UFC and its CEO, Dana White, when he became a scapegoat for Ngannou’s larger ambitions, which included fighting for better athlete representation during contract renegotiations. Martin’s name became so toxic within UFC circles, where managers typically bend to the will of UFC rather than be seen as a disrupter, that Ngannou was forced to represent himself during his final days with the promotion. But Martin never stopped working behind the scenes on behalf of Ngannou despite receiving threatening and racist texts from a Las Vegas number during the build to Ngannou’s final bout of his UFC deal in January 2022. And while no one deserves more credit for Ngannou’s success than the fighter himself, Martin has played an unavoidably shrewd role in his business evolution, particularly throughout a period where every decision was under so much public scrutiny each step of the way. Knowing this history makes Martin’s recent victory lap on social media all the more sweet.
3. Ngannou’s unborn grandchildren
From the standpoint of generational wealth, Ngannou not only didn’t “fumble the bag” during his securing of the Fury fight, which was funded generously by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, he may have secured truckloads more of cash from boxing in the near future. Ngannou’s performance against Fury was so strong, it should guarantee the boxing promotional free agent’s phone being very busy over the next year. Although Ngannou is expected to debut with the PFL in terms of MMA in 2024, expect plenty of competition for his services from the sweet science. Whether it’s an inevitable rematch with Fury once his undisputed title bout against Usyk is complete, or mouth-watering fights against everyone from Deontay Wilder to Anthony Joshua, there will be no shortage of big-money options available to Ngannou. What sounded crazy just 48 hours ago — the idea of Ngannou fighting for a real world title in a second a sport — likely will become a reality based upon how dangerous and competent he was over 10 rounds against Fury. Even though an argument can be made about money not being close to the top of Ngannou’s list as it pertains to his motivation in seeking a second chapter as an elite boxer, his bank account (and those of his extended family, which raised him in poverty in Cameroon) will benefit exponentially from this development.
2. Saudi Arabia
As the centerpoint of its #RiyadhSeason marketing campaign, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia pulled out all the stops in its attempt to make Fury-Ngannou the biggest sporting event it has hosted to date. Handfuls of famous retired fighters (across boxing and MMA) joined pop culture luminaries like Eminem, Kanye West, Vince McMahon and Cristiano Ronaldo as special guests. The ring also rose up from the ground below the stage of a makeshift arena constructed exclusively for the fight, which followed an entertainment show that brought together elements of an Olympics opening ceremony, a Super Bowl halftime show and the MTV Video Music Awards all rolled into one. Saudi Arabia hasn’t been shy in terms of its strategy of spending unheard amounts of money in an attempt to revitalize its global image as a premier vacation destination, albeit while stiff-arming accusations of sports washing. But it’s difficult to underestimate the impact that Fury-Ngannou had on this plan after so many who tuned in, even if they had done so out of morbid curiosity, were treated to a world class entertainment program that few promoters on this planet could equal. In this case, this was the right fight at the right time.
1. Irrational self belief
Ngannou’s life story was already fit for an inspirational movie script before he delivered his “Rocky moment” against Fury. In fact, the ending of the original “Rocky” film, which featured the unheralded Rocky Balboa knocking Apollo Creed down before losing a split decision, played out eerily similar to Fury-Ngannou. Yet, for as crazy as it sounds to even say it, we should have seen at least part of this coming. Ngannou was criticized publicly by White and thousands of other critics for taking on such an uphill and dangerous challenge. But the shocking nature of Ngannou’s performance is no more shocking than it was for a 26-year-old Ngannou to leave behind a life of poverty in the salt mines of Cameroon, to move his life to France to chase a pro boxing dream. It’s the same dream, mind you, that led Ngannou to be jailed for two months in Spain for trespassing and the same one that left him homeless in Paris before finding a home in an MMA gym. Eight years later, Ngannou was UFC heavyweight champion. Ten months later, Ngannou defeated unbeaten Cyril Gane in their heavyweight title unification bout despite suffering disastrous MCL and PCL tears to his knee just three weeks before. The only fuel Ngannou had throughout most of this improbable journey was irrational self belief. Ngannou had a vision for his life that was larger than the worldly limitations others tried to place upon him. If we all look close enough, there’s a huge life lesson to be learned from Ngannou’s inspirational travails.
5. Jon Jones
Every great fighter typically needs another all-time great rival in their division and era to push them toward an even higher level of greatness. For Jones, widely considered the greatest fighter in MMA history, that was Daniel Cormier at light heavyweight. And it should’ve been Ngannou at heavyweight. Instead, Jones waited until Ngannou’s official exit toward free agency to end his own three-year hiatus just as White attempted to disparage Ngannou’s name by telling fans and media how he left UFC only to seek easier paydays. Jones-Ngannou is the kind of once-in-a-generation MMA fight that could’ve filled Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas or even have been the kind of splashy superfight reserved for combat sports’ inevitable debut at The Sphere. Instead, it’s a fight that can now only be made in video games after Ngannou signed an exclusive MMA deal with the PFL. If Jones, who recently pulled out of his first heavyweight title defense with a torn pectoral muscle, can’t be blamed for Cyril Gane’s poor performance, which helped lift Jones to a UFC title in a second weight division, history would be misled if it’s not mentioned how Jones never had to go through Ngannou, who never lost his UFC title in the cage.
4. Oleksandr Usyk
Usyk, the unified heavyweight champion who owns a pair of victories over Anthony Joshua, has endured a rather uneventful 2023 as he has waited, along with everyone else associated with boxing, for Fury to accept their undisputed title bout. And after waffling over the topic for months, Fury finally agreed to a Dec. 23 showdown, also in Saudi Arabia, yet did so for just two months after the Ngannou fight. Fury, who suffered a minor cut on his forehead and saw his left eye swollen against Ngannou, has indicated through co-promoter Frank Warren the December date is too early, which pushes the Usyk fight off even more. That’s not the worst of it, however. Fury-Usyk was supposed to be the kind of can’t-miss historic event that boxing fans, particularly those who endured the barren Klitschko heavyweight era, have been waiting decades for. Instead, a great deal of shine has been taken from the fight after an out-of-shape Fury struggled so mightily against a novice boxer who was making his pro debut. It’s hard to imagine that all of the questions that now surround Fury won’t have a negative impact on the commercial reach of the undisputed clash, which comes as no fault to Usyk. Instead, much of the talk will surround Ngannou, who isn’t even part of the historic pairing (and wasn’t even a pro boxer until last weekend).
Lumping the entire sport into this slot is a bit unfair when you consider that the heavyweight division is one of the biggest winners coming out of Fuy-Ngannou, mostly because a new PPV headliner has been added into the mix. But the reputation of the sport took a bit of a hit in a manner that is hard to dispute. Fury was bloated and sloppy in this fight against an outsider who was given long odds of even surviving 10 rounds with the defending lineal heavyweight champion and yet was forced to settle for a split decision. The fact that Top Rank and Queensberry Promotions outright canceled the scheduled post-fight press conference shows the embarrassment levels reached by the fallout of this fight. And when you add in the misguided yet understandable spin-off discussion centered upon whether Ngannou was robbed of a rightful decision, it only makes the sweet science look even worse. In reality, there wasn’t a robbery at all. Fury was the busier fighter throughout many close rounds even though Ngannou largely dominated the rounds that featured the most action. Boxing is scored on a round-by-round basis with a different scoring criteria than in MMA, which is focused almost exclusively upon damage. But the fact that there’s even a debate shows you how much of a debacle this event turned out to be for boxing purists.
2. Tyson Fury’s reputation
Forget, for a moment, how often Fury has played up or down to the level of competition in the ring across from him, or that his great career has featured long layoffs and selective elite matchmaking. Because of his breakthrough victories over elite contemporaries like Wladimir Klitschko, Deontay Wilder (twice) and Dillian Whyte, and because of his unique speed and 6-foot-9 stature, Fury is a matchup problem historically for any heavyweight. All Fury needed was to make sure he fought every elite foe available to him before exiting the sport and it was becoming increasingly likely that entry into all-time great status at heavyweight, even as high as the top 10, was possible. Yes, Fury would’ve needed a victory over Usyk in order to add undisputed status to this debate for full validation, but it started to feel more like an inevitability than anything else. Boy, did the tenor of that debate change by how poorly Fury adjusted to Ngannou’s threat, even with the fact that Fury still won the fight.
1. Dana White
The UFC CEO’s relationship with Ngannou became more toxic each time the former heavyweight champion pushed for change to how MMA fighters are treated behind the scenes. But forget how petty White has been in not only disparaging Ngannou at every turn, but refusing to place the world title around his waist after Ngannou defeated Gane at UFC 270. And forget just how badly the “fumbled the bag” crowd got it wrong when talking about Ngannou, since the exact same petty accusation can now be hurled back at the sport’s most successful promoter. Remember, this is the same promotion that recently ran an incorrect graphic stating that Tafon Nchukwi was the first Cameroonian fighter to compete in the Octagon, which was seen as yet another dart being thrown at Ngannou. Yet, from a business standpoint, the way in which White allowed his personal grievances with Ngannou to affect company decisions should now be closer examined. UFC is now contractually out of capitalizing on Ngannou’s exploits following the Fury fight (since PFL now holds exclusive MMA rights), which means it’s unable to make MMA’s biggest fight of Jones-Ngannou. An argument can be made that Ngannou was probably the perfect fighter White could’ve used for his recurring attempt to get his spin-off company, Zuffa Boxing, off the ground. UFC could’ve served as the co-promoter for the Fury fight and all of Ngannou’s other boxing exploits moving forward. Instead, White has tossed his money and all of his attention into Power Slap, which can only be seen as an insult to all of the MMA fighters on the UFC roster for how shamelessly White is promoting defenseless violence. The biggest regret, however, for White should be that he let one of combat sports’ most wholesome and inspirational figures walk away rather than be the leading storyteller tasked with weaponizing his incredible life story as a way to only make the UFC brand even more profitable.