Thursday, April 18, 2024

Anthony Joshua, Francis Ngannou next fight: Top options for former boxing and MMA world champions to consider

Former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou’s boxing dream appears to be over. Ngannou was thunderously stopped by Anthony Joshua last Friday in Saudi Arabia. It took less than two rounds for the former unified heavyweight king to leave Ngannou out cold on the canvas.

In an interesting moment in heavyweight history, the fight sent both men in wildly different directions. Joshua, a two-time former unified heavyweight champion, has momentum in spades and seems like a clear choice to fight for a world title — though that’s easier said than done. Meanwhile, Ngannou faces a choice between taking less illustrious fights in the boxing ring or returning to the MMA cage where he’d become one of the sport’s most popular fighters while rising to the top of the division.

To truly understand what’s next for both Ngannou and Joshua, let’s take a look at all the circumstances surrounding both them and their respective fights.

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Francis Ngannou

Unfortunately for Ngannou, the fight with Joshua was a brutal reality check. In Fury, he fought a man who seemed to show up out of shape and did not take the former UFC champion as a serious threat. There was also the stylistic component, with Fury having made his bones by using his weight, quite literally, by leaning on fighters in the clinch and tiring them out. In Ngannou, he ran into a man more versed in the clinch based on his MMA career than any boxer.

Joshua is a pure boxer. A decorated amateur and world champion who relies on pure boxing and who had already seen what happens when you fail to take Ngannou seriously in the boxing ring. Joshua keyed in on Ngannou’s lack of experience, using a jab, and feints with that jab, to get Ngannou to open up to the right hand that knocked him down three times, the final time resulting in a brutal knockout.

Is there any interest in Joshua fighting someone below the elite level of the division? Joseph Parker has largely neutralized Deontay Wilder and Zhilei Zhang, two heavy-hitting actual¬†boxers. Zhang has cardio issues and isn’t always a high-output fighter, but he has tons of power and an iron chin. There may be juice in a fight between Ngannou and Wilder, but Wilder barely threw any punches against Parker and didn’t look particularly motivated to be in the ring. Wilder is also one of the pound-for-pound hardest punchers in boxing history.

All of this is to say: It’s time for Francis Ngannou to return to mixed martial arts.

Ngannou is under contract with PFL and has yet to fight in their cage. At February’s PFL vs. Bellator event, Renan Ferreira knocked out Ryan Bader and it was said the winner would be in line to fight Ngannou. Had Ngannou beat Joshua, that may not have been in the cards. Now, Ngannou needs something to get some momentum back and a return to the sport where he should still be recognized as the world’s best heavyweight certainly fits the bill.

Anthony Joshua

After losing back-to-back fights to Oleksandr Usyk, Joshua was at a scary point in his career. A fight with Fury has always been top of the list for Joshua. It would be a massive fight for the sport and even bigger in the U.K. But every time talk has begun for that fight, it has stalled out. The losses to Usyk removed all of Joshua’s momentum, not to mention that it set up Fury vs. Usyk for an undisputed championship bout.

Joshua did the right thing, getting back in the ring and first defeating Jermaine Franklin and Robert Helenius in somewhat uninspiring performances before looking very good against Otto Wallin and Ngannou. In all honesty, Joshua is still likely the No. 3 heavyweight boxer on the planet but his next step is somewhat murky.

Much of what’s next for Joshua probably comes down to what happens in May when Fury faces Usyk. The two have a rematch clause in the contract. If the loser of the bout does choose to activate that clause, the IBF has already said they will strip the winner for not fighting mandatory challenger Filip Hrgovic, with no exceptions to be given.

Should that happen, it is possible that Joshua would fight Hrgovic for the vacant IBF title. It would be a chance for Joshua to regain one of the titles he has twice held and become a world champion for a third time.

If Usyk and Fury don’t rematch, the winner could choose to take the mandatory defense against Hrgovic to retain their status as undisputed champion. Or, they could choose to go for a more lucrative fight, likely against Joshua, while dropping the IBF belt.

There’s also the possibility that, should Fury win, he will follow through on previous statements that he will vacate every title except the WBC championship, leading to something of a free-for-all in the heavyweight division where men like Parker, Joshua, Hrgovic and others would all have legitimate claims at world title fights.

Joshua and promoter Eddie Hearn said that Turki Alalshikh guaranteed the winner of his fight with Ngannou a shot at the winner of Fury vs. Usyk. But Joshua already has two losses to Usyk and one of Fury’s favorite hobbies is trolling Joshua. So nothing is truly guaranteed for Joshua and almost everything comes down to what happens between Usyk and Fury in May, and in the following months.

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