On Saturday in Saudi Arabia we get the eagerly-awaited first fight of 2023 for boxing’s lineal heavyweight champion - just not the one we expected.
Tyson Fury vs Francis Ngannou gives us boxing’s latest ‘crossover’ event as ‘The Gypsy King’ locks horns with a former UFC heavyweight champion.
Furyjoshua.com looks at some of the key questions going into the big match:
Sadly not a lot. Although Tyson Fury’s WBC world heavyweight title will not be at stake, three judges will score the fight using the 10-point must system. Therefore, this will be Queensberry Rules and boxing as we know it, sans the WBC heavyweight belt, over 10 rounds in Saudi.
The 'Battle of the Baddest' will see former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou compete in his first ever boxing fight against the undefeated ‘Gypsy King’.
Fear not however as the WBC, which loves a new belt, has announced that a special strap will be up for grabs for the winner (just not the hallowed green one which goes with the real heavyweight title). It is not the first time the WBC has unveiled a new belt in Saudi Arabia by the way - it did the same for Tommy Fury’s fight with Jake Paul in February.
To make the fight, Ngannou relinquished his UFC belt when he departed from that promotion for PFL earlier this year. It is a huge opportunity for him obviously, and he has almost a free hit here given he has never boxed professionally.
This is a great question. For a long time after it was announced, it looked like it might. Hard-core boxing fans are getting sick of the best not fighting the best, particularly at heavyweight. It has the potential to really damage the sport.
For example, in the same week that Dillon Danis was rolling about the floor during that horrific Misfits card masquerading as boxing, Showtime announced it was following HBO out of the sport in America. Showtime PPV produced and distributed four of the top five best selling pay-per-view boxing events of all-time. This is the clearest warning yet that the sport is moving towards niche status and a dangerous sporting hinterland.
At its best, when big fights are well matched and well marketed, this is the greatest sport in the world. But a lack of organisational structure and proper governance has got the sport firmly on the ropes and gasping for air.
However, the huge interest (albeit not from purists) in this kind of ‘crossover’ boxing (and despite what Team Fury may tell you that is exactly what this is) is undeniable. The attendance for the Tommy Fury v KSI show in Manchester was double that of the all-British world title contest between Leigh Wood and Josh Warrington – a Fight of the Year contender – the week before. Just let that sink in.
Happily, Queensberry Promotions has recently announced that a deal for Fury and Oleksandr Usyk to fight during Riyadh Season has been signed. So finally, finally, the pair are going to meet for the undisputed world heavyweight title, probably in December or January. This will be the first ‘Undisputed’ heavyweight title fight since 1999 when Lennox Lewis clashed with Evander Holyfield and will obviously give the sport a huge shot in the arm.
It is risky with the Usyk fight so close on the horizon. Ngannou’s actual boxing skills may be primitive but he’s a big old lump and can definitely punch. If he was to cut Fury badly for example, that would spell disaster for any ‘Undisputed’ fight with Usyk happening in the next 4-6 months. However with Fury 1/10 best price with the bookies, Team Fury see this as a risk worth taking.
Fury stands at 6ft 9ins tall and is an enormous fighter, even by modern heavyweight standards. It is actually surreal how well he moves for such a big man, often getting up on his toes and lashing out a rapier jab with that reported reach of 85 inches. It is anyone’s guess what weight he will be for this, but he came in at 268lbs for his last fight against Derek Chisora last December. He also said in an interview on the DAZN broadcast during the Tommy Fury v KSI fight that "Camp's good you know, I've been training for nine weeks nonstop, everything's going well. I don't leave any stones unturned ever, that's why I've been undefeated for 15 years."
Ngannou is 6ft 4ins and usually weighed in for his UFC heavyweight fights at the 265lbs limit. However, the Cameroonian-French has not fought since January 2022 so who knows what he will weigh in against Fury (unlike the UFC, there is no heavyweight limit in boxing). The weigh-in will tell all. He is certainly big enough to be competitive.
Before their falling-out, UFC boss Dana White was fond of telling people that Ngannou held the ‘world record’ for the most powerful punch.
In probably one of our favourite sporting quotes of the last 25 years, White said “His punches are equivalent to 96 horsepower. That’s equal to getting hit by a Ford Escort going as fast as it can and it’s more powerful than a 12-pound sledgehammer from full-force overhead.”
Mike Tyson is another who has been impressed during his time working with Team Ngannou in the build up to this:
"Not only does he have the power, you can only rate somebody by the people they hit. He hits very hard, as a matter of fact I don't think you can even ask them because they're still knocked out," Tyson said on his Hotboxin' podcast.
Ngannou can clearly hit. Whether he can hit the elusive ‘Gypsy King’ clean and often is another matter entirely. Fury has been in with the fearsome Deontay Wilder three times. And while Wilder had Fury on the floor in a couple of those fights, he could never keep him there.
It does add a certain intrigue to proceedings, with ‘Iron Mike’ being idolised so much by John Fury in the 1980s that he named his son after him.
Some of the online footage of Tyson (Mike) giving Ngannou pointers in the gym has been interesting and will certainly help to drive PPV sales.
However, while history will remember Tyson as one of the greatest and most explosive heavyweights in history, how many champions has he trained? If Ngannou were truly serious about upsetting the odds, he would surely have hired a trainer with more experience than Mike Tyson?
They will become more common because like it or not, controversy sells. Wood and Warrington delivered arguably the best, most compelling fight seen in a British ring this year a few weeks ago. Yet when influencer fights such as Tommy Fury v KSI garner more column inches and viewers than a barnstorming world featherweight title fight with a Rocky-esque ending, it’s probably time to worry.
Hard-core boxing fans want nothing more than to see the division's best fight each other and do so regularly. They appreciate the nuanced skills of the champions, the real ones, and the relentlessness and savage beauty of a title fight which ebbs and flows. They do not appreciate the pantomime of influencer boxing, which has more in common than WWE than it does the noble art.
Warren’s job, as Fury’s promoter, is to promote events that will pay the heavyweight as much money as possible. And that’s exactly what he’s doing here. It is hard to blame him, or Fury for that matter. This is merely a lucrative way to pass the time until ‘the big one’.
The PPV price for this event both here and especially in the US has come in for some criticism, but to be fair the undercard is pretty stacked. Fabio Wardley (16-0) vs David Adeleye (12-0) for the British heavyweight title could be a show-stealer. Both men are exciting and can punch.
Wardley is known for his aggressive, swarming fighting style and will want to bang with Adeleye. The bookies have Wardley as a warm betting favourite. However if Adeleye can ride out the inevitable early barrage his better amateur seasoning could be the difference and 4/1 about him winning by KO, TKO or Disqualification looks a value play.
Martin Bakole is another heavyweight with a big reputation and while he should beat gnarled French veteran Carlos Takam quite handily, he will get some good exposure on this card.
There’s also been some serious hype around another fighter on the card in Moses Itauma, a baby in heavyweight terms but a fighter who has already streaked to 5-0 (3) since turning pro in January.
The 18-year-old wonderkid has dreams of beating Mike Tyson’s record of becoming the world’s youngest heavyweight champion. He will have to get a move on and start moving up in level soon if he wants to do that, but he is red-hot and will be worth keeping an eye on over the next few years.
As for the main event, ignore the hyperbole. Ngannou will have no answer to ‘The Gypsy King’, and the ‘crossover’ will also be a walkover.