Matchroom Sport’s Eddie Hearn thought the next step for Anthony Joshua was already set in stone when the two stepped into Kingdom Arena on Dec. 23 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Joshua and longtime nemesis Deontay Wilder needed only to win their respective bouts against Otto Wallin and Joseph Parker, and finally one of heavyweight boxing’s most anticipated heavyweight showdowns could be made. But then Parker dispatched Wilder in one of the biggest upsets of 2023, and suddenly Joshua was left without a dance partner.
“Look, we were due to announce the Deontay Wilder fight in the ring that night,” Hearn revealed on The MMA Hour. “Both guys had signed a contract to announce the fight and [Saudi royal adviser Turki Alalshikh] was very excited. Obviously it was one of the most highly anticipated fights that could be made this fall. It’s four years in the making, everyone was really excited. Obviously Deontay Wilder lost. So from that moment, the cogs are turning in [Alalshikh’s] mind, ‘What are we going to do on March 8th, March 9th?’
“As soon as the fights finish, he’s like, ‘Right, let’s talk.’ And we had a meeting and I said to him, ‘I think [Francis Ngannou] is the biggest fight out there.’ I said it to you when I came on [The MMA Hour after Fury vs. Ngannou] — we’re talking about two giants in Anthony Joshua and Francis Ngannou, two men who look like they are carved out of stone, two devastating punchers. And I’ve always felt like it was the biggest fight out there. I told [Alalshikh] that and he felt the same, and these people move very quickly.”
As it turned out, Wilder’s loss became Ngannou’s gain.
MMA’s lineal heavyweight champion is set to continue his stunning turn as a professional boxer in March when he faces Joshua in a blockbuster 10-round match in Riyadh. The bout arrives less than five months after Ngannou shocked the combat sports world by nearly defeating Tyson Fury in his Oct. 28 boxing debut. Despite being universally counted out, Ngannou knocked Fury down in the third round and came within a single round on a single scorecard of scoring one of the biggest upsets in the history of the sweet science.
“Honestly, previous to the Fury fight, it wasn’t a fight that [Joshua] was interested in,” Hearn said. “Obviously we just boxed a guy in Otto Wallin that really gave Fury a really tough time, cut him, think he had 48 stitches — the fight should’ve been stopped, Otto Wallin should’ve won that fight. But it is what it is, and AJ went out and it was a mismatch. He demolished [Wallin]. And I believe we’re going to do the same here. So that performance over Tyson Fury, of course, that was really the point, the moment that made this fight credible.”
It’s an impressive reversal of fortune for Ngannou, as just this past summer Hearn and Joshua dismissed a potential meeting against him as too “gimmicky” to be worthwhile.
But once Wilder faltered against Parker, Hearn said Joshua “didn’t really need a lot of convincing” to pivot toward the former UFC heavyweight champ. Hearn said Wilder cut his vacation short and flew home to start camp as soon as the deal was official. Considering what’s at stake, Hearn promised that the 34-year-old Englishman is treating Ngannou “very seriously” and approaching the matchup as if it’s “the toughest fight” of his career.
So with all of that being said, does Hearn still believe the boasts he made in October, when after the Fury fight he proclaimed that Ngannou would be “easy money” for Joshua?
“Yes, I do,” Hearn said after a brief pause.
“I don’t want to disrespect Francis, particularly because of his performance [against Fury] again. I have no problem holding my hands up when something like that happens. I thought he wouldn’t win a round against Tyson Fury. He impressed me in so many different ways. Footwork, mindset, power, speed. And I just don’t believe there’s many — or any — MMA guys that can transition to boxing. But that was an incredible [performance].
“If he wins, it goes down as the greatest win in the history of boxing. That’s how close he was, and that’s the threat that he brings this fight. If he beats Anthony Joshua — you’re talking about a guy who’s 0-1. Francis Ngannou in the middle of March could be 0-2 but could’ve had great fights with Tyson Fury and Anthony. It’s amazing what he’s doing. You really take your hat off to him, that he’s fighting, in my opinion — I mean, Usyk’s up there — certainly two of the top three heavyweights in his first two professional fights.”