Francis Ngannou is the new king of combat sports after nearly dethroning Tyson Fury in Saturday’s controversial result in Saudi Arabia. The big question now: What is next?
The former UFC heavyweight champion seemingly has options galore in front of him. Will he return to MMA to make his PFL debut in early 2024? Or will Saturday’s result spur Ngannou to pivot to a new career in professional boxing? MMA Fighting’s Shaun Al-Shatti, Alexander K. Lee, Damon Martin, and Jed Meshew sidle back up to the roundtable to make their predictions for where the new biggest name in heavyweight combat goes from here.
Al-Shatti: It’s funny, because this is a question with two totally separate answers. If we’re asking what I’d personally advise Francis Ngannou to do next, I mean, come on — there’s no reason he should ever set foot in an MMA cage again, or at least not for the foreseeable future. After taking the No. 1 heavyweight in the world to school in his professional boxing debut (no matter how many times I repeat it, that reality still boggles my mind), Ngannou is undoubtedly the hottest name in all of combat sports. The world is his oyster. He already has Eddie Hearn tripping over himself to book the Anthony Joshua fight. This is a once-in-a-generation kind of momentum across two different sports we’re talking about. Ngannou has earned a shortcut to — at minimum — two more MASSIVE boxing paydays against top heavyweights, and at age 37, he should absolutely shift all of his focus to gobbling up that money while its still there, because who can say how long this wave will last?
In that scenario, give me Deontay Wilder next. From the second that fight is booked, it’d instantly become one of the biggest and most anticipated boxing matches of 2024.
But the other — and more realistic — side of this question concerns what Ngannou will actually elect to do, and in that sense, I’m 99.9 percent certain his next fight takes place in the PFL SmartCage. Ngannou may have the world at his fingertips after Saturday night, but he’s also a man of his word. All of my interactions with him and those around him lead me to believe the former UFC heavyweight champ is going to reward PFL for putting their faith in him by living up to the terms of their deal. Ngannou vs. Random Heavyweight is one of the biggest fights PFL can put on right now — if not the single biggest — and the inevitable highlight it produces will keep Ngannou’s momentum churning just as well as anything else.
It’s not the sexy pick, but that scenario feels most likely given where we currently stand.
Lee: PFL, this is your chance to have two great tastes that taste great together, so to speak.
Francis Ngannou should fulfill his duty to PFL. But he should also box next. Ladies and gentlemen, it’s time for the debut of PFL Boxing.
I don’t know what the exact parameters are of Ngannou’s deal with the league, but whatever it is, they should tear that up and work out a new one that allows him to box in the SmartCage. Seriously, what is stopping them from doing this? Why only market yourself as an MMA organization? You have Claressa Shields and Jake Paul on your roster! Maybe boxing was the way to go all along.
How long this arrangement would last, I don’t know, but even if it’s a one-off, it’s one that could be lucrative for Ngannou and PFL. Ngannou is white hot coming off of this Tyson Fury fight, whatever he does next will draw tons of eyeballs, and if PFL has any sense, they’ll jump on this opportunity and introduce the Smart Ring ASAP.
Who should he box? Does it matter?
Give him the winner of the PFL’s upcoming heavyweight tournament. Find a former alphabet belt titleholder looking for a paycheck. Ask Paul to ring up one of his influencer boxing buddies.
After it’s all said and done, Ngannou can ease into an ambassador role with PFL while continuing his boxing career and PFL hopefully can capitalize on a surge of viewership. Everybody wins. All hail inaugural PFL Boxing heavyweight champion, Francis Ngannou.
Martin: Sorry PFL, but the answer here is boxing without a doubt. Francis Ngannou just came within a single round on one scorecard from defeating the best heavyweight boxer in the world … in his professional debut! Ngannou worked tirelessly to manifest this dream and he nearly pulled off the biggest upset in history.
Ngannou could potentially wait out Tyson Fury’s fight with Oleksandr Usyk, which may still happen in December, or he might look toward names like Deontay Wilder or Anthony Joshua for other marquee fights. No matter what PFL is paying Ngannou, it’s almost guaranteed boxing will pay him more, and he should absolutely capitalize by booking another fight as soon as possible. There’s no way to replace this kind of momentum, especially if the best option on the table from the PFL is clashing with Denis Goltzov on pay-per-view.
Plus, MMA is wildly unpredictable — maybe Ngannou loses, which pretty much nixes the interest in a return to boxing. No, jump on this opportunity right now while you’re quite possibly the most talked about fighter across all combat sports.
Meshew: HA! HAHA! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA! PFL?!?!?! Get real!
As the only man in combat sports media to correctly call that Ngannou would win (he won, we all know that, don’t let your eyes be fooled by two judges’ scorecards), I’m going to refer back to what I wrote just a few days ago in advance of this superfight when I said Big Fran would win:
“The entire PFL administration going full Alonzo Mourning, realizing that Francis is never going to fight for them, but that also they won’t have to pay him millions of dollars.”
Francis Ngannou ain’t going to the PFL. Not now, and maybe not ever. It would be the height of stupidity for him to come off this performance and hop into the SmartCage, and if there is one thing that every single person on this Earth should know by now, it’s that Ngannou is no dummy. Knuckledusting Ante Delija for a few million dollars on a pay-per-view that no one buys is simply not a good business decision, particularly when there is about to be a line around the block of heavyweight boxers ready to meet Ngannou in the squared circle for triple the money.
The question for Ngannou today isn’t “PFL or boxing?” The question is “Who should I box next?”
A rematch with Tyson Fury is probably the biggest payday, but Fury may still fight Usyk, and there’s really no guarantee Fury will even sign on for a rematch. Usyk seems a little too focused on achievement to really want to fight Ngannou at the moment. Anthony Joshua and his team are already trying to jump on the Fury fight. And as crazy as this would have sounded a week ago, guys like Andy Ruiz aren’t big enough to get the fight with Ngannou now!
To me, there are two obvious paths. Either wait for a rematch with Fury and hope that happens (probably the safest course of action), or bet on yourself yet again and make a fight with Deontay Wilder. If Ngannou vs. Fury was “Battle of the Baddest,” Ngannou vs. Wilder can be “Clash of the Nuclear-Punching Kaijus.” Everyone will want to see it now. It’s one of the biggest fights that can be made, with the reward being immortality and the risk for both men being violent oblivion. And if we’ve learned anything about Francis Ngannou over the years, it’s that he is a gambling man.
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