Tyson Fury and Francis Ngannou will have the eyes of the combat sports world on Saturday when they meet in a 10-round boxing match in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Fury, boxing’s lineal heavyweight champion, is an overwhelming betting favorite to defeat Ngannou, the former UFC heavyweight king who is making his professional boxing debut. But can Ngannou pull off what would instantly become one of the most shocking results in sports history?
MMA Fighting’s Shaun Al-Shatti, Steven Marrocco, and Jed Meshew sidle back up to the roundtable to make their predictions for this weekend’s big-money pay-per-view bout.
Al-Shatti: Look, I’ve thought a lot about what kind of performance on Saturday could reasonably be considered a win for Francis Ngannou. Not in the cliche “Francis wins just by being here!” sense, but a genuine, head-turning development that would rocket the former UFC heavyweight champion into that next level of combat sports stardom once he ultimately falls short to boxing’s lineal heavyweight king. Floyd Mayweather vs. Conor McGregor is illustrative in this case. McGregor stole a few early rounds (because Mayweather carried him), never hit the deck, and only lost in a this-guy-is-clearly-too-exhausted-to-keep-eating-these-punches style stoppage against the ropes.
And what happened?
Everyone watching from home, from casual fans to Hall of Fame boxers like Mike Tyson and George Foreman, lauded McGregor for keeping the fight competitive — even though it was never competitive in the traditional sense — and McGregor’s stardom shot into an entirely new stratosphere. The UFC champ-champ never had a realistic chance to upset Mayweather, he just needed to exceed the uniquely low expectations most had for him.
In that vein, I think Ngannou can — and will — mimic a similar feat.
For all his bombast, Fury still takes his in-ring craft deadly serious. He knows the stakes here, how catastrophic Saturday could be for his legacy if he approaches Ngannou with anything less than the utmost levels of respect. So I anticipate we’re going to see the very same slow start Fury insists won’t happen. He’ll spend the first few rounds downloading information, processing and digesting the game plan his neophyte opponent is bringing his way. Ngannou will bank a round or two on activity, and maybe even land a surprisingly good punch, prompting a flood of over-excited ALL CAPS POSTS on social media.
But then, just as quickly as MMA’s moment of hope arrived, it’ll be over.
Fury’s movement, length, and punching sophistication will take hold, he’ll overwhelm a fading Ngannou en route to a merciful but not-all-that-brutal fifth-round stoppage. The two heavyweight champs will embrace and shower one another with compliments before leaving to cash their gigantic paydays, and plenty of talking heads will speak of Ngannou with newfound reverence over the ensuing days for “fighting competitively” with the No. 1 heavyweight on the planet. And that’s OK. As a wise man once said, time is a flat circle.
This is neither the first nor the last time we’ll take this journey into the absurd.
Meshew: Do I really think Ngannou has a chance? Of course I do! Because for all your logic, reason, science, intelligence, and rational thought, Al-Shatti, you’ve left out something very important in your mental calculus: Vibes.
This has been the year of vibes in combat sports, with anarchy running amok seemingly every other weekend. Israel Adesanya finally exorcises his demons by beating Alex Pereira, only to drop the title five months later to Sean Strickland of all people. Aljamain Sterling finally gets respected as one of the greatest bantamweights of all-time, only to get sparked out in six minutes. The widely derided Dricus du Plessis is sacrificed to the universally beloved Robert Whittaker, only for DDP to mush Bobby Knuckles with ease. Heck, even just this week the Gods continued their reign of terror, forcing Jon Jones from UFC 295, so now Sergei Pavlovich and Tommy Aspinall are fighting for a title.
The vibes are all over the place. Chaos reigns. And that’s not even mentioning the most important piece of all of this: Tyson Fury has spit in the face of the Combat Gods.
The absolute first rule of fight promotion is never count your chickens. No matter what flavor they comes in, combat sports are deeply unpredictable. On any given day, a fighter can get ill, twist their ankle, have an off night, or simply brain fart at the worst possible time. Any professional fighter can win any fight at any time, and so you don’t go planning for a future that may never come, because you never know if you’re going to catch a stomach bug three hours before game time and suddenly you’re out there getting Buster Douglas’d. And yet, that’s exactly what Fury has done by pre-booking his unification bout with Oleksandr Usyk. The man might as well have gone and burned down the Temple of Apollo.
Look, I’m not here to tell you that Francis Ngannou is a better boxer than Tyson Fury. That is obviously not true. I’m also not going to suggest he wins because he has “MMA angles” or whatever. I’m simply here to ask the question: Wouldn’t it be the funniest thing, like, ever?
Just think about it. Francis Ngannou — a man who has persevered through more hardship than anyone reading this right now has likely ever known, who became “Baddest Man on the Planet” only to be openly ridiculed for defying the feudal power structure of the UFC and acting in his own best interests, who again dunked on all his detractors by getting everything he ever wanted — once again overcomes widespread disbelief and mockery by knocking out the greatest heavyweight of this generation, despite it being obviously impossible. Wouldn’t that just be the best?
Think of Dana White’s reaction. Oh, how glorious that would be. The UFC would announce Conor McGregor vs. Michael Chandler by lunch on Sunday. And the internet streets? Countless blue checks tripping over themselves to say Fury was never that good in the first place. 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. Chaos everywhere. It would be incredible.
And that’s the world I choose to live my life in, one of unimpeachable glee. One where, for once, the good guy actually does win. The hero gets his triumph and the credits roll, and all the while I’ll be cackling in the background.
Marrocco: Here’s my prediction: Francis Ngannou leaves Riyadh, flies back to Las Vegas in a comfortable private jet, stops by his local Wells Fargo and gives the teller a shock when he slides under the plexiglass a check with a 10 and six zeros on it (give or take). Ngannou heads back home, fires up Realtor.com, and uses that money to buy several properties that get him monthly cash flow. He buys annuities, invests in a promising young company and stashes his stock in a Roth IRA that will allow him to legally avoid taxes when the company goes boom. He sets up a non-profit for infrastructure projects in Cameroon. He becomes a patron of the arts. And he goes back to Xtreme Couture, where his teammates celebrate his career-high payday despite its real cost, the headache of a knockout somewhere in the sixth round, and he trains for another big bag in the PFL.
We’ve seen this movie before — we’re just seeing it with bigger guys. No matter how hard Ngannou punches, he is an absolute neophyte in the sweet science. That wouldn’t be an issue if he was going up against one of the hundreds of “opponent” heavyweights floating around the boxing scene. Heck, it probably wouldn’t matter against the mid-tier guys. But this is Tyson Fury we’re talking about. Look at all of his weapons, all of Ngannou’s weapons, and then tell me, honestly: Do you really think he has a chance?
Don’t get me wrong: I would absolutely love it if Ngannou caught Fury with one of those sledgehammers, sending him to the canvas. But only Fury’s hubris would allow that to happen. The very thought of taking an L to a first-time boxer would, I think, make Fury more motivated to come in completely prepared for the worst. In Ngannou’s case, that’s knockout power in both hands. Fury has plenty of preparation in that regard. He fought Deontay Wilder three times and survived Wilder’s hardest punches. More importantly, he muted Wilder’s attacks with the style he’s used to make a very average-looking man a very exceptional one in the ring.
Fury has natural gifts in the speed with which he covers distance to deliver attacks and get out of their way. He’s also an absolute expert in close-in fighting, using clinches and neck wraps to stay safe and tire his opponents. And he’s got the steam to go 12 hard rounds using all of these tools. Ngannou hasn’t even gone three boxing rounds, and now he’s about to go 10. If he can’t land one of his hammers in the first few rounds, he’ll run out of steam somewhere in the third or fourth. Then he’ll be a sitting duck to all those quick right straights, left hooks, and uppercuts Fury sneaks in. Fury will stop him and prove yet again that MMA and boxing are very, very different in theory and practice.
Take that prediction to the bank.