Two of the biggest stars in combat sports will clash when boxing’s Tyson Fury meets MMA’s Francis Ngannou in a crossover event on Oct. 28 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Fans have been clamoring for a boxing match between Fury and Oleksandr Usyk for the undisputed heavyweight championship, but Fury will instead follow through on a plan more than one year in the making.
After Fury retained his WBC title with a sixth-round stoppage victory over Dillian Whyte in April 2022 at London’s Wembley Stadium, Ngannou stepped through the ropes to start the hype train toward an event that was finalized 15 months later. The deal became a far greater possibility when Ngannou, the longtime UFC heavyweight champion, parted ways with the Dana White-led promotion in January. The 36-year-old from Cameroon reemerged with the PFL in May in a deal that allowed him to box.
Ngannous hasn’t competed since a January 2022 win over Ciryl Gane to retain his heavyweight championship. He then underwent surgery two months later to repair a torn MCL and ACL.
So rather than Ngannou squaring off with Jon Jones in the Octagon or Fury facing Usyk, we will see the best big men in each fighting discipline face off in what figures to be one of the biggest sporting events of 2023.
What does it all mean? ESPN’s Marc Raimondi and Mike Coppinger break it down:
Why is Fury, boxing’s lineal heavyweight champion of the world, fighting Ngannou?
Coppinger: Fury is arguably the biggest star in boxing after Canelo Alvarez and he’s all about entertaining, whether it’s wrestling in WWE or his upcoming Netflix show.
The 34-year-old Englishman has done a brilliant job of marketing himself on social media, delivering biting messages to Usyk and Anthony Joshua for fights that never materialized.
Following criticism Monday from Usyk’s promoter, Alexander Krassyuk, that he should be stripped of his WBC title if he faces Ngannou, Fury taunted the Usyk side over the amount of money Usyk will make for his Aug. 26 unified title defense vs. Daniel Dubois in Poland.
Fury will undoubtedly earn exponentially more for this bout with Ngannou. This is Fury’s second event in Saudi Arabia following his WWE match against Braun Strowman in 2019.
It usually comes down to money and risk, and this clash with Ngannou will rake in the money for Fury while offering little resistance in the ring. Usyk, on the other hand, is a crafty, agile heavyweight who defeated Joshua twice and would be only a slight underdog to topple Fury for all the marbles.
Ngannou has long dreamed of boxing and has displayed his excellent stand-up game in the Octagon, but making his pugilist debut against an all-time great is a lot to chew off. There were rumors Ngannou might box Derek Chisora first, and while that would be a challenging matchup for any boxing novice, if Ngannou could push past Chisora, he’d be far more prepared for Fury.
Ideally, Ngannou would have boxed two or three times against mediocre-to-solid competition before stepping in the ring with one of the pound-for-pound best in the world. But this is about the money more than anything else, and Ngannou never has come close to earning the tens of millions Fury raked in for three fights with Deontay Wilder alone.
Why is Ngannou, the former UFC heavyweight champ, fighting Fury? How does this impact his MMA career?
Raimondi: Ngannou is fighting in boxing against Fury for two major reasons. First, Ngannou has always wanted to box. That was his first sporting dream, back when he was a kid working in a sand quarry in Cameroon. It’s why he left his homeland and risked his life emigrating to Europe, a journey that saw him brave the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, do prison time in Spain and live in a Paris parking garage. All of that was for boxing; Ngannou didn’t even know what MMA was back then.
It was only once in Paris, when he was discovered by a coach and told he should try MMA, that he ended up on that path. He was really good at it — in the UFC by his seventh pro fight — so he kept going. But boxing has always been on his mind and part of his ultimate plan.
The second reason, and why Fury is the opponent and not a gatekeeper or journeyman, is the sheer amount of money Ngannou can make in a fight like this. While it’s debatable that UFC fighters at the lower and midrange levels make more than boxers at that same level, the top-tier boxers — ones that move tickets and pay-per-view units — make exponentially more than their UFC peers.
“I’ve been waiting to meet Tyson in the ring for the past three years,” Ngannou said in a statement on Tuesday. “My dream was always to box, and to box the best. After becoming the undisputed MMA Heavyweight Champion, this is my opportunity to make that dream come true and cement my position as the baddest man on the planet.
Fury has made more than $20 million in each of his last three fights. Comparatively, Ngannou made just above $600,000 for his last UFC heavyweight title defense, a win over Gane in January 2022. Now, part of the reason for that is because Ngannou was working off an old contract because he was planning on fulfilling the obligations on that before becoming a free agent. But even had he signed a new deal, which would have been lucrative, it would not have been close to what someone like Fury makes in boxing.
Ngannou won’t pull in Fury money for this, his pro boxing debut, but you can be sure he’ll be paid handsomely, a life-changing amount.
As far as Ngannou’s MMA career goes, nothing really changes. He is still set to debut in PFL next year against an opponent to be determined. That was always the plan when he signed. PFL is going through its 2023 season now and will sort out a potential foe for Ngannou next year, and the fight will headline a pay-per-view card. Ngannou’s contract with PFL has the flexibility to allow him to do boxing in addition to fight MMA.
What happened to the Usyk fight? Where does this leave the rest of the heavyweight division?
Coppinger: Fury and Usyk were deep into negotiations for an undisputed heavyweight championship fight on April 29 at London’s Wembley Stadium when discussions collapsed at the 11th hour.
Usyk agreed to the short end of a 70-30 split, but insisted on receiving the lion’s share for a rematch if he defeated Fury. Fury balked, and the negotiations died in March in a very public manner, with each side blaming the other.
It’s a shame the fight couldn’t be delivered now when it was at its hottest. Usyk, the former undisputed cruiserweight champion, on the heels of two thrilling wins over Joshua, and Fury coming off an active 2022 with TKO wins over Whyte and Chisora.
Usyk is 36 while Fury has already retired twice, so any delay in the meeting increases the likelihood we never see the fight. The once red-hot heavyweight division has gone cold as a result and had a chilling effect on the rest of the glamor weight class.
We’ve seen in boxing that when big matchups are delivered, momentum builds for other enticing fights, particularly in that same division. Fury-Usyk would have been an all-time heavyweight battle, a rare meeting between two heavyweight champions both in the pound-for-pound top 10.
There was even talk of a super fight doubleheader in Saudi Arabia in December that would feature Fury-Usyk in the main event alongside Joshua-Wilder. Joshua and Wilder remain in talks (AJ first must defeat Whyte in an Aug. 12 rematch), while it’s conceivable Fury could still meet Usyk months after Ngannou.
But with all the money Fury will pull in, he could also enjoy another hiatus or step away from the sport entirely. In the meantime, talks between Wilder and Andy Ruiz hit a standstill after Ruiz insisted on parity while Wilder pushed for a far greater cut.
But the second tier of the heavyweight division remains promising with a Sept. 23 rematch between Zhilei Zhang and Joe Joyce and some interesting young fighters making noise.
Can Ngannou win? Is this a realistic fight? Does he continue to box again or does he take the bag and leave?
Raimondi: Ngannou has massive power in his hands and, again, he has trained in boxing for a long time, even if he has never competed in the sport professionally. So, he has a puncher’s chance.
But realistically, it’s going to be a very difficult fight for him to win. Fury is the best heavyweight boxer in the world. He has great defense and ring generalship. Though he has power, he’s not just a puncher or brawler. He’s the lineal champ for a reason. He’s technical and has superlative footwork. Fury is an absolute handful for any of the other elite heavyweights in the world, let alone someone who has never had a pro boxing match before. It’s not like Ngannou is going in there against a tomato can or an opponent brought in to lose. Fury is the highest level of skill imaginable, and it would take a lifetime to try and make up for that difference in experience.
Whether or not Ngannou’s hand is raised at the end is kind of missing the point, though. Surely, Ngannou and his team would not take this fight if they didn’t believe he can win. He’s a supremely confident man and phenomenal combat sports athlete. But the actual “win” here is just getting this fight in the first place.
Remember when Ngannou left the UFC earlier this year and people were saying he “fumbled the bag” or made a huge mistake or caused himself to be irrelevant? Now, he has a big-money deal with PFL equity in hand and a massive boxing match with Fury lined up. Leaving the UFC was a huge risk for Ngannou. And yes, for a while it looked like it might not pan out completely. But now? This is a massive coup for Ngannou and his team. Life-changing money and the opportunity to box the best in the world with more money and MMA waiting for him in PFL.
Oh, he might lose a fight against the best heavyweight boxer on the planet. Big deal. So has everyone else.
Ngannou’s team hit a grand slam here. After this, Ngannou will likely focus back on MMA and will definitely fight for PFL. If he competes in boxing again, it’s entirely up to him. And that’s the exact reason why Ngannou didn’t want to be tied to a restrictive UFC contract. He wanted to control his own destiny and call his own shots. That’s exactly what he’s doing.