After years of seeing MMA fighters on the wrong side of crossover boxing results, we finally have a moment we can take pride in.

Yes, Francis Ngannou did not beat Tyson Fury in their “Rumble in Riyadh”, or whatever stupid tagline you want to give to the multimillion dollar sportswashing spectacle we were treated to on Saturday, but he did as much as anyone could have done in defeat, more than the majority of professional boxers Fury has faced throughout his career. And that’s a pretty big deal.

MMA: UFC 270-Ngannou vs Gane, Jan 22, 2022; Anaheim, California, USA; Francis Ngannou (red gloves) celebrates after the fight against Ciryl Gane (blue gloves) during UFC 270 at Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports, 22.01.2022 22:04:10, 17551439, NPStrans, Francis Ngannou, Honda Center, MMA, TopPic PUBLICATIONxINxGERxSUIxAUTxONLY 17551439
Gary A. Vasquez / USA TODAY Network, IMAGO

No one knew what to expect except Francis Ngannou

There wasn’t much of a baseline as far as where to place expectations heading into this fight. This wasn’t some Paul Brothers/KSI influencer nonsense. This was the top Pound-for-Pound boxer on the planet today, and one of the best heavyweight boxers of all time, taking on a man with no professional boxing experience and who had only been an MMA champion for less than two years.

The closest comparison would be 2017’s clash between Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor, where the five division boxing champion allowed the two division UFC champion to win the early rounds as a way to tire the Irishman out before ending the affair by TKO late.

What we saw on Saturday was vastly different. Francis Ngannou is no Conor McGregor. He’s not a man who used his mouth and charisma, in addition to his skills, to get the edge on fighters and rise to prominence throughout combat sports. He’s a man with tremendous punching power who trained like his life depended on it (because it did) to learn how to harness his natural gifts and develop an all-around game capable of shutting down the competition.

Despite the differences, Francis Ngannou is similar to McGregor in that he understands his worth, so much so that he was willing to sit out the remainder of his UFC contract simply because he wasn’t allowed to box. He felt he deserved the chance to test himself against the best punchers in the world and was willing to risk losing his status in the MMA world to do it.

For a man who has had to fight his entire life to get what he deserves, it really doesn’t seem like it was asking too much, especially since he took the gamble and it paid off, signing a very good PFL deal (for him) and putting together what he really wanted: a showdown with Tyson Fury.

LAS VEGAS, NV - SEPTEMBER 26: Francis Ngannou at the Tyson Fury vs. Francis Ngannou open workout on September 26, 2023, at Ngannou™s private gym in Las Vegas, NV. (Photo by Amy Kaplan Icon Sportswire) BOXING: SEP 26 Francis Ngannou Workout EDITORIAL USE ONLY Icon2309262589
Amy Kaplan, Icon Sportswire, IMAGO

Tyson Fury vs. Francis Ngannou seriously just happened

Even though the fight wasn’t for Fury’s WBC championship, even though the status of the fight as an officially sanctioned pro bout wasn’t made clear until hours before the fight happened, it happened. Both Fury and Ngannou made weight and made the walk. Considering the volatility that exists within high level combat sports, that was a victory in and of itself.

And as for the fight itself? Few predicted it would be competitive. Even fewer predicted it would last more than 3 or 4 rounds. No one predicted that Ngannou would be able to touch Fury or knock him down.

Then the third round happened and the world saw The Gypsy King fall off his throne.

Now, it’s easy enough to argue that Fury didn’t take the fight seriously. He likely didn’t train as hard for this fight as he has for previous battles, like the Deontay Wilder trilogy, and it showed. Fury was fast and aggressive to start, which gave way to sloppiness.

Tyson made mistakes and left openings, allowing Francis and his MMA “awkwardness” to land strikes, culminating in a left hook that caught Tyson in the side of the head and sent him crashing to the canvas.

I’ll assume “coach” Mike Tyson taught Francis that one…

…but the former The Ring champ had been there before. After shaking it off, Fury tightened up his game. Francis, however, stayed with him, keeping things close all the way until the bell rang at the end of the 10th round.

Floyd knocked Conor out in the 10th round. Francis Ngannou was still standing tall.

And not only did Francis knock Tyson down and survive until the final bell, he even won on one judge’s scorecard. How crazy is that? The best heavyweight boxer in the world only skated past The Predator with a split decision.

As close to a ‘win-win’ as anyone could have hoped for

I personally think this was the best outcome for all parties involved. Tyson Fury obviously needed the win, as while he wasn’t risking his championship, it sure would have been quite the black mark on his record, and boxing as a whole, if the man with 33 boxing wins lost to the man with no boxing wins. Plus, losing to Francis Ngannou would have made the unification bout with Oleksandr Usyk a much tougher sell (not that Saudi Arabia wouldn’t still throw heaps of money at them to stage the contest because it’s Saudi Arabia).

As for Francis Ngannou, he just proved that an MMA fighter can hang with the best boxer on the planet. To think how many MMA fighters we’ve seen attempt this dance in the last couple of years. We’ve seen Conor lose. We’ve seen Tyron Woodley and Ben Askren get humiliated. We’ve seen Nate Diaz…be Nate Diaz. Francis Ngannou went to Saudi Arabia and flew higher and shined brighter than anyone thought was possible.

Whatever is next for him, whether that’s a PFL headliner, or whether he takes the clout and cache he just earned to cash in on another high profile (and lucrative) boxing matchup, Francis can rest easy knowing that he did himself and the sport of MMA proud. He can keep soaring higher and higher because for him, there really are no limits.

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About the author
Evan Zivin
Evan Zivin

Evan Zivin is a writer, having joined Bloody Elbow in 2023. He's been providing his unique takes on the sport of MMA since 2013, previously working as a featured columnist for 411Mania. Evan has followed MMA and professional wrestling for most of his life. His joy is in finding the stories and characters within all combat sports and presenting them in a serious yet light-hearted way.

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