Let’s be honest here, what Tyson Fury vs. Francis Ngannou looked to be heading into Saturday’s PPV boxing event in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, was the start of a prolonged, glorified ride into the sunset for the former UFC heavyweight champ. The best, and most realistic expectations had him getting throughouly out-classed and likely even stopped over the course of several rounds against the ‘Gypsy King’.
From there, Francis Ngannou would go back to the PFL, proud of what he’d accomplished, but as a former UFC star running on the fumes of past glory. Who were they going to find to fight him? Ante Delija, Denis Goltsov, Ryan Bader? Maybe he’d help the promotion cross the 100k PPV buy threshold a few times before retiring as a guy who had made a lot of money betting on himself as a big fight B-side, and an MMA star that a UFC rival desperately needed.
Francis Ngannou: Combat sports star
Instead, while he didn’t get the win, Francis Ngannou walked out of his fight with Tyson Fury with the feeling of a newly-established, legitimate combat sports star. An attraction who isn’t just good for the top of an MMA card or as second billing to one of the big-money boxers out there, but as someone who can command his own price, set his own terms. Is Deontay Wilder a bigger name in combat sports right now? Is Anthony Joshua?
Suddenly, where Francis Ngannou might have been someone those men felt they could use as a negotiating tool for other fights, or as an exhibition tuneup where they’d have the leverage, now the ‘Predator’ looks more like a legit competitor. Either someone that everyone can make a killing off of with a heavily hyped PPV or someone that can truly add to their own legacy as a big tough fight fans want to see.
It might be that Ngannou never actually ever wins a professional boxing match. But what felt like it was likely to be a high profile one-off that would chase him back to MMA suddenly has the look and feel of 3-5 professional fights in which Ngannou makes bank the whole way through. He has, very likely, in a single night, re-written the arc of his legacy as a fighter.
At this moment, I’d say that Francis Ngannou has put on the single greatest performance by an MMA fighter to ever cross into boxing. He’s broken a mold 30 years in the making, one which flatly states that MMA fighters cannot cross-over and face elite prime boxers and hold their own. To date, the only thing really close was Conor McGregor lasting 10 rounds with a 40-year-old Floyd Mayweather before getting TKOd.
The UFC takes an L
Beyond the remarkable nature of Francis Ngannou’s achievement and the effect it will likely have on his career, however, are the implications his achievement will have on the MMA industry. Most notably, the potential deletirous effect this could have on both the UFC and the PFL.
On the first front, the UFC has to come away here as a very obvious loser. Prior to his split from the world’s largest MMA promotion, Ngannou made it clear on several occasions that he wanted to make this fight with Dana White and the UFC brand as business partners. He felt the fight would sell better and feel bigger with the promotion on board, and he might have been right. McGregor vs. Mayweather was a enourmous success.
Instead, the UFC decided to try and make an example out of their heavyweight champion. More willing to try and wait out his intentions to see whether he would get cold feet with the potential of true free agency looming. Francis Ngannou didn’t, and got summarily kicked to the curb for daring not to bend.
Even getting the Fury fight (and the massive PFL contract) after leaving the UFC put the notion out into the ether that there may be greener pastures outside the promotion waiting for those fighter gutsy enough to make the leap. This success in Saudi Arabia, though, seems like it could supercharge that.
Sean O’Malley wants to box Gervonta Davis, if he’s serious about it, Francis Ngannou just laid a path to success. How many other fighters will look at what he’s done and see the UFC’s hesitancy to help them as a lack of belief in their potential. White’s short sightedness would have kept Ngannou from this new height forever. Do these athletes want to admit to themselves that they lack the Xtreme Couture talent’s self belief?
No picnic for the PFL
For the PFL, however, the problem feels much less theoretical and much more pressing…
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