Well, Francis Ngannou, that wasn’t how it was supposed to go.
Sure, he lost his bout against Tyson Fury — and despite some calls of a robbery it wasn’t really that, just a close fight that could have gone either way.

But here, that in itself is a victory.

A novice boxer, stepping in to the ring for the first time against the top man in the division and champion of the world? That’s only supposed to go one way. Easy work. A fight entirely on the boxer’s terms, to last as long as he wants it. Like Conor McGregor against Floyd Mayweather, the closest example we’ve seen to this.

Instead, not only was Ngannou competitive throughout, he scored the only knockdown of the fight. He pretty definitely won 3 of the rounds — 3, 4 and 8 — and had a good shout in several others. He came so close. How did that happen?

One thing being highlighted in the aftermath is Fury’s fairly evident lack of preparation — that he didn’t appear to take Francis Ngannou seriously as an opponent. That Oleksandr Usyk was ringside, seemingly to promote their already announced contest in a couple of months time, spoke to that. But to credit all of Ngannou’s success to that factor is unfair. Even with that in mind, there were several things he did that would have surprised Fury no matter what.

Let’s take a look at the adaptations he made in his move to boxing, and how he caused the champion so much trouble.

Tyson Fury vs Francis Ngannou press conference, PK, Pressekonferenz Tyson Fury vs Francis Ngannou kick off press conference held at Here at Outernet Charing Cross Road London uk 7.9.2023 Editorial Use Only, Credit:Dean Fardell Avalon PUBLICATIONxNOTxINxUKxFRAxUSA xAvalonx 0803631168
Tyson Fury and Francis Ngannou will face each other this weekend. | Dean Fardell / Avalon.red, IMAGO

The Breakdown: How Francis Ngannou gave Tyson Fury all he could handle

The first thing to note is that he did fight as a boxer, pure and simple. There was quite a lot of talk in the buildup, as there always is in these matchups, that if Francis Ngannou had a chance it lay in surprise, in “disruption.” That idea is almost always nonsense, and Ngannou’s approach gave it the short shrift it deserved.

Instead, he learned the basics. A solid, well-balanced boxing stance, with his counterpunching clearly practiced from it. A decent jab and high guard. Clinch tactics from MMA adapted for boxing. Nothing outrageous, no trying to beat Fury at his own game — just taking his own MMA game, and putting it on a boxing frame.

Francis Ngannou’s counters

Those counterpunches where were the first real trouble came for Fury, including the knockdown. The thing is, Francis Ngannou has always been a pretty sharp counterpuncher, but, even on his cleanest day, delivering them with real power tended to involve a big, barely controlled transfer of weight, either in throwing them or in setting them up. See how his knockout of Overeem came from dropping deep having thrown the punch just before it and thus having the purchase for a huge uppercut.

He has tightened that up over the years, but it was always present- and that kind of movement isn’t really tenable against a boxer of Fury’s level. And whether Ngannou could transfer that power without it, sitting stable in his boxing stance, was open to question. As it turns out, he could. Pretty much any time Fury tried to exchange in the pocket, he took a solid shot for his trouble.

And for the knockdown, it was the longtime boxer who got caught off balance. Francis Ngannou threw a looping left hook in response to a Fury attack, and when the champion tried to roll with it, he found himself overextended as the hook caught him anyway, and knocked him sideways off his feet.

It wasn’t a particularly hurtful shot and Fury learned his lesson, avoiding getting that out of shape for most of the rest of the fight. He still tried a few more times to exchange in the pocket, though, and it almost always proved a bad idea. That was a huge success for Francis Ngannou.

Added to that was he was clearly comfortable working the body, and Fury was less comfortable defending that than he evidently expected. There was nothing really damaging, but there were a few sharp hurtful shots that clearly got his attention, and no one of Fury’s experience lets shots like that add up if he can help it. Essentially, Ngannou nearly entirely closed off an entire phase of the fight from Fury. It’s not that the Englishman had no success there, and he did catch Ngannou solidly with combinations on a couple of occasions- particularly the end of the fifth. But nothing consistently, and nothing he could build on tactically. That was, frankly, remarkable.

MMA clinching adapted for boxing

The second big factor was the clinch, and this was an area where Francis Ngannou could use his MMA experience. Put simply: modern boxing clinches aren’t very good. There are exceptions, but the overall level is pretty low. Fury has taken advantage of this — he uses his size and weight to drape himself on opponents, making them carry him and smothering their work. It not only helps him drain their stamina but allows him a pretty safe space if he feels he needs it, since none of his opponents so far have been good enough to work out from there consistently when he does it.

He clearly thought, with his size advantage, he was going to be able to do similar to Ngannou – but no such luck. Whenever they did clinch up Fury found himself being the one shoved around, pushed off, and as the fight went on punished for it. That exacerbated the problem of exchanging in the pocket, too, because normally Fury is happy to take a risk coming in close, safe in the knowledge that if it goes wrong he can grab on and find a bit of time to recover. Here, grabbing just made it worse.

It became particularly prominent in the seventh and eighth rounds, where after a couple of more conservative rounds Fury tried to re-engage and take charge again. From the earlier clinches Ngannou had mostly been shoving him off and punishing him as he fell back, which led to success but only a single shot at a time. In these, he’d frame off with his lead arm and punish Fury directly in the clinch. In one particularly memorable moment in the eighth, he responded to attempts to clinch by controlling the head and throwing uppercuts that segued into combinations. That won him the eighth round convincingly and made Fury avoid any real exchanges in close for the rest of the fight.

Switching stances

There was another factor in that success, though, and this was one so unexpected that it took many observers (including me if I’m honest) a few seconds to register that it was happening- Ngannou switched to southpaw. That doesn’t seem particularly remarkable on its own, but for a totally novice boxer who wasn’t even expected to feel comfortable in one stance? It’s not that he did anything particularly remarkable out of it, but his form and technique were no worse southpaw than orthodox. And it gave Fury new angles to deal with- which did show particularly when he tried to reach for that clinch.

Why Francis Ngannou still lost

Those are the probably the three main reasons Ngannou was this competitive.

The reason he ultimately still lost is pretty simple: all his strengths were in close, so when Fury was able and willing to stick to range, Ngannou had few answers. He doesn’t at this point have a pressing game either, so he had no way to safely get in close if Fury didn’t do it for him. That’s no knock on him—it would be expecting multiple miracles to see him display that complete a boxing game at this point. But it is the explanation. Outjabbing Fury is next to impossible, and Ngannou was never going to so long as the fight was at that range.

Still, though, he did himself proud. And though, if they ever rematch, you can expect improvements from Fury, the rate Ngannou clearly learns means he’d almost certainly be better as well. Ultimately, what was expected to be a circus show and showcase matchup proved a pretty fascinating contest, and Ngannou came out of it having won the hearts of the boxing world.

The future: what’s next for Francis Ngannou and Tyson Fury?

First things first: Fury came in to the fight expected to fight Usyk in December. In fact, he insisted upon it- when the question was raised if Usyk might get a bit more time, Fury declared it was going to be December 23rd or the contract was breached.

That tune has completely changed. Though Frank Warren — Fury’s promoter — still insists the fight is happening, he says he’ll prevent Fury fighting on the 23rd, as he can’t be ready in time. We’ll see how it plays out.

Usyk, of course, was having none of that when asked, but again, we’ll see how it plays out.

For Francis Ngannou: well, it’s hard to say. He has his PFL obligations and it’d be rude to welch on them when they gave him this opportunity — if he even can. But after that, and given the lack of really compelling opponents for him there, who doesn’t want to see him box again as soon as possible?

A performance like that suddenly makes matchups with both Deontay Wilder and Anthony Joshua very compelling indeed. Very different matchups of course but he displayed skills that could trouble both.

And that’s the story from this fight. Rarely has a loser come out with his reputation so enhanced. He defied expectations, and hopefully will grab his reward. Long may it continue.

Francis Ngannou spars with coach Dewey Cooper.
Francis Ngannou hits the pads with coach Dewey Cooper. – Amy Kaplan Icon Sportswire

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About the author
Lukasz Fenrych
Lukasz Fenrych

Lukasz Fenrych is an analyst and writer. He has been covering combat sports since 2019, and joined Bloody Elbow's boxing team in 2022.

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