Set the stage
On Saturday night, I sat down prepared for a bittersweet experience. Francis Ngannou had fought his way out of the UFC’s contractual quicksand, exiting as the promotion’s heavyweight champion. He negotiated a fight with heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury netting a purse larger than anything the UFC would offer. We’ve seen this movie before: MMA fighter finally nets his big payday but at a cost, ranging from getting flatlined to just looking too old to even teach some youtuber a lesson. I knew what I was in for and prepared accordingly.
First I queued up a Stretch Armstrong set of 45’s and started drawing what I thought the end of this fight would look like. Acknowledging the historical lineage of UFC fighters in the boxing ring, I loaded up an old drawing of Tyron Woodley’s faceplant KO loss to Jake Paul and inserted Tyson Fury into the scene over an unconscious Francis Ngannou. It was a quick and dirty job, much like what I expected to unfold in Saudi Arabia, but I was proud of myself for getting ahead of a deadline. As for the act of being certain of any outcome I’m reminded of the old joke: How do you make god laugh? Tell him your plans.
Francis Ngannou is Mike Tyson
The fight began and I immediately started looking for small victories. Big Fran made it out of the first round? That’s a win for MMA fans because the most humiliating scenario has now been avoided. Round two, same thing. Then round three unfolds and we are reminded of the crushing power within Francis Ngannou as he sends Tyson Fury to the canvas.
Whether you’re Lyoto Machida catching an opponent running into your fist or John Lineker launching bombs into the ether, power is power. And when you have a little skill mixed with a little luck, that’s enough to make dreams come true. Francis Ngannou wanted to be Mike Tyson and inspired a kind of fear in the MMA world that I saw during Tyson’s reign. Now he was transferring that ferocity into the boxing ring with tangible results. My mouth was agape, and there were still seven rounds to go.
Francis Ngannou is Rocky
Even though Ngannou sat Fury down on his rump, surely this had to be a case of the champion taking his opponent lightly. Surely in the ensuing rounds Tyson Fury would dance and dodge, stick out his tongue, eyes wild and wide, as he showed the world what a champion boxer does to the lowly MMA fighter. I told myself all of this, refusing to get my hopes up, refusing to be hurt. But it never happened.
Fury did shake out the cobwebs and started throwing extremely quick punches. He wanted to show Francis Ngannou whose house this was but the Gypsy King’s crown had been knocked to far askew. Ngannou never backed down and even though Fury landed a number of clean shots and one nasty elbow.
At one point during the fight I remembered Francis Ngannou’s fight against Anthony Hamilton, which he won via kimura. When asked post-fight if he’d been working on that submission it came out that Ngannou learned the kimura in the locker room just before the fight. In all that time since the Ciryl Gane fight did Francis Ngannou just… learn to box? He came in with a plan, stuck to it for much of the bout and reaped the rewards.
The narrative was transforming from “The outcome doesn’t matter, Francis Ngannou wins just by getting paid” into a real life Rocky movie. Before our eyes a champion took this fight as an easy cash grab, good exposure, and temped the MMA gods by announcing his next title defense before this one played out. This was hubris of the highest order, and Fury was paying the price with each minute he stood across from an undeterred Ngannou.
As the tenth and final round began I gave in to the moment. It wasn’t enough for Ngannou to escape the clutches of the UFC for a better financial future. Now I wanted to witness a storybook ending, all it would take is a judge’s decision.
Francis Ngannou is Jack Johnson
As the winner’s name was announced a sinking feeling emerged in my chest. He almost did it. He came so close, just one round on one judge’s card and a combat sports fairytale would have wrapped up Happily Ever After before our eyes. It was not to be, and this would be the end of a Rocky story. Plucky underdog loses battle but wins the war of perception.
This isn’t a storybook, and there are many pages left to be written. Francis Ngannou is now an entity in combat sports. He has gone head to head with the Dana White and Tyson Fury, and left his mark on both their bald heads. His future is in his own hands, be it boxing or MMA. The PFL gambled on him and won, but other suitors may emerge. Boxing loves a captivating heavyweight, they are the rising tide that lifts all boats. In hindsight we have to ask: with Francis Ngannou on one hand and an aging Stipe Miocic and torn pectoral Jon Jones on the other, who really fumbled the bag?
Jack Johnson was a man who controlled his own destiny despite the institutions designed to deny him that right. The moral and ethical grey zone that is MMA is allowed to exist due to the legal loopholes and lack of regulation the UFC and other promotions can exploit. While not as insidious as redlining and segregation, the structure that has been erected by the UFC serves to benefit shareholders instead of the fighters, who are the reason we watch, read, listen, and otherwise consume combat sports.
There’s a lineage between the boxer who inspired Miles Davis and Ken Burns, and the man from the Cameroonian sand mines and Paris streets who now stands atop the combat sports world, underestimated, unimpeachable, and the undisputed baddest man on the planet.
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