Occasionally the world of professional combat sports gets turned upside down. It often involves an upset against a dominant champion along the lines of a Ronda Rousey vs Holly Holm or Mike Tyson vs Buster Douglas match-up, but on the evening of 28th October 2023 in Kingdom Arena, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia we witnessed a bizarre spectacle. A reigning heavyweight boxing champion, regarded by many as a once-in-a-generation talent, took on an opponent who was making his professional boxing debut, and the outcome was far from what most expected.
In the weeks leading up to the Tyson Fury vs Francis Ngannou boxing match, dubbed the Battle of the Baddest, there was considerable discontent on social media about the whole affair. Here was Tyson Fury, the WBC and Lineal heavyweight boxing champion, who openly regards himself as the greatest boxer of all time, and having last fought in December 2022 against Derek Chisora (who he’d already beaten twice beforehand), now deciding to go against Francis Ngannou, someone who had zero professional boxing experience. To many fans, this was nothing more than a cash grab and a foregone conclusion. When a professional boxer takes on an MMA fighter in a boxing match, the boxer will come out on top.
As the fight progressed, it quickly became apparent things were going off-script. This wouldn’t be a match in which Fury carried Ngannou and then finished him off when he liked, but instead he found himself in the fight of his life. When Fury was knocked down in round 3, the smile was gone, along with his confidence. As trainer SugarHill Steward berated Fury with the words, “You’re trying too goddamn hard! It’s not happening right now!”, hesitancy crept over him.
The fight ended up going the whole 10 rounds with a split-decision victory in Tyson Fury’s favour. However the demeanour in the Fury camp revealed a different story. Celebrations were muted and in the post-fight interview Fury looked noticeably subdued and uncomfortable. Was he embarrassed? Did he feel like he’d lost?
On social media the impact of Francis Ngannou’s unexpected performance is wide-ranging. Many people, including fans, pundits and athletes alike, feel that Ngannou won. As strange as it may sound, it’s widely felt that someone who had never boxed professionally in his life had beaten the reigning heavyweight champion of the world. As a result of his performance, Ngannou’s stock has risen considerably, reflected in a surge of followers and subscribers on his social media accounts. The day after the fight, he received over 320,000 Instagram followers, over 28,000 X (formerly Twitter) followers and over 200,000 TikTok followers.
By putting on a performance that few expected, particularly against someone as talented as Tyson Fury, Francis Ngannou has perhaps shifted people’s attitudes towards crossover sporting events. Beforehand people were quick to dismiss the event as a cash grab, unworthy of their time and attention. Some were even calling for a boycott, suggesting the only way to force promoters and sanctioning bodies to make fights that fans want was by voting with our wallets. However now, the event isn’t as farcical as it once seemed. Conversations are now very much focused on Ngannou’s capabilities, Fury’s apparent unpreparedness and vulnerability, and also the potential for future MMA-Boxing contests.
Ngannou’s decision to leave the UFC also seems vindicated, given that before the fight, people were criticising his decision to leave MMA to be a ‘punching bag’ for Tyson Fury. It was widely believed Ngannou wouldn’t stand a chance against any top 10 heavyweight boxer; the skills in professional boxing were far too specialised for someone of a different fighting discipline to cope. Fast forward to after the fight, and opportunities are being explored for future boxing opponents for Ngannou, while the argument that Ngannou left the UFC to avoid a fight with Jon Jones has also been weakened.
In the eyes of many, the split-decision victory for Tyson Fury has tarnished the sport of boxing once again because of its never-ending corruption problem. As far as many people understand it, Fury was never in any real jeopardy of losing the fight. He had to win. The undisputed match-up against Oleksandr Usyk was next and the Ngannou fight was nothing more than a stopover. It’s not that Ngannou didn’t win, it’s that he couldn’t win. There’s too much money on the line.
Reputationally the sport of boxing has taken a hit, particularly given how many fans and professional boxers themselves called the bout a Francis Ngannou victory. The sport of boxing simply couldn’t allow an MMA fighter to beat their world heavyweight champion in a boxing match. It would be an embarrassment if someone from outside who’d never had a professional boxing match turned up and beat the best the sport had to offer. Tyson Fury once lamented that corruption robbed him of the biggest comeback in boxing history when he first fought Deontay Wilder. Now, ironically against Fury, people are wondering if corruption has robbed Francis Ngannou of an even more spectacular story.
When it comes to combat sports, social media tends to be very much absolute in predicting a winner of a bout. With the exception of perhaps Errol Spence vs Terence Crawford, one fighter is usually argued to be leagues above their opponent. In the much anticipated bout between Tyson Fury vs Oleksandr Usyk, you either get “Fury will annihilate Usyk. He’s way too small and Fury has no problem playing rough” or “Usyk will box circles around Fury. Fury is scared and ducking him. Quack!”
This polarised sentiment extends to when a bout has taken place, exalting the winner and turning against the loser. Ryan Garcia felt the brunt of this after his bout against Gervonta Davis. However in the case of Tyson Fury and Francis Ngannou, sentiment is turning against the official winner. If people weren’t already turned off by Fury’s antics in suggesting a 70-30 split in his fight against Oleksandr Usyk, Fury’s critics are further emboldened by his poor performance against a non boxer. Many are now wondering if Fury has it within him to be competitive against Usyk, someone who is immensely talented and seen as a pound-for-pound great.
Perhaps more damaging to the Tyson Fury brand is that his performance against Ngannou will tarnish his legacy. Fury claims he’s the best boxer of our generation, but how can he be if he struggled against someone who’d never had a professional boxing match? Some Fury fans feel he should be considered alongside the boxing greats, but if he’s so good, why did he have to resort to throwing an illegal elbow during the fight, which he didn’t receive a point deduction for, to keep up? Fury’s aura of invincibility has been dented.
Although many people are in favour of a Francis Ngannou victory, it’s fair to say that some people agree with the official outcome. Although the bout was close, they say, Fury did enough to win. Some will argue that he didn’t take Ngannou seriously enough as an explanation for his performance, however this runs against Fury’s assertion that he held a 12-week camp to prepare for the contest. Although Fury has left Riyadh with an unblemished record, doubts now exist about his talent, commitment and punch resistance. He’s managed to come back from things when he’s been at his lowest, and his story has been a remarkable one, but it’ll be an even steeper climb to reach the heights he once achieved when a question hovers around the combat sports community: Did Tyson Fury really win against Francis Ngannou?