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Fury vs Ngannou: The next chapter in the MMA-boxing crossover rivalry

For better or for worse, it’s an irrefutable fact that people like crossovers. Whether it’s music, movies, cartoons, or sports, the public can’t seem to get enough of the “when worlds collide” genre.  Sometimes it’s a hit, such as when the hip-hop supergroup Run-DMC covered “Walk This Way”, in collaboration with rock and roll icons Aerosmith. However, there’s been other times when it’s concluded in spectacular failure. Such was the case in 2010, when former middleweight, super middleweight, and cruiserweight boxing champion James Toney decided to step into the octagon to challenge the former UFC heavyweight champion Randy Couture. Toney was swiftly taken down by Couture in round one and tapped out soon after by an arm-triangle choke. Sure, there have been other boxing-MMA crossover events that have taken place since the Toney-Couture fiasco, but that particular mismatch exhibited exactly what can happen when a lack of thought, preparation, and experience merge to create a freak show fight that leave fans of both sports shaking their head and feeling ripped off.

Regardless of its results or its pure competitive nature, boxing vs. mixed martial arts debates continue to rage on. Could Jon Jones take a punch from Deontay Wilder? Could one of Israel Adesanya’s kicks knock out Canelo Alvarez? Debates such as these have led to some very spirited and passionate discussions. And no matter who is right or wrong, promoters and athletes from both sports are acutely aware that the public will pay good money to find out. After all, if it makes dollars, it makes sense.

This leads us to the latest combat sport crossover event. On October 28th, lineal heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury will step into the ring with former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. The fight will be contested under the rules of boxing, although it’s still unclear whether or not this fight will be part of either fighter’s official record. Fury had previously been in talks to fight several high-risk opponents, such as Anthony Joshua, Andy Ruiz, and Oleksandr Usyk, but talks between all parties failed to produce any substantial arrangements. Now, Fury has found a lucrative fourth option that can, presumably, be considered a much safer option for the 34-year-old English star. Yes, Ngannou has won twelve wins by knockout during the course of his career in mixed martial arts, but the boxing ring is a different animal all together. Ngannou has never taken part in a professional boxing match before, and having his first against the current heavyweight champion might not be the wisest judgement.

However, despite his lack of experience, Francis Ngannou is still one of the biggest stars in all of combat sports. At present time, he is currently tied with Junior Dos Santos and Cain Velasquez for the second most knockouts in the history of the UFC’s heavyweight division. In addition, he also holds the current record for the hardest punch ever recorded. Sure, he might not have Oleksandr Usyk’s technical skill or years of experience in the squared circle, but what he lacks in skill and experience, he makes up for in pure punching power. Regardless of Fury’s pugilistic wisdom and poise on fight night, if Ngannou can land any kind of blow that approaches his world record hardest punch of 129,161 units, the “Gypsy King” is going to find himself in a world of trouble, and most likely on the canvas.

Regardless of the opinions of the public regarding Tyson Fury’s next bout in October, to say that the reigning champion fears a little competition would be highly inaccurate. Just go back and watch any one of his classic matchups with Deontay Wilder, for reference. Fury has been widely credited with the recent revival of an exciting and competitive heavyweight division that fight fans had grown bored of, when Wladimir Klitschko was its champion. At first American audiences didn’t seem to know what to make of Fury’s bizarre look and personality. His less-than-ideal physique and impromptu karaoke sessions after his fights left the majority of boxing fans scratching their heads and wondering how the hell the heavyweight division went from box office stars like Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield to the awkward and unconventional British prizefighter. Even after his unanimous decision victory over Wladimir Klitschko in July of 2015, which awarded him the WBA (Super), WBO, IBO, IBF, The Ring, and lineal heavyweight championships, fight fans still seemed unconvinced that Fury could carry the division. Nonetheless, that all changed in December of 2018, when Fury stepped into the ring with the undefeated WBC heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder.

At this point in his career, Tyson Fury was on the comeback trail. He had a rematch scheduled with Klitschko, but the fight had been postponed twice. The first time was due to an ankle injury, and the second was due to a positive test for cocaine. From there, Fury vacated his titles. Subsequent bouts with depression, weight gain, and excessive alcohol consumption further dimmed the bright lights of his career. Many believed that the Englishman’s time had come and gone. However, with dedication and discipline, he was able to reacquire his boxing license, and was cleared to return to the ring in December of 2018. What followed catapulted Fury into boxing stardom and endeared him to a new generation of fans who identified with his many struggles, and found inspiration in his actions.

Before a crowd of 17,698 fans at the Staples Center in Los Angeles, Fury and Wilder fought to a split decision draw. However, the most endearing moment of the fight came in the final round. In round twelve, Wilder landed a combination on Fury that sent him to the canvas. Sprawled out on the canvas, Fury appeared to be done. Fury’s comeback story seemed to be concluding its final chapter. Then the unexpected happened. To absolutely everyone’s shock, Fury got up. From there, Wilder was unable to connect with any more significant blows. Fury, for his part, finished the fight with some offense of his own. Many who watched the fight unfold believed Fury had won the fight, and a rematch between the two was a foregone conclusion.

The rematch took place in February of 2020. And this time, however, Fury dominated the American knockout artist from start to finish and resulted in a TKO in round seven. Fury had acquired the victory he craved, and he had now arrived on the sport’s biggest stage. For his part, Wilder claimed several factors contributed to his defeat, with one of the more bizarre claims being that his elaborate entrance costume was too heavy and depleted some of his stamina before the start of the opening round. Again, the public craved a rematch.

In October, 2021, the trilogy concluded. The third fight took place at the T-Mobile Arena in Nevada, and concluded in an 11th round knockout victory for Fury, which saw both fighters knocked down several times, throughout the course of the night. The fight was widely regarded as the best of the trilogy, and Fury was now a certified star. A TKO victory over Dillian Whyte in Wembley Stadium in April of 2022 and a tenth round TKO victory in his rematch with Derek Chisora in December of 2022 further cemented his legacy.

And now a new challenge awaits Fury, which is distinctly different from all the others. Francis Ngannou is not a boxer, but he is a name. And if you follow mixed martial arts, even casually, then you know what he brings to the table. Brutal knockout victories over Cain Velasquez, Junior dos Santos, and Alistair Overeem have turned the Cameroonian-French martial artist into a household name. He also joins B.J. Penn as the only other reigning UFC champion to leave the promotion. Ngannou was stripped of his championship in January of this year, after he and the UFC failed to come to terms on a new contract. Apparently, Ngannou had made requests in his new contract that the UFC was not willing to agree to. Amongst the requests made were sponsorship for all fighters, an advocate for the fighters being present during all contract negotiations, and health insurance. When the UFC denied all these requests, Ngannou decided not to re-sign. Now free from the worlds largest mixed martial arts promotion company, Ngannou was free to find other challenges that were not available to him before.

In May of this year, Ngannou signed a deal with the PFL, or the Professional Fighters League. This rival mixed martial arts company has only been around since 2018, but they have quickly made a name for themselves in the MMA community. The PFL also holds the distinction of being different from other promotions, due to its fighters competing in a regular season, a post-season, and a championship. This is unmistakably different from other promotions, which produce cards on a year-round basis. Most importantly for Ngannou, it will also let him be free to compete in boxing, which he has professed his interest in for years, and has made a cross-over super fight with Tyson Fury possible.

Although there’s a fair share of fans of both boxing and mixed martial arts that display a passionate contempt for crossover events, the curiosity factor is a hard one to resist. And with that curiosity, pay per view revenue is, undoubtedly, sure to follow. And while Francis Ngannou might not have ever competed in a boxing ring before, to say he is unskilled with his hands would be highly inaccurate. Afterall, Ngannou is still a trained fighter, and a powerful one at that. Sure, Fury obviously possesses superior boxing skills, but what if he CAN land a punch on Fury? Stranger things have happened in the sport of boxing, just to be clear.

Another factor that comes into play with this fight is what each fighter stands to win or lose. Ngannou is boxing at the highest level of the sport in his first professional match. He is not expected to win. Even if he just produces a decent showing, he has already won. And as for the payday, the eight figures he is rumored to be making on this fight is substantially more than he ever made fighting in the UFC. In truth, Ngannou has very little to lose, which might make him more relaxed, and give him a psychological edge, come fight night.

As for Fury, if he wins, so what? He was expected to, plus he’ll still be ridiculed for taking a fight with a mixed martial artist with no professional boxing experience over dangerous opposition such as Usyk or Anthony Joshua. Sure, he’ll make a lot of money, but his reputation will take a hit, regardless. If he loses, he’ll never hear the end of it. Forget the classic trilogy with Deontay Wilder. If Francis Ngannou defeats him in Saudi Arabia, he might as well find a nice spot out in the desert to bury his head in the sand and stay there. Fury’s name will still be in the history books, but he’ll have a hard time living that down. If you think otherwise, just ask Roberto Duran if the term “no más”still haunts him almost forty-three years after his losing effort in the rematch with Ray Leonard in New Orleans.

Boxing has often been credited as being the “theatre of the unexpected”. However, the sport of mixed martial arts could easily be given that moniker as well. Both are sports of violence, intrigue, debate, speculation, and hype. A crossover event between two of the top stars in their respective sports would surely bring those same facets to the table. The lure of the money is too great for either man to walk away from, and who could blame them? A professional athlete’s window, especially in combat sports, to perform at the highest level is relatively small. It only makes sense to get the most out of each and every fight, while they still can. And looking back at the battles that both Tyson Fury and Francis Ngannou have been in, in their illustrious careers, don’t they deserve the payday? Let them compete against each other if they want to. They’ve earned the right to make that decision, for whatever reasons suits them.

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