With Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk’s unification fight now set to take place in February, the prospect of Francis Ngannou headlining a card on that date in Saudi Arabia has emerged as a distinct possibility instead.
Fury’s promoter, Frank Warren, suggested that the Briton will need more time to recover following an unexpectedly bruising encounter with Ngannou on October 28, when the former UFC champion’s first professional boxing match ended in a split-decision defeat after he dropped Fury with a left hook in the third of the 10 rounds the pair shared.
Ngannou has reportedly received an offer – certain to be lucrative – from Saudi royal adviser Turki Alalshikh to fight again on the date when Fury and Usyk might have met, positioned in the middle of the Riyadh Season of events that Fury and Ngannou’s fight opened.
Who might Ngannou fight? What have his potential opponents said about him? The Sporting News examines five options for the man who has instantly become one of the most high-profile operators in the heavyweight division.
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Former two-time unified champion Joshua has the profile to make the mooted event even more money-spinning, and the Londoner has a strong relationship with Saudi Arabia, reclaiming his WBA, IBF and WBO, titles in his rematch with Andy Ruiz Jr in Diriyah in 2019.
Fury announced he had reached an agreement to fight Joshua in Saudi Arabia in 2021 but there was a sense of inevitability when that fight, which has long been the subject of speculation and counter-claims from both sides, fell through.
After losing his titles to Usyk in his home city later that year, Joshua was beaten by the Ukrainian on the scorecards again when the pair fought in Jeddah in August 2022.
Joshua’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, said his fighter could face French-Cameroonian Ngannou in Saudi Arabia or the Middle East, adding: “Africa sounds incredible – can they come up with the money to do it? I don’t know.”
Ngannou has a huge audience in Cameroon and the African continent has long been considered a potentially massive market for major combat sports events.
“All of a sudden, that fight between two giants – they’re carved out of stone – becomes a massive fight,” Hearn told BBC Sport. “We’re definitely willing to consider it.”
Hearn’s words were something of a surprise in light of his remarks after Joshua knocked out Robert Helenius at London’s O2 Arena in August, giving him a second successive win following his uninspired points victory over Jermaine Franklin in the same setting in April.
Joshua, said Hearn in July, had informed him he had “absolutely no interest at all” in fighting Ngannou. He detailed a meeting with Ngannou but told Talksport that Joshua was intent on becoming heavyweight world champion again rather than taking on a relative rookie.
“We had a very nice meeting and he’s got a great story,” Hearn said of Ngannou. “He came to me because he wanted to fight Anthony Joshua.
“I went straight to AJ. I’ve said ‘look it’s a bit of a leftfield one’ – and don’t forget, Anthony Joshua is not a world champion and didn’t have a shot at the world championship.”
Joshua considers himself an astute financial operator, with a keen focus on fights which make as much business sense as they do sporting. His purported revision of his views would appear to reflect Ngannou’s transformed appeal as a boxer following his impressive display against Fury, when ‘The Gypsy King’ received dispensation not to put his WBC belt on the line.
Not for the first time, irrepressible gatekeeper Chisora looked considerably past his best when he beat fellow veteran Gerald Washington on the undercard of Joshua’s win over Helenius, but he is clearly in no mood to ditch his gloves with his 40th birthday approaching five days after he could fight Ngannou.
Chisora has long made noises about wanting to fight Ngannou, saying he was “working on” the fight in February 2023.
“It’s going to be amazing,” predicted Chisora, speaking to GiveMeSport a month after Ngannou’s contract with the UFC expired, making him a free agent before he joined the Professional Fighters League (PFL) in May. “I’ve been working on the best game plan for him. It’s going to be sick.”
Kalle Sauerland, whose Wasserman Boxing empire was instrumental in setting up crossover promotion Misfits Boxing, has also given his backing to Chisora and Ngannou fighting.
Chisora has described himself as “the face of boxing in Saudi Arabia” and said he has a role promoting fights for the country’s Prince Khalid bin Salman Al Saud.
“It’s going to do amazing numbers,” Chisora said of events in Saudi Arabia, speaking to Boxing Social in January 2023.
“If you want numbers on your chequebook, you go to Saudi. None of these European promoters or American promoters can deliver how the Saudis want to deliver. That is it.”
As usual for major fights in the kingdom, Chisora was ringside when Ngannou nearly upset Fury, approaching him outside of the ropes in the immediate aftermath to call him a “champion” – almost certainly with half a mind on future business.
From a purely sporting perspective, Ngannou might see a fight with Chisora as the easiest or a high-risk, low-reward proposition.
While Chisora’s credibility is enhanced by his status as a former world title challenger – most recently when he took a grimly one-sided beating from Fury on his way to a 10th-round stoppage defeat in December 2022 – he is surely approaching the end of his career and has lost four of his last six bouts.
There would be no shame in losing to a campaigner as experienced and durable as Chisora in his second boxing match, but it would pose the risk of Ngannou being deemed to have found his level outside of title-challenging reach.
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A fight between Ngannou and Deontay Wilder would be effortlessly marketable as a shootout between the man who holds the world record for the hardest punch and the boxer with 42 knockouts from his 43 career wins.
Wilder has fought once since the second of his successive brutal defeats to Fury that ended the unbeaten record he had for the first 12 years of his career.
Other than his essentially meaningless first-round knockout of Helenius in October 2022, big-talking Wilder has spent his absence being linked with title shots and fights against the division’s contenders, with arguably the greatest intrigue lying in how much those chastening knockout losses have taken out of the American.
The defender of the WBC title on 10 occasions before losing it to Fury, Wilder was, alongside Fury and Joshua, arguably part of a trio of heavyweight fighters considered superstars by casual viewers before the rise of former cruiserweight Usyk.
But could the 38-year-old make his return in an entirely new discipline? “He’s really serious about MMA,” Ngannou told The MMA Hour. “I know a lot of people talk, ‘Oh, I’m going to do this in boxing and do that in MMA.’ But I think Deontay Wilder is very interested in MMA.”
The idea of an untested practitioner stepping into the Octagon with one of the best MMA fighters in the world seems absurd and has led to talk that Wilder and Ngannou could fight in a hybrid style of boxing and MMA with different rules – but Ngannou says Wilder could enter the Octagon for “MMA and MMA only”.
“It’s going to be a different beast for him,” said Ngannou, offering a significant understatement when he called the challenge “hard”. “And like this time [against Fury when] I was the one experiencing the mountain – climbing the mountain – he’s going to be the one climbing the mountain.”