The 5 Best Opponents for Francis Ngannou's 1st Boxing Match

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured Columnist IIIJanuary 20, 2023

The 5 Best Opponents for Francis Ngannou's 1st Boxing Match

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    PHOENIX, ARIZONA - FEBRUARY 17:  Francis Ngannou of Cameroon celebrates his KO victory over Cain Velasquez in their heavyweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Talking Stick Resort Arena on February 17, 2019 in Phoenix, Arizona. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
    Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

    Ladies and gentlemen, this is not your father's big-time boxing.

    Francis Ngannou, a 6'4", 258-pound imposing figure, was the UFC's reigning heavyweight champion until just after dark on Saturday night in Las Vegas, when his chief mixed martial arts nemesis—Dana White—announced he'd been relieved of his title and released from any contractual obligations to the combat sports conglomerate.

    Instantly, the competitive-punching world was turned on its head, and forecasters of all shape, sizes and inclinations began pondering what the 36-year-old French Cameroonian's next professional move might be.

    Second-tier combat outfits suggested interest if he decided to defect in their direction, and the B/R combat sports team got to thinking about it, too, ultimately deciding that it's most likely the winner of 17 of 20 pro MMA bouts—including 12 by knockout—would steer himself to the ring.

    Ngannou has floated the idea on more than one occasion in the past and went so far as to appear in the ring following a Tyson Fury fight last spring to publicly ponder the idea of a sport-vs.-sport showdown with boxing's most recognizable heavyweight kingpin.

    With that in mind, the B/R team compiled a list of the five best ring options for Ngannou when and if he actually makes the transition. Take a look at what we came up with and drop a thought or two of your own in the comments section.

5. James Toney

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    James Toney, left, fires a punch on Rydell Booker, right, during the first round of their WBC and IBA Heavyweight Championship Bout held at Pechanga Resort and Casino in Temecula, Calif. Thursday, Sept. 23, 2004. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)
    AP Photo/Denis Poroy

    Like it or not, Ngannou is going to arrive as the A-side, or at least the novelty, in any matchup he ultimately chooses.

    And given that status as a would-be cash cow, he's unlikely to risk getting embarrassed in a debut by a second-tier heavyweight precisely no one has heard of.

    So in the spirit of Jake Paul, how about a compromise?

    Rather than starting off with an unknown fighter with the street cred to humiliate him, might we suggest going the "Problem Child" route and plucking a recognizable but something less than fearsome—read: old—opponent for his first in-ring test.

    Among those who check off the boxes, we'd propose James Toney.

    For those unaware, Toney was one of the world's best boxers during his ring prime, winning titles at 160, 168 and 190 pounds from 1991 to 2003 and adding another belt at heavyweight in 2005 before his decision win over John Ruiz was overturned by a failed drug test.

    Now 54, he was active in the ring as recently as 2017 and made a memorable crossover of his own in 2010, lasting less than a round in the cage against Randy Couture and succumbing to an arm-triangle choke at UFC 118 in Boston.

    Should a 54-year-old be able to handle an active MMA champ like Ngannou? No.

    But the 5'10" Toney made a living being clever and skilled enough to bamboozle guys far larger than him, and he was certainly surly and self-assured enough to believe he could take a relative novice to school.

    Count us in among those who'd pay to see him try.

    And count Randy Gordon, former chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission, among those who think he might.

    "I could see Toney doing it," he told Bleacher Report.

4. Anthony Joshua

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    NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JUNE 01:  Andy Ruiz Jr  punches Anthony Joshua after their IBF/WBA/WBO heavyweight title fight at Madison Square Garden on June 01, 2019 in New York City. (Photo by Al Bello/Getty Images)
    Al Bello/Getty Images

    Of course, if Ngannou isn't in the mood for an old-age novelty, he has the option of shopping the damaged-goods section of the boxing department store, too.

    Anthony Joshua was an unbeaten heavyweight champion just three years ago and seemed poised for both in-ring superstardom and mainstream crossover fame.

    These days, after three one-sided losses in five subsequent fights, he's recalibrating exactly where he stands in the ring spectrum. And, according to promoter and chief hype man Eddie Hearn, a bout with Ngannou could soothe the hurt of a wounded competitive spirit.

    "I think AJ is all about the biggest fights and the biggest challenges," Hearn told DAZN. "I think AJ has got his mind on becoming a three-time world champion, but a fight against Francis Ngannou is fascinating."

    Ngannou apparently agrees.

    He mentioned Joshua by name when discussing would-be boxing options on The MMA Hour, and there's no doubt it'd be a striking spectacle to see Joshua, who stands a muscular 6'6" and typically weighs around 240, across a ring from a proven punching powerhouse.

    Would the Englishman, who was dropped four times by Andy Ruiz Jr. in their first matchup and repeatedly rattled by Oleksandr Usyk—neither of whom is billed as a KO artist—have the mettle to stand and trade with a less experienced but certifiably dangerous foe? Or would he play the matador to Ngannou's bull and lean on an 82-inch reach as the decisive factor?

    Given the money that'd be available, it's hard to imagine him not trying something.

3. Deontay Wilder

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    LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - OCTOBER 09: Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder (C) exchange punches during their fight for the WBC heavyweight championship on October 9, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Tom Hogan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
    Tom Hogan/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

    While Toney would be a safe transition and Joshua a challenging cash grab, the next step up Ngannou's prospective ladder would ratchet up both the risk and reward.

    Deontay Wilder is a former heavyweight champion who made 10 defenses of his WBC title during a five-year reign from 2015 to 2020. His name is frequently dropped in conversations about the hardest punchers in the sport, and his record against opponents not named Tyson Fury—against whom he's 0-2 with a draw—is a pristine 43-0 with 42 KOs.

    So an encounter with him, from Ngannou's perspective, provides the chance for instant credibility with a victory and what could be a permanent competitive vacation with a loss.

    Like Joshua before him, Wilder would have a tangible size advantage thanks to his 6'7" frame and pterodactyl-like 83-inch reach. And it'd be no real surprise if Ngannou, like dozens of boxers before him, crumbled to the mat the first time he was hit with a solid right.

    But Wilder's no Floyd Mayweather Jr. when it comes to defense nor a Ray Leonard when it comes to technique, so there'd be at least a few moments of genuine suspense in seeing what would happen if Ngannou was able to land with a vaporizing shot of his own.

    As for Wilder, he seems on board with the idea.

    "I think that would be an intriguing fight, and it would be a fight that would bring a lot of interest," he told The Insider. "It was mentioned to me before, and [PBC boss] Al [Haymon] agreed. There's the old saying, 'If it makes dollars, it makes sense.' And he agreed as well."

2. Oleksandr Usyk

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    JEDDAH, SAUDI ARABIA - AUGUST 20: Oleksandr Usyk punches Anthony Joshua during their World Heavyweight Championship fight during the Rage on the Red Sea Heavyweight Title Fight at King Abdullah Sports City Arena on August 20, 2022 in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)
    Francois Nel/Getty Images

    And now, we get to the gold standard.

    More than a few people consider Oleksandr Usyk to be the world's best all-around fighter and no less an authority than The Ring agrees, listing him atop its latest pound-for-pound rankings, compiled on January 7.

    He was an Olympic gold medalist in 2012 and ran his pro record to a pristine 16-0 while collecting and defending every recognized belt in the cruiserweight division through 2018.

    Ambition prompted a move to heavyweight beginning in 2019, and he parlayed it into championship-level success with consecutive clinical defeats of the aforementioned Joshua across 11 months in 2021 and 2022.

    Those wins earned him three of the four most widely recognized shares of the heavyweight laurels, and a winner-take-all showdown with Fury to unify the division has been discussed for some time in the first half of 2023, though, this being boxing, nothing is guaranteed.

    Which leaves the sliver of opportunity for the likes of Ngannou.

    Though he's not mentioned the Ukrainian-born champion by name, it'd represent a compelling contrast in styles if the ex-Octagon star considers Usyk as a foil.

    The 36-year-old is actually a smidge shorter at 6'3" and far lighter at around 220 pounds than Ngannou, and at least some prevailing wisdom might suggest an offensive machine like Ngannou could succeed by simply overwhelming the smaller man. That said, the bullying approach didn't work so well for Joshua, who was bedeviled by Usyk's hand and foot speed and sublime use of angles, not to mention his ability to take a good shot without folding.

    So, come to think of it, maybe there's a reason he's not been mentioned.

1. Tyson Fury

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    LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 03: Tyson Fury celebrates after defeating Derek Chisora, during their WBC heavyweight championship fight, at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium on December 03, 2022 in London, England. (Photo by Mikey Williams/Top Rank Inc via Getty Images)
    Mikey Williams/Top Rank Inc via Getty Images

    The preliminaries are over. Time for the main event.

    Though other options certainly exist and would be worth a watch if they do occur, there's no fight for Ngannou that'd be more anticipated than one with Tyson Fury.

    Ngannou is the baddest heavyweight on the MMA planet.

    Fury holds the same title when it comes to boxing.

    They're the first names out of each other's mouths when it comes to discussing crossover fights, and they've already gone to the trouble of making their rivalry public in a ring.

    Lest anyone forget, Fury invited Ngannou into the ring after a beatdown of Dillian Whyte last spring and announced to the crowd at Wembley Stadium that the then-UFC champ was the guy with whom he wanted to move the combat sports needle.

    "This is going to be a very special fight. Like never before seen in the history of our sport," Fury said that night. "We're not talking two light guys, 140 pounds. I'm 270; he's 270. It's going to be an explosive fight when it happens."

    His use of preposition seems all the evidence needed to suggest intent. And he's not wrong when it comes to the can't-look-away nature of the matchup.

    Fury is 6'9" and weighs in around 270 pounds with a gargantuan 85-inch reach. But he moves with the alacrity of a far smaller man and can best opponents with a mix of sheer technique, sheer size and sheer power. Nevertheless, he's vulnerable, too.

    He dropped Wilder five times in the final two fights of their trilogy and climbed off the deck four times himself, so the idea that Ngannou could dent his chin with a solid punch is far from hyperbolic. And given Fury's affection for the spotlight, there's little doubt a duel between them would produce at least a few moments of in-ring firefighting.

    "I believe it breaks all pay-per-view records in the United States," Fury said.

    ESPN's Joe Tessitore, who called the Whyte fight, agreed.

    "A fight of any sort against Ngannou in a cross-promotion—and, by the way, they're both under the same network; they're both under the Disney network of ESPN—is a major mega global event," he said.

    Go ahead, say you're not intrigued. Actually, never mind. We don't believe you.