The latest entry in combat sports' crossover era could, nay, would be the biggest.
Heavyweight champion Tyson Fury dispatched Dillian Whyte in London last Saturday in his ostensible retirement fight. But in this case, retirement might mean more of an extended vacation, one that doesn't see Fury get out of bed for less than $40 million.
Boxing fans are holding out hope for a heavyweight unification bout between Fury and the winner of a rematch between Anthony Joshua and Oleksandr Usyk, which hasn't been officially announced yet but is currently targeted for July.
That would be nice and all, but where's the carnival intrigue in that? It's not really a party until there's confusion over the ground rules.
Perhaps that's why, after his hand went up Saturday, the Gypsy King beckoned Francis Ngannou into the ring. The UFC heavyweight champion and the best heavyweight boxer around have been teasing a crossover battle for some time now. It would be a monstrous payday for both men and a must-watch for even the purest of combat sports purists. (For Fury, it would also have the fringe benefit of allowing him to technically keep his promise and remain retired from boxing.)
Ngannou is expected to sit out all of 2022 following knee surgery. It's a convenient way of waiting out his UFC contract so he can go test the boxing waters—an undisputed bucket list item for him. And who can blame him? Twelve of his 17 pro MMA wins have come by knockout, and Ngannou just looked on as Fury made a reported 56 times more money for beating White than he did for beating Ciryl Gane back in January.
Could this actually happen?
"Definitely," Ngannou said Saturday. "Sometime next year, 2023. That fight will happen because, by the end of this year, we're going to sort it out."
We'll see. There's no guarantee the UFC won't interfere in some way with Ngannou on this contract situation, and the situation has been tense. No one seems too sure what will happen, but knowing the UFC, they aren't going to happily or easily let him go.
If the fight does happen, there would need to be asterisks, of course. Either man would destroy the other in his native rule set, with Fury sticking-and-moving Ngannou into oblivion or Ngannou mauling Fury into the canvas. So it would happen under hybrid rules, which can vary but could involve gloves sized halfway between the two sports, heavy clinching but no takedowns or submissions, and plenty of other twists and turns. It's all on the table for negotiating, essentially. Ngannou said "MMA gloves, in the ring" after the fight, and noted they would be "mixing it up" rules wise, but who knows what it might actually look like.
There is precedent. Last year, the ever-intrepid Triller Fight Club tried what it called triad combat, essentially a boxing-MMA mashup.
Under these rules, legal moves included:
- All punches
- Spinning backfists
However, the following moves were illegal:
- Foot sweeps
Without knowing the exact rule set, breaking down a potential fight between the two is tough. Still, we know a lot of it would come down to Ngannou's ungodly one-shot power and Fury's ability to evade it. Fury has never been stopped in his career, but that zero would face a special kind of threat in Ngannou.
Fury is light on his feet, especially for a guy who stands 6'9". He's always working behind his lead hand, firing the jab or just pawing at his opponent for strategic purposes. At 85 inches, his reach gives opponents fits.
But that reach advantage would be a scant two inches against Ngannou. That means it will be easier for Ngannou to get inside and attack that long midsection—something Deontay Wilder had success with. Starching the body could slow Fury's movement, making him more susceptible to further attack. That could include one of those patented Ngannou bullrushes that are designed to overwhelm opponents. Fury has seemed pretty, well, unoverwhelmable in his career, but the equation changes when you hit as hard as Ngannou can.
That said, the advantage has to go to Fury.
Ngannou has the quintessential puncher's chance. Although he has a much deeper gas tank now than he did just a few years ago, he still can't be expected to dance with Fury for 12 rounds. Fury would build up unbelievable volume as the fight hit the final quarter pole, battering if not finishing Ngannou for a convincing win. Fury knows full well that Ngannou would have to get him early, and he should be able to use his footwork and range management to stay out of the danger zone.
There's a "but" with Ngannou, though, and a brutal knockout would set the sports world on fire. Regardless of whether it happens, the existence of that threat and the novelty rules will make this fight compelling.
But there's another but. Ngannou is far from some mindless smashing machine. Look at the way he's improved from fight to fight; he didn't just fall upward into the championship levels. Look at the grappling he incorporated against Gane—four of five takedowns landed and more than eight minutes of control time, per UFC stats. After laying one of the UFC's biggest eggs of all time in an offense-less decision loss to Derrick Lewis, he responded with a bonus-winning 45-second knockout of Curtis Blaydes. After Stipe Miocic smothered him in 2018, Ngannou was still aggressive but more measured in 2021 en route to a second-round knockout. This, ladies and gentlemen, is a learning computer. So that, and not his power, may be the real "but."
If you haven't given into crossover combat sports yet, then what in the name of Frank Gore are you waiting for? This matchup is the cream of the crossover crop, the rare spectacle with no discernible ceiling on hype, and there's plenty of room for everyone.
For our sakes, here's hoping Ngannou's right and this one gets sorted out.