This past Saturday, former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou almost did the unthinkable when he came within inches of upsetting WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury inside the boxing ring. Ngannou lost by split decision but scored a knockdown and nearly came away on the good end of one of — if not the — biggest upsets in sports history.
Ngannou’s success came after nearly all experts believed he had no chance to defeat the best boxing heavyweight of the generation. The reality is, Ngannou emerged as a winner even in defeat and his name has never had more value.
The big question is: What’s next for Ngannou? He said he’s ready to continue his boxing career but also signed with PFL to compete in MMA after a bitter split with the UFC while he held their heavyweight title.
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Let’s take a look at some of the top options for Ngannou’s next bout — whether they’re realistic or not.
Why this opponent? In the immediate aftermath of any fight that produces a shocking result or even mild controversy, the idea of a rematch is always bandied about. There are plenty of questions to be answered in a potential rematch. Will Ngannou be better with more time and training? Was the first fight simply a matter of Fury not taking Ngannou seriously? And so on.
Ngannou put Fury on the canvas and won one of three official scorecards while narrowly losing a split decision. Even if Fury was unprepared for what Ngannou would bring to the ring and didn’t take his training seriously, the result was. Ngannou no doubt wants another crack and a man with an ego the size of Fury’s certainly would like to show he’s better than nearly ending up on the bad end of arguably the biggest upset in the history of professional sports.
Why it might not happen: Fury’s attention will turn to one of two things: His planned fight with Oleksandr Usyk to crown the first undisputed heavyweight champion of the four-belt era or another “retirement.” Ahead of the Ngannou fight, Fury was happy to talk about how Usyk had no option but to fight him on Dec. 23 or he’d be in breach of their signed contract. That was, of course, nonsense, given that no date was confirmed for the bout, but Fury loves to seem like the man in control of everything in his orbit.
The Usyk fight is next for Fury and that makes an Ngannou rematch seem unlikely. Unless, of course, Ngannou waits out that fight, continuing to train before securing the rematch. That’s a possibility, but wasting that much time at 37-years old and with his name red-hot at the moment would be a misstep.
Why this opponent? There is no bigger fight in mixed martial arts than Jon Jones vs. Francis Ngannou. As UFC president Dana White recently said when discussing the interim UFC heavyweight title fight in the wake of Jones’ injury, “To be the man, you have to beat the man.” Well, Jones didn’t beat “the man” when he beat Ciryl Gane. He beat the man Ngannou beat before walking out the UFC door to take control of his own destiny.
For all the talk when Ngannou split from the UFC of the former heavyweight champion “fumbling the bag,” the Fury fight proved that it was the UFC who did the fumbling. As has been said many times since Saturday night,. He has an amazing backstory, a great personality and as fan-friendly an in-cage style of any fighter in UFC history. Jones is the exact opposite, a man who has had everything come easy — not to dismiss the hard work he puts in — and who has always come back to the UFC fold where, when in the promotion’s good graces, White will shout to the masses that Jones is the Greatest of All-Time.
Ultimately, Jones vs. Ngannou is a legacy-defining fight for both men and a chance for every party involved in Ngannou’s separation from the UFC to prove that they were in the right. What’s better than that?
Why it might not happen: There’s not much mystery here. White and the UFC won’t allow themselves to be proven wrong, nor afford PFL the platform to boost their profile. That’s not the way the UFC operates. The promotion already blew it by letting Ngannou walk and not getting a slice of the Fury fight.
The risk of Ngannou sleeping Jones and not being under UFC control is simply not worth it for White and Co. Better to insist Ngannou ran from the fight despite Jones sitting on the sidelines for three years and only moving to heavyweight once Ngannou was already gone.
Why this opponent? A fight between Wilder and Anthony Joshua has been tossed around for a few years but is that really a more compelling fight than Wilder vs. Ngannou? This potential fight is a clash of likely the two hardest punchers alive. Both men have put Fury on the canvas, though neither has defeated the WBC champion. Aside from being maybe the easiest fight on the planet to market, the winner is immediately in the mix for a title shot, even if it’s Ngannou with a 1-1 record in the boxing ring.
Sometimes matchmaking can actually be as simple as “These two big lads hit really hard, let’s see who wins.” This is one of those cases.
Why it might not happen: Both sides have already said that talks are already underway. Where things get a bit more difficult is that Ngannou mentioned they’ve been discussing a “mixed-rules fight” with Wilder, who has toyed a bit with mixed martial arts training recently. Wilder’s trainer, Malik Scott, has also stated that talks are underway but his comments seemed focused on strictly boxing.
If the ruleset can’t be agreed upon — or if Ngannou simply needs to get in the PFL cage next — that could tank one of the most sensible fights available for both men.
The winner of Renan Ferreira vs. Denis Goltsov
Why this opponent? Ferreira and Goltsov meet on Nov. 24 in the 2023 PFL heavyweight championship. As part of Ngannou signing with PFL, the Cameroonian pushed the idea of fair treatment of fighters. What is more fair than the man who wins the 2023 season earning a massive opportunity (and payday) against Ngannou?
Goltsov ripped through the competition to get to the finals, scoring three first-round stoppages. Ferreira lost his first fight of the season but a failed drug test changed the result to a no-contest. Ferreira then scored two first-round stoppages of his own to punch his ticket to the championship bout with Goltsov.
Why it might not happen: While there’s plenty of reason to make this fight from a competitive standpoint for PFL, it feels like a misstep for Ngannou to accept it. Ngannou’s name is worth more than ever in this moment and that should be parlayed into the biggest fight possible. Ngannou vs. Ferreira or Goltsov simply doesn’t have much value in drawing attention or moving tickets and PPV buys.
Why this opponent? The other big name in boxing’s heavyweight division is Joshua. A former two-time unified champion, Joshua still has name value and plenty of skill to make this a fight that can do big business. For Ngannou’s part, a win over Joshua would vault him up the rankings and make him an actual title contender.
Joshua’s promoter, Matchroom Boxing’s Eddie Hearn, was up to make the fight happen if he couldn’t force Joshua into a fight with Fury first.
“Now I’m looking at it and I’m thinking, ‘Francis Ngannou against Anthony Joshua, perhaps in Africa, perhaps the Rumble in the Jungle 2, is one of the biggest fights in the history of the sport,'” Hearn said during an appearance on The MMA Hour.
Why it might not happen: Similar to Wilder, it’s a solid option for everyone involved. But sometimes it’s hard to get over the various hurdles to make a fight work. Hearn is correct, however, that Joshua vs. Ngannou would do well to set up the winner to fight the winner of Usyk vs. Fury. The only reason for Ngannou vs. Joshua or Wilder to not come together is strictly business concerns and whether the sides involved are able to make the numbers work.
There are, of course some other available options that could just make more sense with Ngannou’s experience level. Someone like Andy Ruiz Jr., who is a former unified champion but maybe presents less risk than Wilder or Joshua, could be an attractive option, though not more attractive that the other boxers already named.