Francis Ngannou came close to pulling off the biggest and most outrageous shock in boxing history just after midnight on Saturday in Riyadh.
At the end of the contest, Fury won a controversial split decision to remain unbeaten, but his bruised and bloody face was harsh and undeniable testimony to the success Ngannou had throughout the fight.
It was called a freak show, a circus event and the carnival fight was meant to be an easy night in the ring for Fury; at ringside, the other unbeaten heavyweight champion, Oleksandr Usyk, was waiting with a smile on his face and his contract for a fight with Fury in his pocket. He was not smiling at the end.
The plan had been for their $100m unification fight to be back in Riyadh in late December; that date has not yet officially been dropped, but it is seriously unlikely. Fury was exhausted and heavily marked on the left side of his face: the champion looked stunned when the fight was finished, just as he looked stunned a dozen times during the action.
“I need a long, hard break,” Fury said. He also praised Ngannou and was, thankfully, respectful in victory. There was a sense of true bewilderment in the packed ring at the end – I know, I was in the mix.
“I have told him to go away, take a break and to not even think about boxing,” added Frank Warren, Fury’s promoter. It is clearly what Fury needs.
A decision on the date of the Fury vs Usyk fight will be made in the next week or two; it will be in Saudi before the end of March. It will happen, but Ngannou has pushed it back and also put himself in prime position to fight the winner.
In the ring, Ngannou was magnificent and controlled and never once flustered by anything that Fury did. The smart thinking before the first bell was that even a slow, heavy and unmotivated Fury would simply know too much for a man having his very first boxing match.
Ngannou, who has lost three of his 20 fights on the mixed martial arts circuit, stuck to boxing’s absolute basics and Fury was unable to solve any of the problems that his novice opponent posed. Sure, it was a great performance from the Cameroonian-French fighter, but Fury was very poor.
In round three, Fury was caught with a looping left hook and sent tumbling, dazed and embarrassed to the canvas. It was not a fluke punch or a wild swing; Ngannou was in charge of the pace and he was picking his punches with care. Fury was ragged and often held with a desperation that was hard to believe.
Ngannou kept the pressure on for the entire 10 rounds and Fury never managed to take full control of the fight. Fury never hurt Ngannou, he never once made Ngannou look like a novice. It was hard to watch at times and difficult to absorb what was happening; Fury clearly had no idea how to deal with the man he had deeply underestimated. There must be a full inquest inside the swollen Fury team.
In the second half of the fight, as Ngannou slowed, Fury had some success with a flicking jab, but he was still quick to hold. Ngannou ignored the big rights that connected with his chin and head. The later rounds were closer, slower and three or four could have gone to either man.
Fury was having his 35th fight, he is generally acknowledged as the best heavyweight of his generation, and some have even claimed he is one of the top five heavyweights in history. However, in the ring against Ngannou, there were very few recognisable parts of any fighting version of Fury the world heavyweight champion; he fought like a novice and often looked like he was uncomfortable under pressure. And Ngannou did put him under pressure.
At the final bell, there were no great celebrations from either man, no mad scrambles to raise a fighter high on shoulders. They were both exhausted, their teams drained. It was a split decision; one vote of 95-94 for Ngannou and a 96-93 and 95-94 for Fury. There was relief, not joy on Fury’s face at the end. Ngannou just shrugged. He had been a gentleman all week.
“I came up short today,” Ngannou said. “I will fight on. I will get better.” He never once complained that he had been robbed.
In the ring at the end, there was a stare-off between Fury and Usyk, but it never looked like either man was committed to the ceremony.
Fury had a bad night, Ngannou the finest of his fighting career; Fury will never be that bad again and hopefully, at some point next year, Ngannou and Fury will do it all again. It was not a circus fight, but it was a carnival in Saudi Arabia.