Tyson Fury’s fumble to Francis Ngannou raised questions of boxing’s growing malaise

A surreal night of Saudi extravagance as a former UFC fighter almost beat the world heavyweight champion

On Thursday night, a mere 54 hours before he stepped into the ring to face Francis Ngannou, Tyson Fury sat in his cluttered dressingroom in Riyadh and grinned with devilish certainty as he compared himself to Kipling. Yet, rather than reflecting on his ability to treat both triumph and disaster as impostors, the WBC world heavyweight champion licked his lips and made a more amusing reference.

“I know boxing like Mr Kipling knows cakes,” Fury said with a throaty cackle.

He might revel in playing the role of the crude fool, but a canny intelligence underpins Fury’s position as boxing’s king of the ring. And so he underpinned his quip with an immediate caveat: “Of course in heavyweight boxing anything can happen. So expect the unexpected. I could get chinned out here on Saturday night and then I go: ‘Ha ha! Idiot. Best thing for you. Didn’t see it coming. Should have been more focused, whatever.’

“You can never write off any heavyweight. But if I had to fight a 6ft 9in switch-hitter who weighs 20 stone and can punch, counterpunch, get on the back foot, move, dance, I would think: ‘How do you beat this man?’”


Thirty minutes earlier I had asked Ngannou that very question and compared it to the almost impossible task of scaling one of the world’s most imposing mountains as an amateur climber. Ngannou, who had never before had a single round of professional boxing, emerged as an immensely likable man. He nodded and smiled.

“I have climbed a lot of mountains in my life,” the 37-year-old said as he remembered the poverty of his childhood in Cameroon, working as a young boy in a quarry, being jailed as an illegal immigrant in Paris and then carving out a life for himself as a mixed martial artist who eventually became the dominant heavyweight in the UFC. “So I’m not afraid of mountains.”

As a raw novice of boxing and, facing a venerated and unbeaten giant in Fury, Ngannou added softly: “He is a mountain, but every mountain is climbable.

Both fighters were correct in their predictions. The unexpected nearly ruined Fury. The champion got more than chinned by an apparent no-hoper. He was knocked down heavily in the third round after a clubbing left hand to the side of his head scrambled his senses. Fury got up – as he always does. He has been down many times in his career, and in his life outside boxing, and he ended up gulping in relief as he won a contentious split-decision over the admirable Ngannou – who reached the summit only to lose this 10 round non-title bout by a single point.

“Welcome to boxing, Francis,” two of those judges might have whispered to the newcomer.

I thought Ngannou won the fight, but I have seen far worse decisions in boxing. A few sage experts even produced counterarguments to suggest Fury had just about scraped home. But almost everyone was united in awe of Ngannou’s astonishing debut and disappointment in Fury’s mediocre performance. Perhaps spending too much time making family documentaries for Netflix and counting the hundreds of millions of dollars he will make from his liaison with the Saudis has robbed Fury of the grit and hunger all great fighters need to nurture to the end.

Social media, obviously, was in uproar, lambasting corruption in boxing and lamenting how Ngannou had been cheated of his rightful victory. Yet it was telling that Ngannou himself did not rail against the decision in the aftermath. However, in the heat of Riyadh today, his pride might swell with some resentment that Fury was saved by the judges.

Oleksandr Usyk should feel the most frustrated fighter of them all. The Ukrainian, who owns the IBF, WBA and WBO belts while being besieged with worry over the war at home, is due to fight Fury for the undisputed world heavyweight title in Riyadh on 23 December. That date is now at serious risk because Fury, with a cut on his head and his face swollen from the blows he took, does not look like a man who can step back into the fire in another seven weeks.

Usyk must be seething that Fury decided to accept this money-spinner against Ngannou as a supposed tune-up before their title decider. At least Uysk will be bolstered in his belief that he can capitalise on Fury’s soft living and extreme wealth and defeat him whenever they eventually fight in Riyadh.

A surreal night also gave the hosts a chance to showcase their extravagance before Fury and Ngannou got down to the violent business of heavyweight boxing. After the undercard fights were over, having stretched across five hours, there was a switch in venues to the massive main arena whose construction was only completed a few days ago. The small undercard crowd and all media crews were hustled around the corner to the packed and lavish Boulevard Hall, where celebrities from Cristiano Ronaldo, Kanye West and Luis Figo to Eminem, Rio Ferdinand and Conor McGregor were ensconced in discreet VIP enclosures.

After a spectacular opening ceremony, a boxing ring rose slowly from beneath the stage floor. It finally stood in resplendent, shimmering glory while the famous guests were ushered ringside with, notably, Cristiano Ronaldo provoking a sustained outbreak of booing. Usyk, meanwhile, was greeted with roaring acclaim.

In these moments it was easy to understand why the dark forces of Saudi Arabia and professional boxing seem made for each other. All the biggest fights in the immediate future could well take place in Riyadh rather than Las Vegas or London. Many of those who make their living from boxing have shown unfettered glee in this new arrangement and have been full of gushing praise for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

Yet it should not be forgotten that two young Saudi men, Abdullah al-Derazi and Jalal Labbard, have just been sentenced to death for taking part in anti-government protests when they were both minors under the age of 18. They now face the fate of 112 people who have already been executed in Saudi so far this year.

These salutary reminders could not be obscured by the glittering theatrics that preceded the ringwalks, by Michael Buffer making his ancient honeyed growl of Let’s Get Ready to Rumble, by another debatable split-decision or by the stark fact that boxing has now chosen to embed itself deep within Saudi Arabia.

Boxing, as well as many of its supporters and even critics, will simply ignore the most troubling aspects of life in Saudi Arabia and concentrate instead on boiling arguments over who really won this fight or who is great or who is abject. There is rarely any room for nuance or reflection in boxing. Sometimes that can feel exhilarating because, as Ngannou showed in the early hours of Sunday morning in Riyadh, boxing still produces drama and pathos.

It is actually permissible to lose ourselves briefly in the sheer madness of it all. Equally, it is intriguing to wonder how Fury might recover from this near grievous blow to his fighting ego. Will he hunker down and give everything of himself to the grim regime of the gym and the ordeal of yet another brutal fight before the year is over? Will Usyk become the undisputed world heavyweight champion or has his best chance slipped away because Fury cannot be as complacent again? And what next awaits the remarkable Ngannou?

Boxing has its own questions to answer in a strictly sporting sense. For years it has been threatened by the staggering rise of mixed martial arts, but it always claims that its profound history and supposedly higher level of skill cannot be matched by any other combat sport. Boxing loves to call itself “the noble art” or “the sweet science’ – and it felt bolstered by the way in which Floyd Mayweather embarrassed Conor McGregor in the ring in the last big crossover fight between a boxer and a mixed martial artist in Las Vegas in 2017.

But, six years on, the world, and boxing, occupies a much more difficult place. Ngannou, on his first night at boxing school, tore down those smug old assumptions of supremacy. It is still legitimate to ask if this was a startling one-off or truly symbolic of the growing malaise in boxing.

These are fascinating sporting questions that stand alongside wider and more positive issues relating to Saudi Arabia. Clearly, some welcome changes are unfolding in Saudi society. The lives of many young people are opening up and it is now possible for them to taste a measure of freedom when watching football and boxing or after the outrageous exploits of famous sportspeople, from Ronaldo to Fury, who have chosen to end their careers here. More and more sports fans from around the world will be enticed to Saudi Arabia – which helps soften the terrible image of the state and boost an already vast and bottomless economy.

Yet a dark truth persists. Many of the courageous people who stand up to repression in Saudi Arabia continue to be imprisoned, tortured and even executed. Their plight matters so much more than the money and the mayhem peddled by boxing. – Guardian