Last weekend, former UFC Heavyweight champion, Francis Ngannou made his pro boxing debut in a super fight against current WBO Heavyweight champion, Tyson Fury in Saudi Arabia. As I wrote when the fight was announced a few months ago, it was definitely a novelty bout, but it wasn’t necessarily a sideshow fight. This was two champions from two different sports, a concept not foreign to the fight game or the entertainment world, especially in the modern era.
Obviously, there’s a different between two legitimate athletes getting paid massive money to compete in Saudi Arabia, and a few Youtubers that participate in a cash grab on pay-per-view. There’s a reason the Jake Paul cards drew significantly less after he lost because the novelty wears off after the villain gets defeated. If people paid to order a Jake Paul card, they were primarily paying to see him lose, not for the entertainment value of the action. Floyd Mayweather obviously did the same thing in the second half of his career and made a few hundred million during his tenure as a fighter because he actually had the skills to continue to win.
Still, despite the one-dimensional nature of these social media fights, the impact it had on the sport of boxing can’t be denied. Instead of fighters building a fan following and then making the leap to pay-per-view for premium bouts, social media stars jump to the front of the line to cash-in on their popularity online. The problem is, the audience that is willing to pay to see KSI or Paul fight aren’t the demographic that will follow the sport or be invested enough to order pay-per-views for the top draws in the sport. Essentially, when a sideshow pay-per-view does well, it takes a critical pie of the pay-per-view pie away from traditional boxing cards, even if that is simply taking away publicity that could’ve been used to sell the fight.
That dynamic, along with the fact that the Saudis have added boxing to the list of American ventures that they are willing to spend major money for, has put a dent in the sport in the United States. Showtime, the premium cable channel that promoted the sport for a few decades, recently announced that it would drop boxing from its line up. This news was five years after HBO, the network that many considered the gold standard of boxing, also left the fight game because the economic of the industry didn’t make contracts realistically feasible. With the Saudis willing to pay exponentially more cash for boxing’s top stars to compete in the country, Showtime couldn’t compete with that type of money.
For example, Tyson Fury, who signed with the Saudis prior to the Ngannou bout, already has his next contest there scheduled against Oleksandr Usyk, the undefeated Ukrainian that holds three of the heavyweight championships, in December. Reportedly, Fury was paid a staggering $40 million for the contest against the former UFC champion, and that’s a sum that Showtime simply couldn’t compete with if the network realistically wanted to make any type of profit from a contract with Fury. The difference is, the Saudis are ultimately paying hefty cash as a part of their propaganda campaign using oil money to attempt to change the image of the country after years of criticism for human rights violations and the treatment of women. The Saudi goal is to make the country appear more modernized, not make a profit so the government isn’t concerned with the tens of millions of dollars spent on these ventures, but rather the publicity from it, which is why an all-star line-up of sports stars and celebrities were in attendance for the Fury/Ngannou bout.
Sure, it’s a ham-handed attempt to land publicity, but don’t get me wrong, I don’t blame Fury, Ngannou, or any other fighter for taking the cash that the Saudis offer. The fight game is a dangerous business and after you hang up the gloves, the cash you made and the financial security it hopefully provides are ultimately what counts. It’s a harsh reality, but morality and principals don’t pay the mortgage, but the money does. The mortgage company doesn’t care if the cash comes from the Saudis or a lemonade stand either, they just want paid. Again, it’s a harsh reality, but money fuels almost everything so you can’t blame anyone for taking the major payday to fight in Saudi Arabia.
Still, from strictly a purist prospective, it’s very disappointing to see the sport almost minimized to Saudi spectacles and social media sideshows. Granted, Premiere Boxing Champions still has Canelo Alvarez inked to a contract, and ESPN has some fight broadcasts on its line-up, but it might be a matter of time before the Saudis offer more key stars in boxing too much cash to decline. While ESPN is main stream distribution for the sport, these cards have more to do with the network attempting to maintain its viewership amongst the expanded sports media landscape so boxing might not become a staple on the channel the way it was in a previous era.
As for the fight itself, it was very entertaining, but it was a combination of factors that allowed this contest to be competitive. First, it should be noted that regardless of Francis Ngannou’s status in mixed martial arts and his ability as a striker, it’s almost embarrassing that Tyson Fury allowed this fight to not only be close, but debatable that maybe Francis beat him. That’s not to take anything away from the Cameroon native, he’s a tremendous athlete and his story is incredible, but anyone that had zero boxing experience shouldn’t be able to get within just a few points on the score card to defeat the heavyweight champion. The razor-close decision that saw Fury get the victory was an indication of Fury’s mishaps, not a lack of skill from Ngannou.
The biggest takeaway from this bout should be that Tyson Fury, who made a commendable comeback to the sport after struggling with substance issues before he turned his life around several years ago to reclaim the championship, looks to be getting too comfortable in his role as the heavyweight kingpin. Perhaps, the $40 million payday made this seem like an exhibition or he simply overlooked the MMA fighter since the Usyk fight is already penciled in for the end of the year. Either way, Fury looked out of shape, fatigued, and uninterested during various points in the bout.
Quite simply, Tyson Fury has defeated top-notch heavyweight competition and he’s better than this, but aside from the rounds where he landed more punches, he never put Ngannou in danger. Taking into account Francis’ typical MMA stance, there were definitely moments where he was there to take punches, but Fury was more often than not too tired to throw combinations or push the pace. The third round knockdown that sent Fury to the canvas from a left hook was surprising, but not too shocking when you take into account the flaws in his preparation or lack thereof. Plus, we’ve seen Fury on the canvas before only to still secure victories so while it was an unexpected knockdown, it’s doubtful that he was in any danger of not being able to continue the contest. Francis didn’t exactly take the middle of the fight off, but rather looked to conserve some energy and remain cautious, which is understandable since it was uncharted territory for him.
The scoring of the fight is completely up to interpretation, and there was a legitimate argument to be made for both fighters to win. There were some very close rounds, and it might’ve looked like Francis won definitively, but that was probably because many pundits expected the fight to be lop-sided so that can lead to a skewed prospective. Still, you have to wonder if there was a realistic scenario where the judges would’ve given Ngannou the decision in Saudi Arabia when Tyson Fury is already scheduled to defend his title there in two months.
As mentioned, if a fighter can make major money from the Saudis, they should take it, and Francis Ngannou, who lived in extreme poverty when he worked in salt mines during his youth, made an estimated $10 million for the fight. It’s an incredible success story, and despite the deal he signed with the PFL after his UFC exit, it will be interesting to see Ngannou’s next fight in boxing. Furthermore, with the Fury/Usyk on the horizon, it will be an intriguing scenario to see how many more high-profile fights will be held in Saudi Arbia, especially with the major publicity and stars that were in attendance for Ngannou’s boxing debut. Keep in mind, for every blockbuster fight that the Saudis host, it takes an event away from Las Vegas, a city that was once considered the fight capital or the world, or Madison Square Garden in New York. With the speculation of a UFC deal for the country, an agreement that Vince McMahon helped facilitate for TKO because of WWE’s prior deal with the Saudi government, as random as it might’ve seemed just a few years ago, Saudi Arabia might become the primary location for the biggest fights in the sport.
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Until next week
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