In 2017, Conor McGregor stepped into the boxing ring against Floyd Mayweather in a matchup that showcased the most notable MMA fighter at the time against an all-time boxing great. From the moment the fight was announced it was assumed that the boxer was going to win because, of course, that’s what Mayweather had done his entire career. Without taking anything away from McGregor, this was his first attempt in a new sport and it came against a nearly untouchable superstar. There was very little hope that the MMA fighter was going to shock the world.
Seven years and two different fighters later, here we are again.
The lineal and WBC heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury will face former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou on Saturday (2 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV). There are most definitely similarities to when Mayweather faced McGregor, but when it comes to heavyweight boxing, things are a little different. Ngannou is a knockout artist with a highlight reel for the ages. Fury has of course faced — and beaten — many other big punchers, but one misstep and his upcoming fight against Oleksandr Usyk for the undisputed championship could be in jeopardy.
Before Mayweather-McGregor was even finalized, I was asked to create a game plan for how I would train McGregor for his bout. My response: I wouldn’t train him. It seemed too farfetched for someone to think that they could train McGregor to compete with Mayweather in such a short period of time. But given his power, Ngannou’s situation is different and by teaching him some key fundamentals, his fight against Fury could be closer than one thinks.
While I don’t expect one of the greatest heavyweight boxers of a generation to go down, here’s some perspective on how Ngannou could approach the biggest moment — and pay day — of his career.
Ngannou isn’t a typical Fury opponent
What to look out for ahead of Fury vs. Ngannou
Timothy Bradley and Mike Coppinger preview the Tyson Fury vs. Francis Ngannou fight.
A lot of people will look at this fight as a money grab, but I think it’s a dangerous money grab — and more dangerous for the guy who is supposedly going to win easily. Fury is of course expected to have his way in this fight. He’s an elite boxer, the heavyweight champion of the world. But what if Fury doesn’t take him seriously?
I find it intriguing in that way. You have one guy who doesn’t seem to be taking this fight seriously and it’s hard to all of a sudden change gears in that ring if things don’t go his way. Will he be able to adjust? I think that 75% of a fight is mental. Will he be able to re-focus if Ngannou exceeds expectations early on?
Punchers are born, they are not made. And Ngannou can punch. He can take your lights out. If he can put his hands on the chin on Fury, he can hurt Fury and there’s no doubt about it.
When you have power, that’s your confessional booth — you can go in there and confess and be cleaned of all sins. If the fight isn’t going your way, but you land a big punch, the fight is different from that point on. That’s the one thing that I don’t think people are putting enough emphasis on leading into Saturday. That one punch can erase a lot of Fury’s advantages and a lot of Ngannou mistakes made during the night.
“Ngannou needs to control his ego. I know he thinks and believes he can’t learn everything that Fury knows and become an elite boxer with just a few months of training, but he can learn boxing fundamentals.”
After 50 years in the business I love my sport, but the reality is that this isn’t fair to the MMA fighter. He’s got four other elements he’s not allowed to bring into play. He can’t go on the mat. He cant bring jiu-jitsu or grappling or wrestling. Or elbows or kicks.
But these two are human beings and funny things happen. You can’t alleviate or forget about Ngannou’s power. If Fury makes a single mistake, and all of a sudden, boom, all those Fury advantages are no longer there.
The biggest puncher in the world, Deontay Wilder, hit Fury and dropped him, and Wilder isn’t the most fundamentally based boxer. Even as a heavyweight champion, he was raw. Ngannou isn’t Wilder, but he does have that same punching power. He can look to that as motivation.
The key for Ngannou
We’ve all seen Ngannou’s biggest moments, but he can’t only think of his power. A boxer can’t just believe he’s going to go in there and land. You have to have a delivery system.
My mentor Cus D’Amato drilled this into my head. He used to say, ‘No matter how much power you have, it’s like a military weapon. It has no value if there’s no way to get it to the target.”
Ngannou needs to control his ego. I know he thinks and believes he can’t learn everything that Fury knows and become an elite boxer with just a few months of training, but he can learn boxing fundamentals.
And through those fundamentals, he needs to come up with a delivery system. Those fundamentals start with using the lead jab properly; to set the table, if you will, and then eat with the right hand.
But let’s take a step back. It’s not just about what Ngannou will have to do in an offensive way, but also what Fury is going to do and how Ngannou is going to deal with it from the defensive side. We know Fury — his tendencies and how he works. He’s a big man with a long reach. He likes to use the jab to set up his foray of punches and Ngannou should do whatever it takes to try and take away Fury’s clear preferred tactic. If Fury can control you with the jab it’s over. He won’t let you get close. He’ll move you around like a puppet.
So how should Ngannou deal with Fury’s jab? Using his own jab. And it factors into both sides of the street — offensive and defensive side. It also neutralizes. Ngannou will have to find a way to throw jabs so that Fury knows there’s a jab coming back at him — instead of Fury having free reign on jabs all night. Ngannou needs to make him think in spots about even throwing. The jab of Ngannou is a key — he’s tall, athletic, strong — his jab reminds me of George Foreman’s. Use the jab and just give Fury, the guy who is the elite boxer, something to be honest about. Something to worry about. Something where he won’t be able to dominate you with his best punch.
Now, landing jabs to the face isn’t a must. Even if Ngannou lowers his sights on it, it makes it a little easier for him to be accurate in a place where he hasn’t had to be accurate on that kind of level in MMA. If he lowers the jab, he’ll at least hit something and it’ll serve two purposes: a physical one and a mental one. First, Ngannou will give himself confidence that he can land. The worst thing is for a fighter to be in the ring with no hope — where he’s missing and getting caught. You need to have hope. And Ngannou can also send a message to Fury — maybe it’s not going to be that easy, free ride, lay-up it was going to be. Maybe it’ll be a little tougher.
So really, what can Ngannou do?
Given all of his experience in the Octagon, Ngannou would seemingly have an advantage in the clinch and keeping the fight close. But getting there is going to be the biggest challenge. Does he get there behind a jab? Or feints?
The reality is that he may never get there. Fury is a diversified boxer. He is the best technical boxer out there. Yeah, he’s as big as a mountain, but he’s the best technical boxer right now. He showed he can go get his opponents by being aggressive and use his size that way, or use his size on the outside and his legs to move around. He entices his opponent to come to him and he throws a counter. He makes you make mistakes. So the clinch sounds good, but it’s hard to get there.
Distance is important for Ngannou. He doesn’t want to get to Fury with the ‘give something to get something’ mindset. He doesn’t need to give up those opportunities to get close — or end up overextending and leaving himself open to a professional who knows how to counterpunch. He should have been working on his footwork, taking steps and not trying to be in Fury’s face all at once.
Fury will look to time him, so feinting will be key. Maybe Fury throws that counter a second too soon and Ngannou gets the danger out of the way and goes to where he wants to go. Little feints to make him think he’s coming, then with Fury off stride Ngannou can come in safely. And if Ngannou is able to land some offense, he has the potential to shock the world.