RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Reigning WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury’s appearance against an MMA fighter making his boxing debut figured to be another show to go along with his other ventures.
Francis Ngannou proved, however, he wouldn’t be the pushover so many anticipated.
Ngannou not only shockingly took Fury the 10-round distance, he came within one judge’s scoreboard of pulling off the upset early Sunday morning. Juan Carlos Pelayo of Mexico scored the fight 96-93 for Fury and Alan Krebs of the United States gave him a 95-94 victory. Ed Garner of Canada gave the fight to Ngannou at 95-94.
“That definitely wasn’t in the script,” Fury said. “Francis is a hell of a fighter — stronger, big puncher and a lot better boxer than we all thought he would ever be.”
Fury remained undefeated at 34-0-1 with 24 knockouts.
Ngannou, whose UFC record was 17-3, knocked down Fury in the third round, but this was a missed opportunity at a major upset.
Ngannou landed only six of 38 punches in the final two rounds, according to CompuBox, compared to 14 of 37 for Fury.
Fury landed more punches overall (71-59), but Ngannou hit the mark with more power shots (37-32).
“I feel fantastic,” Ngannou said. “I’m very happy. It didn’t go my way, but I want to thank … the kingdom of Saudi Arabia (for) the opportunity to prove people wrong one more time.”
Fury’s championship belt was never on the line in this bout, though it counts as an official fight.
He was a prohibitive minus-1,800 favorite, according to FanDuel Sportsbook, though some late money came in on Ngannou.
“He was very awkward,” Fury said. “He wasn’t coming forward. He was standing back waiting for me to land my punches and then try to counter. He’s a good fighter. He’s given me probably one of my toughest fights in the last 10 years.”
Fury relied on his jab early and switched to left-handed briefly in the second round when Ngannou made some headway and even opened a cut above Fury’s left eye. Then with 43 seconds remaining in the third round, Ngannou sent Fury to the floor with a left hook, the seventh time he has been knocked down in his career.
Ngannou staggered Fury early in the fourth, but Fury stayed on his feet and the rest of the round was fairly even after that. Fury appeared to gain control late in the fifth round and carried it over into the sixth, but Ngannou showed in the seventh he wasn’t going anywhere as both boxers traded blows.
Ngannou delivered three powerful lefts early in the eighth and then staggered Fury with two strong combinations midway through the round. Fury found himself holding on as Ngannou grabbed the momentum.
Fans chanted “Francis! Francis!” early in the 10th round, and just the fact the fight went the distance was an upset in itself.
Recording artists Kanye West and Eminem also attended, as did soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo, UFC headliner Conor McGregor and current and former boxing greats such as Sugar Ray Leonard and Manny Pacquiao.
Taking on this fight is the latest venture for the 35-year-old Brit, who has appeared in the WWE and been the focal point of a Netflix reality series. The money, a reported $50 million, to open the country’s entertainment festival called Riyadh Season, also likely piqued his interest.
The host country did its part in making Fury-Ngannou a stand-alone event. That fight was inside 26,000-seat Kingdom Arena, and the preliminary bouts were in a nearby outside venue constructed for this night.
Recording artists Lil Baby and Becky G performed in the main arena before both boxers entered. Then each fighter took his place on a throne wearing robes fit for a king.
If Fury figured to be in his element in a boxing ring, this was definitely a move out of the comfort zone for Ngannou, the Cameroon native, Las Vegas resident and former UFC heavyweight champion more accustomed to fighting in an octagon cage. Former heavyweight champion Mike Tyson, who also made the trip to Saudi Arabia, helped Ngannou get ready for his boxing debut.
This not only was his first boxing match, but Ngannou hasn’t competed at all since beating Ciryl Gane in UFC 270 in January 2022.
“I know I’ve come up short, but I’m going to go back and work harder with a little more experience this time, a little more feeling of the game and come back stronger,” Ngannou said. “This is a new sport that I never did, that I never fit. Now I know I can do this (expletive).”
Ngannou, 37, had a falling out with the UFC earlier this year. UFC President Dana White stripped him of his belt in January, and in May, Ngannou signed with the rival Professional Fighters League. His first fight for the PFL is expected to take place early next year.
Fury has the chance to unify the heavyweight division. He has agreed to fight Oleksandr Usyk, a Ukrainian who is in possession of the other three championship belts, on Dec. 23 in Saudi Arabia.
“I’m going to go home and take a little rest and we’ll see what’s next for us,” Fury said.
In the co-feature between to undefeated British heavyweights, Fabio Wardley knocked down David Adeleye with a right-left combination in the final minute of the seventh round, then finished him off at 2:43 when referee John Latham stopped the fight. Adeleye then shoved Latham, which could draw a suspension.
Wardley, 28, improved to 17-0 with 16 knockouts, and he owns the British, Commonwealth Boxing and WBO European heavyweight championships. Adeleye, 26, is 12-1.
The fight was scheduled for 12 rounds.