For the second time in five months, former UFC champion Francis Ngannou will step into a boxing ring to take on one of the greatest heavyweights of the modern era. Only this time, the expectations are wildly different heading in. 

Ngannou (0-1 in boxing, 17-3 in MMA) returns on Friday in Saudi Arabia, when he takes on former unified champion Anthony Joshua (27-3, 24 KOs) in a 10-round bout that could catapult the winner into an eventual shot at the undisputed title. 

The non-title bout, which emanates from Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, has become a must-see event (ESPN+ PPV, 11 a.m. ET) thanks to Ngannou’s performance last October when he dropped lineal champion Tyson Fury and nearly upset him in a split-decision defeat. 

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There’s another intriguing heavyweight fight on Friday night with title implications. WBO interim champ Zhilei Zhang is set to take on Jospeh Parker. Zhang earned the interim title with an April 2023 TKO win over Joe Joyce. He retained that status in a rematch five months later with a second TKO of Joyce. Now, he takes on Parker, who is coming off his own impressive win over former WBC champ Deontay Wilder in December. The winner is likely to become a mandatory challenger for the winner of Usyk-Fury at some point later this year.

As we draw near to the fight, let’s take a closer look at the biggest storylines heading in. 

1. Wait … just how good is Francis Ngannou as a boxer? 

While the 37-year-old slugger certainly benefited from facing a version of Fury who was overweight and outwardly underestimating him, it would be disingenuous to ignore what we all saw: Ngannou, in his pro debut, floored one of the best heavyweights in boxing history and forced him to box his way to a safe decision (that is still disputed by many to this day). Call it an off night for the champion if you want, but what Ngannou did was simply no accident. For someone who was a boxing novice, Ngannou was as sharp as he was unpredictable. And the counter left hook in that he landed to deposit a shocked Fury to his bottom was no accident. 

Ngannou has found a way to make himself lethal as a counterpunching knockout threat with big-time power in both hands. And because his output remained low — which ultimately cost him on the scorecards in a close defeat — it also prevented him from opening himself up to be hit cleanly by making aggressive mistakes. Instead, Ngannou’s technique and footwork drastically exceeded expectations, even if it became clear he lacked the 10-round stamina necessary to outwork Fury enough to get the win. How much can Ngannou improve upon that in the five months between fights remains to be seen. But even though it’s hard to imagine a situation in which he outclasses Joshua, Ngannou appears to be dangerous and long enough where no one in boxing can afford to take him lightly, even on the championship level. And at heavyweight, even with somewhat rudimentary skills, that makes you legit. 

2.  Anthony Joshua enters fresh off of a much-needed rebound

Let’s be honest, had this fight taken place before Joshua’s fifth-round destruction of former title challenger Otto Wallin on Dec. 23, the odds might have looked a lot different for the Brit. The former unified champion, who dropped his titles to Usyk in consecutive defeats two years ago, enters as a 4-to-1 favorite against Ngannou. And a big part of that surrounds his rejuvenating TKO win as Joshua looked like the destroyer of old for the first time since he was upset by Andy Ruiz for the belts in 2019 (before regaining them in the rematch). Joshua has looked gun shy for years and his constant switching of trainers has only exasperated his issues. Whether or not we can chalk up Joshua’s about face against Wallin to a darkness retreat he attended in October for four days is uncertain. But it worked. Joshua never took a backward step against Wallin and finished him off without remorse. 

3. With that said, AJ’s chin can never be fully trusted

Even if you tend to lean more to the side that suggests Ngannou got lucky against an ill-prepared version of Fury, there’s simply no denying his one-punch power. And when you add that to the other side of that equation to the mix — Joshua’s history of having a flash chin — it begins to create a ton of interesting scenarios that might take place. Even with the historical evidence of Joshua’s willingness to get up off the floor to finish off former champion Wladimir Klitschko in their epic 2017 clash, which cemented his warrior spirit, it has never been wrong to classify Joshua as a vulnerable heavyweight. Joshua has been visibly hurt by big punchers like Dillian Whyte and those who don’t quite carry that same reputation, like Ruiz and Carlos Takam. Yet, when it comes to Ngannou, one mistake can bring the end of the fight, whether he’s wearing four ounces of padding or an 8-ounce boxing glove. If Ngannou’s power was enough to force the 6-foot-9 Fury to duck and cover, even though he’s the same fighter who rose from the canvas four times in three fights against Deontay Wilder, what might it do to someone like Joshua? Even if Joshua has his way for the majority of the fight by boxing well from distance, he will never truly be safe against Ngannou until the final bell.

4. PFL will undoubtedly be watching with baited breath

As the chief antagonist to industry leader UFC in MMA, the PFL made monster headlines in 2023 by not just signing Ngannou as a free agent but giving him equity in their PFL Africa regional promotion and naming him as part of the promotion’s global advisory board. Considering PFL is launching its PPV Superfight Division this year, and hoped to do so with Ngannou as the new face of the promotion, the clauses in his MMA contract allowing him to box might backfire in a huge way. When PFL first signed Ngannou, the idea of him boxing seemed to begin and end with Fury in a fight almost no one thought he could win. One year later, Ngannou appears to be an upset victory away from not just drawing the winner of Fury-Usyk (and their contractually mandated immediate rematch) for a shot at undisputed gold but — more importantly — he would’ve actually earned the opportunity to do so. Should Ngannou win or even look great in defeat against Joshua, it’s no guarantee he steps foot into the PFL Smart Cage at all in 2024 given how financially large the opportunities to box again could be for him. Just as much as a devastating loss to Joshua could send him back to MMA for good, a strong performance of any kind on Friday could be the worst result for PFL. In addition to the Fury-Usyk winner, Ngannou would be a great opponent for everyone from Wilder to the winner of Friday’s WBO secondary heavyweight title fight between Zhilei Zhang and Joseph Parker. 

5. Ngannou’s story is potential the greatest ever told in combat sports

Even if he doesn’t even up earning a legitimate shot at a boxing world title by defeating Joshua, the impact that Ngannou has made in such a short time — and the fact that this fight even makes sense — is absolutely remarkable. Ngannou left his native Cameroon in his mid 20s with an outsized dream of heavyweight boxing glory that ultimately took him down the path of homelessness and a Spanish jail for trespassing. His detour into MMA was as inspirational and unlikely as any human interest story UFC has produced to date and the plot only thickened when Ngannou went to such outrageous lengths (including fighting Cyril Gane against medical advice after seriously injuring his knee ligaments) to gain his freedom as a free agent. If there’s ever a fighter’s union one day in combat sports, the lineage of such an idea will trace back to Ngannou, who put his own career on the line to try and help the fighters of tomorrow. And here he is now, closing in on 40 and in the driver’s seat of the most unlikely takeover of boxing this side of Jake Paul. Only, Ngannou is facing off against the best heavyweight boxers on the planet since Lennox Lewis. Win or lose on Friday, Ngannou has already won. But it would be fruitless to count him out given how unlikely and incredible his personal story has been up to this point.

Who wins Francis Ngannou vs. Anthony Joshua, and which props paying around +400 should you be all over? Visit SportsLine now to see Brandon Wise’s best bets for Friday, all from the CBS combat sports specialist who just called Jake Paul’s first-round win, and find out.


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