Originally found on CBS Sports:
There is something that happens to people who are told all of their lives what is possible and what isn’t.
As it turns out throughout history, most tend to believe it.
Luckily for combat sports fans, none of those people were named Francis Ngannou.
The 38-year-old former UFC heavyweight champion, whose life journey up until the start of his pro boxing debut on Saturday was already fit for a Hollywood movie script, nearly pulled off the impossible in front of a litany of sports and pop culture icons, all flown in by the Saudi Arabian government, to witness all of the pomp and circumstance of this bizarre pay-per-view event.
But unlike other pro boxing matches involving novice MMA stars, including the record-breaking financial bonanza delivered by Floyd Mayweather and Conor McGregor in 2017, where the fight tends to be ho-hum as the boxer dominates within his preferred sport, WBC and lineal heavyweight champion Tyson Fury found himself precariously close to the worst-case scenario — the biggest upset in boxing history.
Fury (34-0-1, 24 KOs), who was already scheduled for a four-belt undisputed championship against unified champion Oleksandr Usyk on Dec. 23, hung on for a split decision over Ngannou (0-1 in boxing; 17-3 in MMA) despite getting knocked down in Round 3. Fury took home judges’ scores of 96-93 and 95-94 in this 10-round, non-title bout while the third judge scored it 95-94 for Ngannou inside Boulevard Hall in Riyadh.
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To be fair, Ngannou didn’t defeat Fury. Yet, he scored, quite possibly, the biggest moral victory in the history of combat sports less than two years after fighting out his UFC contract by edging Cyril Gane in their heavyweight unification bout despite tearing the MCL and PCL in his knee just three weeks before.
Despite having competed in just 34 pro rounds throughout an unlikely MMA career that began 10 years ago, Ngannou fought 10 full rounds in his pro debut against the unbeaten Fury, 35, who is regarded as the best heavyweight of this century and one of the greatest (and most unique, at 6-foot-9) in history. And even more astounding, he forced Fury out of his gameplan and into a role of survival after Ngannou cut him on the forehead in Round 2 before dropping Fury one round later on a perfect counter left hook.
Although Fury went on to outland Ngannou, according to CompuBox, by a margin of 71 to 59, he was completely disciplined by Ngannou into lowering his output, circling from the outside and routinely holding in a fight that was largely slow and plodding with small pockets of action, including two-way trading of power shots in a wild Round 8.
But this wasn’t merely Ngannou taking his “puncher’s chance” and relying on the threat of it to nearly out-hustle Fury. Ngannou actually showed enough defense, technique and versatility by switching stances throughout. Ngannou also had the stamina to go the distance and remain enough of a counterpunching threat to never allow Fury to get comfortable enough to walk him down.
“I knew he was gonna be like that. I knew that everyone who doubted my ability to box, it’s going to be like that,” Ngannou told ESPN after the fight. “I feel as the fight was going, his attitude was changing. Basically when I was changing to southpaw, he wasn’t doing anything. When I want to rest, I switched to southpaw and he can’t doing anything.”
When it comes to those who deserve credit for believing in Ngannou’s chances to infiltrate boxing (despite being off for nearly two years from fighting and having recently signed a lucrative deal to join the PFL), the list of names is a short one.
To Ngannou’s credit, however, maybe we should have seen this coming. If you have followed his life story close enough, words like probability and practicality have never been part of his vocabulary.
For as crazy it is to think about how close Ngannou just came to legitimately defeating the lineal heavyweight boxing champion of the world, is it more ridiculous than the story of how we ever got to know him in the first place as UFC heavyweight champion?
Ngannou up and moved at age 26, despite having zero boxing experience, to leave behind poverty in his native Cameroon in hope of realizing a dream in France. But Ngannou was jailed for two months in a Spanish prison for trespassing across the border and was homeless when he stumbled into an MMA gym in Paris in hope of making his boxing dream come true.
Eight years later, Ngannou was the baddest man on the planet in the sport of MMA. Two years after that, he was out of the UFC for good despite never having lost the belt, and was publicly disparaged time and again on his way out by UFC president Dana White, mostly for fighting behind the scenes for better athlete representation and treatment.
Even when his free agency period failed to land a major suitor in the first few months, the narrative had aggressively changed to the idea that Ngannou had “fumbled the bag,” even though his PFL signing would quickly follow, as would the Fury fight, which most combat sports journalists had unilaterally dismissed as a money grab and waste of time (particularly for Fury).
But Ngannou, a devoutly spiritual man, has never lived his life in line with the expectations of others.
Just like the fictional character of Rocky Balboa, who turned his one moment of opportunity in a fight he didn’t even win into an inspirational and legendary career, Ngannou has done just that for his future boxing hopes after fighting Fury, with the likelihood a real one that this performance leads to multiple future paydays in this sport.
The only difference is that Balboa isn’t real.
Ngannou is, and it’s a testament to the outrageous power of his own self belief, which hopefully taught even the most cynical of us on this night.
Whether or not you think you can accomplish something, you are probably right. And the only thing that is certain after Saturday’s unthinkable upset scare is that Ngannou has never stopped believing in what others have said was impossible.
And that right there, even more than his violent one-punch power, is the secret to Ngannou’s success.