Anthony Joshua v Francis Ngannou: An unnecessary risk for AJ or an easy payday?

Heavyweights are set to fight in Saudi Arabia following an announcement from promoter Eddie Hearn

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Saudi Arabia's influence in heavyweight boxing increased further on Friday night when Anthony Joshua's promoter, Eddie Hearn, announced the two-time world champion will face Francis Ngannou in his next fight in Riyadh.

Joshua last month headlined his third event in Saudi Arabia where he eased to a technical stoppage win over Otto Wallin in arguably his finest performance in recent years.

On the same bill, former WBC heavyweight king Deontay Wilder was expected to clean out Joseph Parker, himself an ex-world champion, to set up a long-awaited bout with long-time rival Joshua. But a shock defeat, that saw Parker utterly dominate the American over 12 rounds, scuppered those plans.

Instead, Joshua will take on former UFC heavyweight champion Ngannou, who made his professional boxing debut in Saudi Arabia last October and almost shocked the world in a controversial loss to Tyson Fury.

"Tonight we confirm it’s a Done Deal! Anthony Joshua and Francis Ngannou collide on a huge night in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia," Hearn wrote on X, formerly Twitter, on Friday. "Press conference Jan 15 in London with full details dropping soon!"

March 9 has been mentioned as a possible date for the fight, although confirmation is expected to be made at the London press conference a week on Monday.

This is an intriguing match-up for Joshua and one that will add another layer to his and Saudi Arabia's boxing legacies.

On the one hand, this should be an easy payday for the 34-year-old Briton as the far more experienced and accomplished boxer; yet on the other, it could be an unnecessary risk for a fighter who just returned to world title contention after three wins in 2023.

That risk factor stems entirely from Ngannou's debut fight against Fury in Riyadh. The Cameroonian has long been known as one of the most ferocious punchers in MMA but few outside his own camp gave him any chance against the unbeaten WBC champion inside a boxing ring.

And yet, Ngannou sent Fury to the canvas in the third round and went toe-to-toe with his more celebrated opponent for 12 rounds. One judge gave Ngannou the fight but the other two sided with Fury, who narrowly escaped with a split decision victory.

The WBC reacted by giving Ngannou an official ranking and immediately placed the 37-year-old in the top 10.

Ngannou earned plenty of praise for his Rocky-esque performance, but while the 'Battle of the Baddest' event was great entertainment, in reality, the quality of the headline fight was sub-standard. Fury claimed he went through an intense 12-week training camp yet it was clear the Briton was out of shape and unfocused; the speed, ring craft, and slick combinations that so befuddled Wilder for three fights were nowhere to be seen.

Ultimately, Fury's poor display, coupled with rock-bottom pre-fight expectations, arguably made Ngannou look better than he is, and based solely on that fight, there is nothing Joshua would be too worried about.

Then again, in the world of heavyweight boxing, one clean hit can change the entire outcome of a fight – as Joshua knows only too well – and that element of jeopardy will no doubt be highlighted as part of a massive global marketing campaign to promote the fight.

In terms of matchmaking, there's plenty about this that makes sense. Surveying the heavyweight boxing landscape, there aren't many immediately available fights for Joshua that would generate as much interest, and certainly none as lucrative.

With Fury and Oleksandr Usyk, who beat Joshua twice to become and then remain the WBA, WBO and IBF champion, slated for an undisputed bout in Riyadh in February and then a potential rematch, any world title hopes will have to wait.

There might have been the possibility of a title showdown with Filip Hrgovic but that would depend on the IBF stripping the belt from February's winner if Fury and Usyk opted for a rematch.

There have also been calls for Joshua to take on Chinese powerhouse Zhilei Zhang after his impressive back-to-back wins over England's Joe Joyce, while the likes of Daniel Dubois and Parker, whom Joshua previously beat to become a unified champion, have also been mentioned as potential opponents.

While all credible fights, none would capture the public imagination - and as a consequence, generate anywhere near as much money for the organisers and fighters - as Joshua facing Ngannou.

So for Joshua, this should be a comfortable fight, for which he'll be handsomely paid while keeping himself ring-sharp for another crack at the world titles later in 2024. Yet, disaster still lurks at the end of Ngannou's punch – and that's why the world will tune in.

Updated: January 06, 2024, 1:19 PM