That moment -- really, any Ngannou success -- was unimaginably hard to fathom during the buildup to the event last month in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
Ngannou, while a decorated MMA champion regarded for his devastating knockout power, had never boxed before in the amateurs or pros. Faced with the immense challenge of competing with boxing's heavyweight champion, Ngannou didn't simply deliver a good account of himself -- he exceeded every imaginable expectation.
Making his pro boxing debut at age 37, Ngannou shockingly floored Fury in Round 3 with a check hook before he mocked his foe. Usually, it's Fury who does the mocking in his fights, but there wasn't a single moment where Fury could joke around. The champion knew he was in for a fight.
Ngannou even outpointed Fury on one of the three scorecards. Fury's WBC heavyweight title wasn't up for grabs in the 10-round bout, but Ngannou still proved he was more than capable of hanging with the best boxing big man on the planet in the split-decision loss.
The question no longer surrounds Ngannou's competence in a boxing ring. But if Ngannou can actually prove to be a force in boxing's heavyweight division. Someone who can not just threaten to topple boxing's elite, as Ngannou did against Fury, but actually score the sort of KOs that made him a household UFC name?
The most obvious, lucrative option for Ngannou to answer those questions would materialize in a rematch with Fury. However, Fury has other commitments.
He signed a contract to fight Oleksandr Usyk for the undisputed heavyweight championship ahead of the Ngannou bout. That matchup was planned for Dec. 23, but following the far tougher-than-expected battle with Ngannou, the fight has been pushed to February.
The Fury-Usyk deal contains a two-way rematch clause, virtually guaranteeing a second fight between the pair later in 2024. Even though Fury is seemingly off the table at the moment, Ngannou has plenty of options in boxing, as well as his deal with PFL where he will continue to compete in MMA.
"There are three potential megafights [in boxing] right now out there for Ngannou: rematch with Fury, Deontay Wilder, AJ (Anthony Joshua)," Lou DiBella, who programmed HBO Boxing from 1989 to 2000, told ESPN on Thursday. "Where do you make the most money? If you want to play that road, that's fine. If you want to really say, 'I think I could be someone in boxing,' then maybe get your record to 4-1, 5-1, before you f---ing make believe you're a real [boxer]."
BUT AFTER NGANNOU'S shocking performance, he won't have to "make believe" in the eyes of many. And even if Fury didn't take him seriously -- for the record, Fury swears he trained properly over 12 weeks and made no excuses -- Ngannou still was making his pro boxing debut. And what did he go out and do?
Ngannou showed surprising timing throughout the bout, particularly in Round 3 when he countered Fury with a check left hook on the temple that floored the champion for the seventh time in his career.
The sporting world knew Ngannou possessed power, but he showcased fundamentals and nuance in that sequence. Not only did Ngannou throw the proper punch, but at the exact time to catch Fury off guard and score one of the most surprising knockdowns in boxing history.
"I was blown away by how he was able to keep his distance, be able to fend off a lot of the punches that Fury's throwing," said Hall of Fame boxer Timothy Bradley Jr., who was ringside in Riyadh.
"He switched [to] southpaw. He was able to control Fury's jab and keep his jab isolated and [kept] the glove on top of Fury's glove, battling for position. ... No, he's not the prettiest boxer. But there's certain things he showed us: that he could execute a game plan, that he can take someone's strengths away from him."
Ngannou's ability in the boxing ring, as Bradley pointed out, went far beyond that one knockdown. There was no doubt heading into the matchup that Ngannou boasted immense size, strength and power. But to actually use those tools in a boxing ring? That's what was shocking.
In the Octagon, Ngannou was used to fending off takedown attempts, calf kicks, head kicks and an assortment of other maneuvers. Even though the Cameroonian was feared for his knockout power, it doesn't always translate to the boxing ring. After all, the stances are completely different for the reasons listed here.
"I think [Ngannou] is capable of pretty much beating anybody because he's such a huge human being and he can punch. So if he fought Wilder, would I favor him? No. But would I want to put money [against him]?" Trainer Bob Santos
Fury, on the other hand, has been boxing since he was 9. The equalizer here that didn't factor into the Floyd Mayweather-Conor McGregor crossover event? Heavyweights.
"You can have guys that obviously would never even be a top-50 heavyweight, but even with an 18-ounce glove in sparring that are just big guys, 330 pounds, 320 pounds, 280 pounds, they hit you the right way, even if they're technically not that sound, they're enormous men," said Bob Santos, who trains 130-pound titleholder Hector Luis Garcia, welterweight contender Mario Barrios and heavyweight prospect Dainier Pero, among others.
"Mayweather really didn't have to worry too much about that. ... That's why I think the heavyweight has an advantage if they're coming over from the UFC to boxing because they're so big, and one punch can change anything.
"Whereas the lighter-weight guys, if they come over to fight a boxer, they're going to be in a hell of a lot more trouble because the punching power is just not the same. So, you're going to have to put more punches together to get a guy out of there, and it's just less likely you could just throw one shot, boom, and it's over."
But it wasn't over. Like the six previous times he was knocked down -- four of them during his heavyweight title trilogy with Deontay Wilder -- Fury beat the count. And that afforded Ngannou the opportunity to display more of his arsenal in a boxing ring.
Ngannou's strength was more than enough to handle the physically imposing Fury in the clinch, his awkwardness proved difficult for Fury to solve and he seemed well-prepared for anything the champion threw at him.
After all, while Fury was 277-plus pounds and is generously listed at 6-foot-9, Ngannou was just five pounds less at 272 pounds densely packed into his chiseled 6-foot-4 frame.
"When he could lean his weight on most fighters, he imposes his weight and his will and that drains them from the standpoint just at this massive size," Santos said of Fury. "Ngannou, I think because of the UFC background, when [Fury] was trying to impose his weight and will on him, he didn't succumb to that because he's used to that. He has to train in submissions, he has to train in wrestling. So it didn't zap his energy level."
"He's strong, he's a massive guy, and obviously he's a great athlete, too. And then he's got a lot of wherewithal within combat sports and he proved he could take a good shot. There's no two ways about that."
The fight was 10 rounds rather than 12, but Ngannou still more than impressed with his conditioning. His second-best round of the fight was the eighth, when he landed a flurry of punches and backed Fury against the ropes with pressure.
"Yes, the title wasn't on the line. No, he didn't go 12 rounds," Bradley observed. "But I'm just saying if the title was on the line and it went 12 rounds, I don't know what would've happened. I really don't. We can only think about what would've happened if it would've gone two more rounds."
NOW THAT NGANNOU more than held his own with Fury, what's the next logical step in his career? He remains under contract with PFL and will likely have more MMA fights. But the big money remains in a boxing ring, and the options are plenty for the sport's newest star entrant in its glamour division.
As DiBella laid out, the three most lucrative options are a rematch with Fury, a bout with fellow dangerous puncher Wilder and a matchup with U.K. star Joshua. At this juncture, there's no real point in Ngannou proving himself against fringe competition. His star power and performance against Fury pushed him far past that point.
Fury, as mentioned earlier, seems busy for at least the first half of 2024 and probably the entire year. Eddie Hearn, Joshua's promoter, is already teasing the possibility of a bout between AJ and Ngannou. And it's a fight Ngannou might have a chance to win based on his lone boxing match.
Joshua hasn't appeared confident in his chin since he was TKO'd by Andy Ruiz Jr., in the summer of 2019. And in his last bout, a TKO victory over journeyman Robert Helenius, AJ was there to be hit.
"I'm telling you right now, Joshua does not want anything to do with f---ing Ngannou," Bradley said. "And if he does, he's going to get his ass smacked because Ngannou's got more balls than ... Joshua. I would bet the bag on Ngannou to knock the s--- out of Joshua."
Naturally, Hearn sees the potential matchup going far differently.
"I'm thinking Francis Ngannou against Anthony Joshua, perhaps in Africa, perhaps the Rumble in the Jungle 2, is one of the biggest fights in the history of the sport," Hearn said last week on The MMA Hour. "And I promise you this, respect to Francis: easy work for my man. ... I know the MMA world is just walking in the clouds, but we'll bring it straight back down to reality."
Joshua, despite his recent struggles, is ESPN's No. 4 heavyweight. He lost his three heavyweight titles to Usyk in 2021 and was defeated in the rematch last year but was competitive in both bouts with an elite boxer in Usyk, who won an Olympic gold medal and is ESPN's No. 3 pound-for-pound boxer. High praise to be sure for Ngannou.
But Bradley isn't alone.
"I think [Ngannou] is capable of pretty much beating anybody because he's such a huge human being and he can punch," said Santos. "So if he fought Wilder, would I favor him? No. But would I want to put money [against him]? No, because he's a huge-ass guy. ... One shot. He can put your ass out. I mean, he's a big, big guy and he's only going to get better. So, he got a lot of experience in that fight, and I'm sure his confidence has grown tremendously.
"I'm sure he's probably going to put a hell of a lot more effort and focus into training in boxing and getting a lot more sparring. And because of his size, if he has a good chin, I think he's a dangerous opponent for anybody. I think the type of guys that would give him the most problem though is like an Usyk. ... But guys like Wilder, Joshua, who's robotic and might have to stay there, get exchanges with him, they could be in some serious trouble with that guy."
And what if Ngannou can't land one of these superfights, the sort of negotiations that often take years to conclude in boxing? Ngannou can surely play the A-side after his star turn against Fury and there are plenty of viable opponents for him both in ESPN's heavyweight rankings and just outside the top 10.
What about a fight against fellow big man Zhilei Zhang. The China native is coming off back-to-back TKO wins over Joe Joyce, proving he can handle a strong, hard-punching heavyweight like Ngannou. Otto Wallin, another heavyweight who pushed Fury to the brink, presents another reasonable option.
Wallin is coming off a career-best win, a decision victory over former cruiserweight champion Murat Gassiev last month. Other name heavyweights include a pair of heavyweights who scored wins on the Fury-Ngannou undercard: the surging Martin Bakole and former titleholder Joseph Parker, a training mate of Fury's.
Wherever Ngannou goes from here, he's already won. And he has an argument he actually did win in the ring against Fury. Bradley scored the fight for Ngannou. Santos didn't. But Ngannou wasn't expected to last more than a few rounds with Fury, let alone win a single round or -- gasp -- last the distance.
But that even one person, let alone a whole lot of people, thought he won the fight against an all-time great heavyweight? That speaks volumes about Ngannou's athleticism, power and ability to learn quickly. It all revealed something else about Ngannou, too, something that will serve him in whatever he does next.
"That's the reason why he was able to do what he did is because of his character," said Bradley. "This starts when he was a kid. This dude told us that he was an athlete. He didn't want to eat like crap. He ate healthy when he was a kid because he knew what he wanted to be.
"That's having that type of discipline and that character, man. I mean, it showed up in the ring that night even with a 50% f---ing Tyson Fury, in my opinion. He made Tyson Fury look like he wasn't the champ."