Anthony Joshua desperately needs to beat Francis Ngannou – and he should | Antoine Joshua

“IIt’s not a gimmick,” Anthony Joshua said as he reflected on the surreal challenge he faced Friday night in Riyadh against Francis Ngannou, a former mixed martial artist who lost his solitary fight as a professional boxer. “It’s “I see it now as something completely different.”

Before Ngannou shocked Tyson Fury by dropping the WBC world heavyweight champion in the third round of his professional debut last October, words like “gimmick”, “stunt” and “masquerade” had been used to describe this crossover contest . Joshua opted for a ‘gimmick’ when he was first offered the chance to fight Ngannou, who was then the heavyweight champion of the UFC, the giant mixed martial arts organization.

“They already talked about this fight and I said, ‘No, it’s a gimmick,'” Joshua said of the 10-round boxing bout. “It’s not something I thought would be right, going through as I chase heavyweight glory. But when they saw what happened with Ngannou against Fury, that opportunity presented itself again. I never turn down a challenge and now we can get rid of the word “gimmick”.

“I viewed the move from MMA to boxing as a gimmick. But I can now see that some MMA fighters know how to box – and he (Ngannou) is one of them. I see him as someone who takes boxing seriously. When I saw his fight with Fury, I thought, “He knows what he’s doing, he can handle himself.” A lot of people say he won that fight and I thought it was a big challenge for me because I need to know myself better.

Francis Ngannou knocks down Tyson Fury in their October fight. Photograph: Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Joshua believes Ngannou was unlucky to lose his non-title fight to Fury on a split decision. The boxing novice left the usually swaggering world champion with a cut and swollen face. Ngannou also destroyed plans for Fury to face Oleksandr Usyk in a world title unification contest last December. This fight will finally take place in May and Joshua is right to have prepared hard for Ngannou. He needs a resounding victory against a raw boxer as he rebuilds his career following successive defeats to Usyk in 2021 and 2022.

Ngannou is a fighter at heart. He hits hard and has a strong chin. The 37-year-old also showed a solid grasp of boxing fundamentals. But it’s worth remembering that Fury looked incredibly flat and clueless against Ngannou, who boxed judiciously behind a high guard and a decent jab. When the opening came, the MMA champion pinned Fury and knocked him down.

Ngannou apparently received $10 million (£7.8 million) that night, which is more than he has earned in his entire MMA career, and his sudden enthusiasm for boxing is so understandable. He claimed he expected to knock Joshua out and promised: “I will take his soul.”

But Joshua has been particularly active over the past 12 months. He even regained some of his former glory when he was brutally impressive in stopping Otto Wallin in December. This victory was very different from a labored points decision against Jermaine Franklin, which was followed by a lackluster performance against Robert Helenius that Joshua salvaged with a clinical knockout. “I worked all year, from last April to March, from my fight with Franklin until now,” Joshua said. “After Ngannou I will have had four fights in one year.”

Anthony Joshua celebrates his brutally impressive victory over Otto Wallin. Photograph: Richard Pelham/Getty Images

Joshua also appears to have benefited from switching to a third new coach since his loss to Usyk. His partnership with Ben Davison, who formerly coached Fury, paid immediate dividends against Wallin. Joshua added: “This is the first time since 2017 that I have had three fights in a row, and being consistent is still paying off. That’s why fighters are so successful in their progression, because they fight every two weeks and look great. As soon as you reach the top, everything slows down and the only way out is retreat. I’m trying to rebuild and get this activity.

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Amid the promotion’s loose support for Saudi Arabia, despite growing concerns about the lack of human rights, Joshua admitted that “I’m not at the beginning or the middle of my career. I’m probably towards the end. Above all, he craves a world unification title showdown against Fury but, after that fight failed to materialize on numerous occasions, Joshua chose a less conventional route against Ngannou.

“This always takes me there,” he insisted. “When I win, I will fight for the championship. That’s what boxing is: snakes and ladders. You win, you go up, you lose, you go down. I have to win to continue.

Joshua’s real test will come if Ngannou catches him with a hard blow. He’s not quite the same as Frank Bruno, who froze when he was hit hard, but Joshua often looks like he’s on the verge of collapsing when dishing out punishment. Ngannou promised he had much more to offer. “I haven’t shocked the world yet,” he said.

Joe Joyce, the British heavyweight who fought with Ngannou, warned that “his power shots are incredible. You want to stay away from them. Yet Joshua’s intense need to beat Ngannou, who will have lost the element of surprise he brought on his debut, should secure victory for the much more experienced boxer.

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