If Francis Ngannou had gotten knocked out in the second or third round by a flabby, out-of-shape Tyson Fury on Saturday at Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, that almost certainly might have been it for the hybrid fights between MMA fighters and boxers. But Ngannou, the former UFC heavyweight champion, not only didn't get knocked out, he knocked Fury down and, arguably, won the fight.
As it turns out, Ngannou lost a split decision on the scorecards that, no matter how one looks at it, was a victory not only for him and the Professional Fighters League, his new MMA organization, but for MMA fighters in general.
His MMA peers reacted as if he'd won in most impressive fashion, as if he'd routed a prime Muhammad Ali. Junior dos Santos, his one-time opponent and another former UFC heavyweight champion, embraced Ngannou with a massive hug when Ngannou walked out of the ring after losing the split decision. Dos Santos was representative of so many of the other fighters, even boxers, who were in awe of what Ngannou had accomplished.
The legendary boxing Hall of Famer Roberto Duran, one of the 10 greatest fighters in the sport's long history, said he thought Ngannou won. In doing an interview in English, his second language, he wasn't clear. And so he turned to a bilingual friend near him and told him to make clear to the interviewer in no uncertain terms he felt Ngannou had won the fight.
The truth is, it wasn't that great of a fight, but because nothing was expected of Ngannou and he managed to not only go 10 rounds but drop Fury, the perception is that it was a classic. Ngannou landed single-digit punches in nine of the 10 rounds, according to CompuBox. In round order, Ngannou landed 6, 6, 7, 8, 6, 5, 5, 10, 2 and 4 punches. Fury, though, also landed in single digits in nine of the 10 rounds. In order, the WBC/lineal heavyweight champion connected on 11, 7, 1, 6, 9, 9, 5, 9, 8 and 6.
But Ngannou did far better than expected and Fury did massively worse than expected, and the result is that Ngannou turned the boxing and MMA worlds on their collective heads.
The result, though, may keep the hybrid fight genre, which features an MMA fighter versus a boxer in a boxing match, alive for a little bit longer.
They seemed to have been losing steam prior to Ngannou's performance. Each of social media star Jake Paul's boxing matches against MMA fighters sold worse than the prior one until he fought ex-UFC bad boy Nate Diaz. Then the pay-per-view sales in the U.S. had a slight uptick.
MMA fans are primarily the ones buying these fights, and they supported Diaz, who had been hugely popular in the UFC. Before the fight with Diaz, DAZN produced six pieces of content centered around Paul: "Jake Paul Evolution" (51,000 views); "Jake Paul 4 Corners" (6,700); "Jake Paul to Haters" (44,000); "Jake Paul Greatest Moments" (15,000); "Jake Paul Off the Cuff" (24,000); and "Jake Paul at Home" (32,000).
Those six pieces totaled 172,700 views. "Nate Diaz Off the Cuff" did 409,000 viewers.
Now, Paul is planning to box an opponent to be named — possibly former UFC BMF champion Jorge Masvidal — on Dec. 15 on perhaps the worst night his Most Valuable Promotions could have chosen. DAZN has a boxing pay-per-view on Dec. 9 featuring Regis Prograis against undisputed lightweight champion Devin Haney in a super lightweight title bout. That won't sell that much, but it's money that won't go to Paul, given that most people only buy one pay-per-view a month, if that.
On Dec. 16, the night after Paul's next scheduled fight, is UFC 296 in Las Vegas. That is perhaps the UFC's best card of the year. On the main card will be a welterweight title fight between Leon Edwards and Colby Covington; a flyweight title fight between Alexandre Pantoja and Brandon Royval; and non-title fights between Tony Ferguson and Paddy Pimblett; Shavkat Rakhmonov against Stephen Thompson; and Vicente Luque facing Ian Garry. There are also several highly attractive preliminary card bouts.
And Showtime is planning a pay-per-view on Dec. 9 from Las Vegas in December, which would be its final show, that as of now has Keith Thurman against Eimantas Stanionis in the main event.
It's hard to see how a Jake Paul fight, even against a popular UFC fighter like Masvidal, if that's who it turns out to be, will sell. And that's assuming that the Fury-Oleksandr Usyk fight for the undisputed heavyweight title doesn't go on Dec. 23 as was originally planned. Fury promoter Frank Warren said it will be pushed back to early 2024, but if the Saudis want it Dec. 23, chances are it will be Dec. 23. And that, too, will put huge pressure on the Paul fight.
The hybrid bouts aren't generally great, and the fights are almost always better when the athletes stay in their disciplines. But Ngannou could perhaps change that, for at least one fight. PFL CEO Peter Murray told Yahoo Sports that Ngannou's next fight would be in MMA, though PFL doesn't have an opponent for Ngannou on its roster currently who would make a big-selling PPV headliner.
But if, as he has said he'd consider, former WBC boxing heavyweight champion Deontay Wilder crosses to MMA and fights Ngannou, that could do a big number.
The business realities otherwise are showing that the interest in these fights is waning, though. And we may get back to boxers fighting boxers, MMA fighters facing MMA fighters and influencer fighting going away for good.
For one person at least, that would be the best outcome of all.