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Even in bitter defeat, Francis Ngannou remains a success story

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA - MARCH 08: Francis Ngannou is knocked down for the third time as Referee Ricky Gonzalez checks on him during the Heavyweight fight between Anthony Joshua and Francis Ngannou on the Knockout Chaos boxing card at the Kingdom Arena on March 08, 2024 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Richard Pelham/Getty Images)
Francis Ngannou was knocked out for the first time in his pro fighting career Saturday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Richard Pelham/Getty Images) (Richard Pelham via Getty Images)

Well, this was how it was always supposed to go. A UFC heavyweight champion leaves MMA for boxing and begins his career in the sweet science by fighting the best in the sport? He’s supposed to get smoked, naturally. No one gets to beat a former heavyweight champ in his very first pro boxing match.

Except Ngannou almost did when he came within one point on one scorecard of beating Tyson Fury late last year. This raised expectations. Maybe a little too much, in retrospect. But then, so much becomes clear in retrospect.

Early Saturday morning in Saudi Arabia (also known as early Friday evening in North America), Anthony Joshua did to Ngannou what Fury was expected to do and didn’t. One clean right hand in the first round to sit the former UFC heavyweight champion down. Another counter right in the second round to plant him back on the floor. Then an absolute bomb of a right hand on a still woozy Ngannou to turn out his lights and close the show.

With that, the fairy tale ended. The carriage turned back into a pumpkin, and Ngannou woke up on the canvas as the world’s highest-paid winless boxer.

This is not such a sad fate. For a guy who risked death to leave his home in Cameroon and chase his dream on the streets of Paris, an 0-2 pro boxing record to go along with millions of dollars in the bank is still a fairy tale ending of its own. And, lest we forget, the story isn’t over. Ngannou still has an MMA home waiting for him in the PFL. He also still has options left in boxing — if he wants them.

Ngannou bet big on himself when he fought out his UFC contract and walked away as the undisputed heavyweight champ. That bet has already hit. Ngannou has lived the dream that MMA fighters are always half-hoping and half-threatening to chase. He established himself in the UFC, left when its contractual constraints started to choke his earning power, then cashed in as a boxer. It’s the blueprint MMA fighters long to follow, and nobody has done it better than Ngannou.

RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA - MARCH 08: Francis Ngannou walks to the ring during his ring-walk prior to the Heavyweight fight between Anthony Joshua and Francis Ngannou on the Knockout Chaos boxing card at the Kingdom Arena on March 08, 2024 in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (Photo by Richard Pelham/Getty Images)
Francis Ngannou is 0-2 in boxing after his loss to Anthony Joshua on Saturday. But his lucrative fighting career is by no means over yet. (Photo by Richard Pelham/Getty Images) (Richard Pelham via Getty Images)

It’s just that, in Joshua, he ran up against a top boxer who was very much prepared for the threat he posed. Ngannou had about 90 seconds of looking comfortable and capable in the ring before Joshua reminded us all that there’s a reason people usually have to train their whole lives to hang with the elite in this sport.

Now the reality is this: Ngannou is 37 and coming off the first knockout loss of his professional life. It was a bad one, too. We’re talking total system shutdown, the kind the brain typically doesn’t bounce back from immediately — especially when you’re a gentleman of a certain age.

Ngannou is going to need some time before he does anything else in gloves of any size. We already know the 6-foot-8 Renan Ferreira is waiting in PFL to welcome him back to MMA. That could be just the kind of thing Ngannou needs to remind people he became famous in MMA first for a very good reason. Then again, you go trading leather with a man that size and there aren’t any guarantees there either.

This one has to sting for Ngannou. While his fight against Fury was a victory even in defeat, this one feels more like Icarus crashing to Earth. But it’s important to remember that Ngannou didn’t make it this far by being too timid to try. He’s been betting big since before we knew his name.

The version of Ngannou that was too scared to take risks would be still in those Cameroonian sand mines, dreaming of a different life. Instead, he crossed the Sahara desert and attempted, according to his own account, six different times to cross the ocean from Morocco to Spain in a small inflatable raft. That’s a guy who’s more afraid of not trying than he is of trying and failing.

This time, at least, he tried and he failed. Now he can get up and try again. Hopefully he does it knowing that, whatever it might say in the win-loss column from here on out, he’s already succeeded.