A tale of two fights: Fury-Ngannou and Serrano-Ramos tell the story of today’s boxing world
Well, it certainly does look like it’s the best of times and the worst of times in boxing.
It is an age of scarce wisdom and abundant foolishness. A reminder of how much came before us and how little we should expect for what’s ahead of us.
A king with a large jaw came from England to risk his throne, and a queen with a fair face from Puerto Rico gathered her brethren to organize an uprising against the establishment. But enough of that. Spring of hope, winter of despair, and a dozen more Dickens quotes will do very little to begin to explain the drastic difference between the two extremes that we witnessed during this past weekend in two boxing rings in Florida and Saudi Arabia.
For good or for evil, then, and in the interest of a superlative degree of comparison only, let’s take a look at the facts.
Let’s start with a sentence with one of the main characters.
“I’m aware of my lack of experience in boxing, but I am a man of challenges, and I’ve overcome a lot of challenges.”
I could live with this phrase if it had been uttered by an intern in a boxing promoter’s communications department on his first day on the job. Or a person waiting in line to place his first boxing wager in a casino. Or even a cameraman as he gets ready to stand on the ring apron for the first time after manning the main rig on a dolly in the studio during news broadcasts, already familiar with pain, violence and corruption but not yet used to the sweat and blood and Vaseline flying towards his lens.
The man who coined that phrase, alas, is none other than Francis Ngannou, heavyweight “martial artist” only a few days before making his boxing debut in a heavyweight boxing championship bout, no less, against current WBC titlist Tyson Fury.
Surely, risking his precious 0-0 boxing record was quite the challenge. But not quite as tough as the challenge that could have been forced upon us if he had managed to win that fight, and by doing so gain access to a portion of the heavyweight crown as sanctioned (however symbolically) by one of boxing’s oldest and most established organizations.
In what will surely be remembered as one of boxing’s biggest unforced errors, someone thought it would be a great idea to put what some people still consider the lineal heavyweight crown (The Ring does not, since Fury abdicated that throne when he retired after his defense against Dillian Whyte) on the line against an MMA fighter with no boxing experience whatsoever. Inviting the crème de la crème of the boxing world past and present to witness the debacle live in Saudi Arabia after a few nights of wining and dining alongside royalty and celebrities seemed like a grand idea as well.
Evander Holyfield, Larry Holmes, Manny Pacquiao, Sugar Ray Leonard, Roberto Duran, Erik Morales, Marco Antonio Barrera, Lennox Lewis, Ricky Hatton, Naseem Hamed, Amir Khan, Joe Calzaghe, Frank Bruno, Riddick Bowe, Shannon Briggs, Buster Douglas, Roy Jones Jr., Michael Spinks, Jared Anderson, Artur Beterbiev, Dmitry Bivol, Badou Jack, Tim Bradley, Bakhodir Jalolov, Antonio Tarver, Miguel Cotto, Conor McGregor, Randy Couture and a few dozen A-listers were summoned to the kingdom to watch Fury dispose of Ngannou, a former MMA heavyweight champion now trained by Mike Tyson, and to potentially validate with their presence the entire thing as a legitimate boxing event.
Even the sub-plot of having Fury facing a fighter trained by the very man who inspired his own name should have been viewed as a stunt unworthy of a reality show on a basic-cable network. But this is boxing, where no one has ever seen a dollar bill dirty enough to be considered unworthy of being picked up from the ground.
Always willing and able to catch those filthy greenbacks from the floor, however, was the infamous World Boxing Council, an outfit that should seriously consider using that middle B in their acronym to stand for “bling.”
As the most outstanding purveyors of made-to-order boxing memorabilia, Mauricio Sulaiman and his cabal of glorified jewelry salespeople produced a “Riyadh Champion” belt featuring both MMA and boxing iconography, all to the tune of (presumably, since accountability is not exactly their forte) three percent of the proceeds of what was, on paper, a multi-million-dollar production, a co-promotion of Top Rank and Queensberry underwritten by His Excellency Sheik Turki Alalshikh.
Granted, a multi-million-dollar event in a new market with tons of exposure worldwide is always good for the sport. But with the heavyweight division currently in what we can call a potential “Four Kings” era, with fighters such as Fury, Wilder, Anthony Joshua and reigning Ring champion Oleksandr Usyk generating massive social media traffic and expectations, there is a much better use of that money and exposure in promoting what could potentially be a history-making four-way rivalry that is already in place, and which would arguably enhance the legitimacy of the sport and of those four (or more) fighters.
Choosing, instead, to promote a fight between two practitioners of two different sports and thus pandering to both fan bases with a glorified pissing contest of misguided machismo promoted as the “Battle of the Baddest” is an ill-advised money-grab at best, and a potentially catastrophic event in the worst possible case.
Having a boxing novice, no matter how ripped or how famous or how well-trained by a former champ, defeating the most visible boxer in the world with the most coveted prize in sports on the line could have had consequences that escape the limits of this pages. Turning boxing into the butt of eternal jokes of our MMA cousins is just one of those. Perpetuating the idea that anyone with a large-enough social media following and the right promotional muscle behind him can get in the ring with the mighty mighty heavyweight champion of the world is just one of the worst ones.
As I expressed in a column devoted to the Floyd Mayweather-Jake Paul fiasco, the concept of boxing as organ donor for the entertainment industry may have reached its most feverish peak during the Mayweather-McGregor dumpster fire, but Fury-Ngannou and other similar events are definitely signaling the beginning of a large scale, for-profit organ harvesting operation. And boxing may end up being lucky to lose nothing more than a kidney and a few pints of blood.
We may have to start considering amputation as another frightful possibility.
The lack of a centralized sanctioning body is not an excuse anymore. The instinct of self-preservation alone should be enough to pull us away from the ledge while we still can. Otherwise, boxing as a sport that depends on thousands of fighters plying their trade in gyms around the world for years and years in the hope that doing the right thing will land them under the spotlight in a far-away land for a life-changing payday will be dead. Why would one do it, one could ask, if you could work your way up as a grabber-and-hugger in a league of underpaid wrestlers rolling around like they’re in the foreplay scene of some R-rated sadistic same-sex adult movie with completely different rules (both in and out of the octagon, including tests of all kinds) and then mouth-off your way into a heavyweight championship boxing fight?
Fury-Ngannou was, depending on who you ask, billed as an “exhibition.” In the end, it just exhibited how gullible we all are, both boxing fans and especially UFC fans, who tune in weekly under the promise of an all-you-can-stomach violence buffet and now had to settle for a gloved contest in which the boxing debut of the “Superman punch” was the only visible crossover contribution.
The fact that Ngannou’s combat experience moves this whole thing away from being a “legalized bank robbery,” as Mayweather put it ahead of his clash with the inexperienced Paul, should not be a validating factor for this charade. And the fact that he looked “surprisingly good for a debutant” against an iceberg-slow Fury who clearly underestimated him should not be an excuse either. Every new event of this nature should be considered a testing ground for a new weapon of mass destruction that could crush boxing for years to come. It is only too bad that we’re willing to wait for that to happen before imagining the damage – or doing something about it.
Meanwhile, 24 hours earlier and halfway across the globe, Amanda Serrano took on Danila Ramos in what was billed as the first undisputed women’s championship bout (Serrano’s Ring featherweight belt was on the line as well as three of her other belts with the exception of the WBC version) to be disputed over 12 rounds of three minutes each.
The fact that the WBC, so eager to sanction Fury-Ngannou, choose to sit this one out should be very revealing. They did mention a medical study as the reason for their refusal to sanction a 12-round bout between women, but it is unclear whether they went to the same lengths to check on the health of Ngannou, a 37-year-old boxing novice who had his last proper combat outing 22 months ago and was considered a 14-1 underdog going in.
The same doctors who elaborated the medical report that suggests that women are more prone to brain damage than their male counterparts (a report that relies heavily on sports like soccer and rugby, where dangerous head clashes are more frequent, and not on boxing, where the power of a strike is limited by the frailty of the human hand among other things) should have been recruited to check on the health of a male who devoted a significant portion of his training to anaerobic exercises (destined to build more muscle, which is obtained by retaining liquids and fats in the body) in order to gain strength, instead of training on more aerobic exercises that provide explosiveness and rapid oxygenation (crucial in avoiding injuries) to the brain and body. A video of Ngannou skipping rope with no interruptions for three straight minutes could have done the trick.
Instead, we got to see Ngannou severely gassed out after four or five rounds and standing in front of a 6’9’’ behemoth who trained all his life to punch his foe’s head as strongly and accurately as possible. The fact that Fury apparently neglected part of that training in the lead-up to this fight (looking gassed out and out of focus as he was during parts of the bout) is irrelevant.
On the other side, though, we saw Serrano (an impeccably conditioned athlete with a monk-like devotion to training, however questionable that may be) breezing through a 12-round bout against a fighter who never stopped charging forward. And she did so after gathering the support of at least two dozen great fighters who answered the call to sign up to her cause.
Many of those fighters (including all-time greats and Hall of Famers such as Holly Holm and Layla Ali) were in attendance to support Serrano. And although the way in which they financed their visit to that venue is unknown (and not a relevant part of this analysis), the motivating factor behind their presence in this event is strikingly different to that of the dozens of former and current male boxers who allowed themselves to be happily ferried to a hub of male privilege for a few freebies and a chance to see boxing being embarrassed right in front of their very eyes.
The split-decision win in favor of Fury spared them from that humiliating sight, for now. But that doesn’t mean this is over. Talks of a Fury-Usyk mega-bout have cooled down significantly after this debacle, and the talks of a rematch between Fury and Ngannou are gaining traction. And with it, the chances of a disaster grows closer and closer.
“He’s the bull, I’m the matador!,” had said Fury during the lead-up to the bout, “and 99.999 percent of the time, the matador wins!”.
In light of what happened last week in Saudi Arabia, we should start asking ourselves what would happen if that .001 chance ever materializes.
Fortunately, even if the big men in boxing do manage to destroy the sport’s allure and reputation, there is always the chance that a 126-pound Puerto Rican girl will rescue it. I say we give her a chance. And our support. And the benefit of the doubt.
All of that and anything else she wants – perhaps with the sole exception of a WBC belt.
Diego M. Morilla writes for The Ring since 2013. He has also written for HBO.com, ESPN.com and many other magazines, websites, newspapers and outlets since 1993. He is a full member of the Boxing Writers Association of America and an elector for the International Boxing Hall of Fame. He has won two first-place awards in the BWAA’s annual writing contest, and he is the moderator of The Ring’s Women’s Ratings Panel. He served as copy editor for the second era of The Ring en Español (2018-2020) and is currently a writer and editor for RingTV.com.