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Making it big at heavyweight: Tyson Fury vs. Francis Ngannou would be an event more than a fight

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Fury, Ngannou hint at potential crossover fight (0:50)

Tyson Fury and Francis Ngannou both tease a potential crossover fight between the two in the future. (0:50)

Tyson Fury is the greatest heavyweight in the world. Francis Ngannou is the greatest heavyweight in the world. Those two superlatives can both be true at the same time. And there's little chance that a boxing match between the two big men would settle anything.

So why did Fury, moments after his knockout of Dillian Whyte on Saturday in London, invite Ngannou into the ring to talk up the UFC champ as his next challenger? If you need a hint, consider that there were 94,000 devoted customers right there at Wembley Stadium and a massive pay-per-view audience at home listening to Fury's sales pitch.

Why Ngannou, though? It's indisputable that in a boxing ring Fury, the undefeated WBC and lineal world champion, would be levels above an MMA fighter who has never competed as a boxer. But by eyeing each other as partners in a crossover endeavor, the two heavyweight champions are simply following a trend. Combat sports, especially boxing, are deeply entrenched in an era of gaudy spectacles.

Within the past two years, we've seen:

  • A former NBA point guard, Deron Williams, box an ex-NFL running back, Frank Gore

  • A different former NBA point guard, Nate Robinson, lace up the gloves against a YouTube influencer, Jake Paul

  • And that same YouTuber, Paul, take on Ben Askren, a retired MMA fighter (and Olympic wrestler) with practically no stand-up skills

  • Paul then twice face another faded former MMA star, Tyron Woodley

  • Paul's brother, Logan, fight retired Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather

The fad was sparked in 2017 when MMA's biggest star, Conor McGregor, drew the undefeated Mayweather out of retirement. After a fiery and crude promotional tour through four cities in three countries, the extravaganza attracted a reported 4.3 million PPV buys, making it the second biggest-selling fight ever.

And a lot of eyes grew wide, inside and outside the sports world, with starstruck visions of easy-money opportunities.

The common ground linking all of these spectacle fights -- aside from being lucrative -- is that they have featured at least one non-boxer and at least one athlete who retired from professional sports. Technically, Fury vs. Ngannou would fit right in. Ngannou has never before fulfilled his childhood dream of becoming a pro boxer. And Fury indicated before Saturday's fight that it would be his boxing swansong, and he echoed his retirement announcement in his postfight interview.

But in reality, the scenario this time is different. Fury is in his prime. So is Ngannou, pending a successful recovery from knee surgery in January. The skill sets both would bring to the ring would be sharp. Unlike boxing vs. MMA ventures of the past, from Mayweather-McGregor in the ring to Randy Couture vs. James Toney in the Octagon way back in 2010, a pairing of Fury and Ngannou would clearly define the difference between world championship boxing and the fisticuffs of the most fearsome mixed martial artist.

And yet to analyze this matchup as competition is to miss the point. Ngannou has shown himself to be the scariest dude on the planet, with knockouts in five of his past six UFC bouts. If he touches Fury flush, he will hurt him. But why would anyone believe a boxing beginner can do what experienced world champions of the ring could not? It's about as plausible as Fury choking out Ngannou inside a cage.

I used to forcefully resist these spectacles. Give me a champion against a No. 1 contender all day. And in a way, the Fury-Ngannou matchup would be even more troubling than the extravaganzas that came before, because this one would involve not over-the-hill names but the current champs in the glamor division of their respective sports. Wouldn't it be better -- for boxing and MMA -- if these men continued to compete against the best in their domains?

Yes, it would, at least for those fans drawn to sports by its promise of competition at the highest level. But what Fury and Ngannou do isn't simply a sport known as fighting. It's prizefighting. And Ngannou, for one, would earn a bigger prize for a fight against Fury than any other. He fought out his UFC contract to have the independence to do this. Why deny him if there are paying customers interested in watching?

Don't expect a windfall anywhere near the size of Mayweather-McGregor, though. McGregor possesses an essential fight game skill that Ngannou does not: He talks the talk with such authority that he instills confidence in potential customers that he's fully capable of walking the walk. That is intoxicating to watch, whatever the price.

Just like in his MMA career, McGregor's brashness and belief were influential during the Mayweather buildup. While the most sensible among the combat sports public recognized the match as nothing more than the money grab it was, many got caught up in the bluster. McGregor's self-possession hypnotized them into believing that a 0-0 neophyte would defeat a 49-0 boxer who had beaten Manny Pacquiao, Oscar De La Hoya and Canelo Alvarez, among many others, on his way to becoming the best of his generation. Silly them.

Ngannou is not the used car salesman that McGregor is. The big guy makes a resounding statement with his ham hock fists every time he steps inside a cage, but his words hit with a pitter-patter. When Fury called him over during his postfight ESPN interview in the ring on Saturday, Ngannou didn't exactly seize the opening. He looked a bit awed by the moment when the microphone was put in front of him.

"We're gonna find out who is the baddest motherf---er on the planet," was about all Ngannou could offer. Meanwhile, Fury, still sweaty and fueled by the adrenaline from the fight that had just ended, brought all of the energy needed to pump up the fight he wants next -- and his soft-spoken opponent. "Look at the muscles on him!" Fury said at one point, giving an admiring glance at Ngannou, who just smiled, saying nothing.

Perhaps that's why, when Ngannou appeared on "The MMA Hour" on Monday, he stressed that he would like the UFC to be involved in promoting a Fury fight. Ngannou knows himself and his limitations as a huckster, and he recognizes the promotional, um, muscle of the fight company with which he hopes to re-sign. "It doesn't matter how big it can be," he said of a Fury fight, "the UFC can make it bigger."

Ngannou, who has said he will be free of his UFC contract at the end of the year, is taking the long view in discussing a possible return to the Octagon. He recognizes that Dana White's promotion is where the best heavyweights in MMA trade punches, and the champ desires to continue being a part of that. He mentioned Jon Jones and Stipe Miocic as possible post-Fury opponents.

Fury, for his part, is not talking about post-Ngannou boxing matches, even though there's a big one sitting right in front of him -- just a bit off in the distance. Come July 23, Oleksandr Usyk will defend his WBA, WBO and IBF heavyweight titles against Anthony Joshua. Fury could meet the winner for the highest of stakes: becoming the first unified heavyweight champion of the four-belt era.

Instead, Fury insists he's done with boxing but is open to what he has called "an exhibition" and what Ngannou has characterized as a "hybrid" fight. Neither man has offered much detail, except that it could incorporate MMA gloves and boxing rules, including a ring instead of a cage, but possibly with the fighters barefoot. Ngannou said the fight would happen -- will happen, he insists -- in early 2023.

Despite hearing both men talk about this spectacle on the horizon, I'm still not sure what we're doing here. Boxing with MMA gloves? Whatever. Cha-ching.

And Ngannou, true to form (and refreshingly, if I must say so), isn't going to hard-sell you on what he and Fury are trying to create. "If you don't want it, step away, brother. Nobody invited you here," he said on "The MMA Hour" earlier this week.

"If you like it, you're welcome."