April 17, 2024

LAS VEGAS AND RIYADH, SAUDI ARABIA — Cameras surround a ring at a gym Francis Ngannou has opened himself in Las Vegas. For years, Ngannou could be seen every day at the UFC Performance Institute, but his scenery changed in 2023. A full size boxing ring takes center stage in the facility, with the word “GIMIK” printed loudly above it. A trolling nod to the notion some have that his crossing over into the boxing world is nothing more than a farce. But at least on the surface, today, he looks like a boxer. And nothing might aid that visual more than the man by his side: Mike Tyson.

Tyson watches intently and occasionally stops Ngannou and his coach Dewey Cooper to demonstrate a technique. That Tyson power is still there, but Tyson’s instructions are surprising.

“I don’t like power,” Tyson says. “Power only matters and if you can land it.”

WHEN NGANNOU WAS 10 years old, he used to tell the people of Batie, his small village in Cameroon, that his dream was to become a professional heavyweight boxer some day — like his idol, “Iron” Mike Tyson.

It was, as people told him, a ridiculous thought. Batie, with a population of mere thousands, had no boxing gym. Ngannou didn’t own a television.

But he fell in love with Tyson, even without seeing him throw a punch. Tyson was such a global icon at the time, during the mid-’90s, stories of his ferociousness and power traveled all the way to the corners of Central Africa. But those stories were all the 10-year-old Ngannou knew him by.

“I just knew him by name,” Ngannou told ESPN. “I had never seen him in my life.”

Fortunately, Ngannou never lacked an ability to dream. He could close his eyes and see this imposing knockout artist putting another man to sleep and walking away with a truckload of cash. He asked his siblings to start calling him “American Boy,” because he wished to box in the U.S. so much. His mother banned them from using that nickname because she didn’t like it and was also very skeptical of his dream to box professionally.

On Saturday, Ngannou, 37, will meet Tyson Fury (33-0-1, 24 KOs) in the boxing ring in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in a non-title bout he willed into being (2 p.m. ESPN+ PPV). The story of his life is so hard to believe, Hollywood might balk on the script. He emigrated to Paris from Cameroon in his 20s, in a harrowing, 14-month trek through Nigeria, Morocco and Spain. He became a UFC heavyweight champion just eight years after his first training session and then left the UFC as its heavyweight champion in 2022 to pursue a deal that would allow him to fulfill his childhood dream of boxing professionally.

Now in his boxing debut, he’s facing Fury, the lineal heavyweight boxing champion of the world and if all that weren’t enough, how’s this for one more impossibility turned into reality? Ngannou’s mentor leading up to this has been none other than Mike Tyson himself. Tyson joined Ngannou’s team in late July to help oversee his training.

That was the moment, Ngannou says, this all felt very real to him — when Tyson joined his corner. It’s one thing to take a gamble and walk away from a UFC offer president Dana White said would have made Ngannou the highest-paid heavyweight in company history. And it’s one thing to see the gamble pay off, and sign a contract to face Fury in the ring. But it’s another to see your childhood hero show up in your corner, and believe you’re capable of pulling it off.

“Everybody was like, ‘No, [this fight] can’t happen because he’s not a boxer,'” Ngannou said. “And even though you focus and you believe, you know there is a chance it won’t happen. But then one month later, you’re in the gym training for a fight that is going to happen for sure. And Mike Tyson is there. Everything is real then, right? So, that was a great moment.”

Purchase Fury-Ngannou on ESPN+ PPV

NGANNOU SAYS HE doesn’t remember the exact timeframe of when he saw video of Tyson, but believes it was in his 20s, as he was already making his way north from Cameroon. In an internet cafe, he watched an online clip of Tyson fighting for the first time. It was as he’d pictured it; better, even. Tyson was scary, powerful — everything the stories had made him out to be. But he was also just a very skillful boxer, which is what Ngannou aspired to be.

“It was cool watching it,” Ngannou said. “And it was exciting because when you start to box, it’s all fundamentals — raise your hand, move like this, lateral, vertical, forward, backward. But then you see these professionals, and they fight differently. They have their hands down and it doesn’t look fundamental. But if you look at Mike Tyson, it’s just fighting fundamentals as a heavyweight.”

The first time Ngannou met Tyson was in November 2019, at Tyson’s podcast studio in Los Angeles. Ngannou’s manager, Marquel Martin was able to book Ngannou as a guest on Tyson’s Hotboxin’ podcast.

“Everybody’s gonna know your name,” Tyson said to Ngannou during the interview. “You’re the future. You’re special.”

Most of their 90-minute conversation that day revolved around Ngannou’s story and his success in the UFC. But near the end, the topic of a boxing match against Fury came up.

At that time, there was virtually no reason to think the fight would ever happen. Ngannou was locked into a contract with the UFC, and working toward another heavyweight title shot. Fury was in the middle of a lucrative rivalry with Deontay Wilder. They were separate entities in different sports. They might have been in the same universe — two bad men (heavyweight champions are often referred to as the “baddest men on the planet”), heavyweight hitters — but they were on different planets in terms of projecting any event that might involve both.

When Ngannou said it was his dream to make it happen, however, Tyson’s response was, “Reality is in your mouth. It’s whatever you say it is.”

The two left on friendly terms, but they didn’t stay in regular contact. Ngannou went on to win his UFC championship in March 2021 and defended it once in January 2022. He exhausted his contract with the UFC later that year and turned down multiple offers from the company to stay. The major reason he didn’t re-sign was boxing, and the UFC, despite playing a big role in Conor McGregor fighting Floyd Mayweather, wasn’t into that plan. In May, he signed with MMA promotion PFL, with a guarantee he’d be allowed to box in his contract.

Slowly, the Fury fight began to come together. Social media banter commenced. Ngannou and Fury stood side-by-side after Fury’s KO of Dillian Whyte and made the pairing seem more of a reality.

Once Ngannou was contractually free to pursue a Fury fight, financial interest from Saudi Arabia brought it to life. At that time, event organizers from Saudi Arabia asked Ngannou’s team if there was interest in getting Mike Tyson involved. Wouldn’t it be something, they said, if Tyson joined Ngannou’s team in some capacity?

“They had asked, ‘Who is going to be Francis’ coach?'” Martin told ESPN. “At this point, we were still three months away. I had a list of potential coaches. I had talked to Teddy Atlas a little bit. They said, ‘Would you be interested in Tyson?’ And we were like, ‘Absolutely, of course.’

“It was my understanding, from speaking to Tyson in 2019, that he didn’t like to coach because he can’t do it every day. It takes a lot out of him. He’s a beast, man, any time he’s in the gym. But we told the event organizers, ‘Yes, we will welcome him with open arms,’ with the understanding that he wouldn’t be an everyday coach. And you don’t need Tyson every day. One day with him is worth multiple camps.”

Tyson, 57, was at home when the inquiring phone call came in. Despite what one might think, he has not fielded many calls of this nature over the years. It’s more or less known within boxing that Tyson is out of the game in that type of capacity. But when he received the call about Ngannou, his mind went back to their conversation four years ago on the podcast. He’d always been impressed by Ngannou’s story and his perseverance.

“I said, ‘Let’s do it,'” Tyson said. “It’s his story. They are gonna make a movie out of this. [The way he looked up to me as a kid], that’s how I felt about Roberto Duran, Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard.'”

The pair worked together multiple times since that July conversation, forming a bond that was just a wild dream for Ngannou not too long ago.



Why everything Ngannou vs. Fury runs through Mike Tyson

Mark Kriegel breaks down just how much of an influence Mike Tyson’s presence has had in Tyson Fury vs. Francis Ngannou.

CONSIDERING EVERYTHING NGANNOU has been through to reach this point in his life, it’s really no surprise he is slow to trust others.

Ngannou has a reputation, even amongst his own camp, of being a little hard-headed. He does things his way. Once he builds a level of trust with someone, his walls come down a bit, but he is the final boss of his career and life.

Martin has known Ngannou for years, and advised him through the failed negotiations with the UFC and the ultimately successful ones for this boxing event and the PFL. In all that time, Martin has only seen Ngannou trust someone immediately once, and that was Tyson. It helped that Tyson was Ngannou’s hero, of course, but they also share similar philosophies in boxing and life.

“I know Francis,” Martin said. “He’s his own guy. He does things his way, right? Francis actually listened, though. It was really teacher/student from the start. Even his MMA coaches, they all had to build that relationship and trust with Francis over time, where he would finally say, ‘OK, cool. I believe what you are saying.’ With Tyson, that happened right away.”

That first session happened in late July, in Las Vegas. Tyson set the tone early.

“We trained and I thought we trained hard,” Tyson said. “The next day we spoke and I said, ‘How do you feel? Are you sore?’ And he said, ‘No, I feel great.’

“I said, ‘Wow, you just made a big mistake. You shouldn’t have told me that.’ So, we trained harder and he didn’t say that anymore. I wanted to work until he couldn’t go anymore. I told him, ‘This is what heavyweights do. They do heavyweight champion s—. They keep going.'”

The visuals of the two working together are great, but what effect that work will actually have when Ngannou has the WBC heavyweight champion in front of him on Saturday remains to be seen. Fury has described Ngannou’s chances in the fight in the same way many would: He’s a big, strong guy with a puncher’s chance. He’s at a complete disadvantage on Saturday, but at least he has the greatest equalizer in combat sports, which is power.

“It’s always dangerous, all these big heavyweights,” Fury said. “Like I say, you never underestimate anybody. They’ve all got the same chance. Everybody who faces me has the same chance at winning, and that’s a puncher’s chance. The only way to beat Tyson Fury is to knock him out cold, and that’s proven pretty hard to do.”

Ngannou has said he doesn’t expect to learn or match every skill Fury’s acquired in the sport in a matter of months. He expects to rely on the work he’s put in and his instinct, which he greatly trusts. He also knows everyone has a weakness and anyone can lose. Tyson is a living, breathing example of that. The greatest upset in boxing history came at his expense against 42-1 underdog Buster Douglas in 1990. The result of a fight is never pre-determined.

It would be easy for anyone to say the result of the fight doesn’t actually matter. That it’s happening at all, with Ngannou poised to take home the biggest payday of his career, is one gigantic victory. Six years ago, McGregor lost to Mayweather in Las Vegas — and showed up on Forbes’ Highest-Paid Athletes list at No. 24 with an estimated haul of $34 million. It’s hard to call anything about that “a loss.”

The same is true for Ngannou, but also not. When asked if there is any way he can truly “lose” on Saturday, he said it goes back to that 10-year-old in Cameroon, who idolized Tyson and told everyone that he would box professionally one day. He’s been a UFC champion, but technically, this will be the first time he proves that boy right. What a moment, with Tyson on his side.

On Saturday that dream of becoming a professional boxer will become a reality. So what will be the last thing that Tyson tells Ngannou before he walks to the ring?

“I’ll tell him, ‘Congratulations,'” Tyson said. “That’s it.”

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