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Anthony Joshua vs. Francis Ngannou: Fight predictions, odds, undercard, expert picks, preview, start time

SportsAnthony Joshua vs. Francis Ngannou: Fight predictions, odds, undercard, expert picks, preview, start time

Of all the unlikely developments in boxing over the past few decades, the story of Francis Ngannou just might take the cake. 

Ngannou (0-1 in boxing, 17-3 in MMA), a former UFC heavyweight champion, nearly shocked the world in October when he floored WBC and lineal titleholder Tyson Fury in his pro debut before going on to lose a disputed split decision in their non-title bout. 

Now, at 37, Ngannou returns to Saudi Arabia on Friday for a second crossover superfight in the span of six months. This time he takes on former unified heavyweight king and British star Anthony Joshua (27-3, 24 KOs), in a 10-round bout featuring an entirely new set of expectations and stakes that were birthed from his incredible performance against Fury. 

Last fall, Ngannou’s move to boxing was seen as a potential one-off and nothing more than a money grab after being denied an opportunity while under his restrictive UFC contract to seek opportunities such as this outside the Octagon. To make matters worse, Fury-Ngannou was almost universally panned heading in as an unnecessary example of greed considering Fury was due to face Oleksandr Usyk in the first heavyweight boxing undisputed title bout of the four-belt era just months later. 

Can’t get enough boxing and MMA? Get the latest in the world of combat sports from two of the best in the business. Subscribe to Morning Kombat with Luke Thomas and Brian Campbell for the best analysis and in-depth news, including a complete preview of Joshua vs. Ngannou from Saudi Arabia on Friday night.

Although Ngannou, a native of Cameroon, was unable to pull off boxing’s biggest upset since Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson in 1990, the fight did wonders for his reputation. Now, as he sets to face Joshua, the idea of Ngannou winning to set up an eventual shot against the winner of Fury-Usyk is not only in play, it has led bettors in droves to lay down their cash for Ngannou, as a slight underdog, to do exactly that. 

“I really think I haven’t shocked the world,” Ngannou said at this week’s final press conference. “I have served in the factory building, training and learning. When I am really going to get it, that’s when the world is going to be shocked. I’m just working and learning about this sport that I have loved my entire life. I hadn’t had the opportunity to really do it and get the experience. Now that I have, I can put something really, really nice. I trust the process and trust my team. It’s going to pay off.”

Outside of fellow former UFC star Anderson Silva, at age 45, upsetting a badly faded Julio Cesar Chavez Jr. by split decision in their 2021 pro boxing match, MMA fighters have not faired that well in making the kind of rapid transition necessary between the two combat sports in order to adjust to the footwork and technique of elite boxing. 

But Ngannou, whose life story will undoubtedly become an inspirational movie in the coming years, has never been normal. After leaving Africa in his mid-20s to chase a dream of becoming a pro boxer, he was jailed in Spain for trespassing before showing up homeless at an MMA gym in Paris. 

Along the way, Ngannou not only showcased numerous times his incredible personal will and drive, he has shown an ability to adapt to the skills necessary in both combat disciplines in almost record time. Not to mention, he single-handedly challenged the UFC machine over fighter pay and treatment, which led to incredible victory over Cyril Gane in 2022 to finish out his UFC deal while unifying the heavyweight title despite defying doctor’s orders to withdraw following a serious knee injury. 

“He has an impenetrable mind,” Dewey Cooper, Ngannou’s trainer and president of Team Combat League, told CBS Sports ahead of the TCL Season 2 premiere on March 28. “If he were to let the naysayers, the media and the common opinion of the fight affect him, he would’nt have done well. He truly believed in himself and his ability. How many of us can hear the whole world say, ‘No!,’ and we keep saying, ‘Yes!’ Very few of us.”

The biggest difference between the Fury fight and the Joshua one for Ngannou is that he will no longer benefit from the element of surprise. There is also a growing legion who believe Fury was visibly under trained and far from focused for the fight after taking Ngannou lightly. 

It’s a notion, however, which Cooper openly disputes.

“I truly believe Fury did what he could do. I think he took the fight seriously,” Cooper said. “If he didn’t, what type of champion is that? … I am totally not in agreeance with the media. I felt he trained hard and looked the same shape he does in every other fight. He wasn’t sloppy or in worse shape. It’s just that Francis was much more durable and much more athletic than what people thought.”

Ngannou was able to shock Fury with both his power and technique, which led to a stunning third-round knockdown on a counter left hook. He was also able to discipline Fury out of trying to hurt him as the 6-foot-9 champion transitioned quickly into a defensive style of boxing from the outside. 

The biggest problem for Ngannou was that he didn’t throw enough punches to have a greater argument to win on the scorecards. Not only was he inexperienced at this level, it was clear Ngannou lacked the stamina necessary to fight hard for all 10 rounds. 

While Ngannou agrees with that criticism, he drew the line when asked to respond about Joshua’s trainer, Ben Davison, suggesting that Joshua will outbox him at the type of pace that will give Ngannou nothing but trouble. 

“Yes, it’s true. I have struggled to do 10 rounds and I will struggle to do 10 rounds,” Ngannou said. “If anyone doesn’t struggle to do 10 rounds then you are something else and not human. Everyone gets tired after 10 rounds. So, that’s right, I have struggled. But I have no problem with that because I am here to learn.”

The potential bad news for Ngannou is that he will be facing a version of Joshua at 34 who looked completely rejuvenated in December when he marched through and finished former title challenger Otto Wallin in the fifth round. Previously, Joshua had looked gun shy in his recent bouts after the fallout of losing his titles to Usyk in back-to-back defeats amid a roundtable of trainer swaps. 

“It was a flawless performance and it was a great performance,” Ngannou said of Joshua’s win over Wallin. “I watched that fight closely. But, for me, that doesn’t do anything because I know I am different. It’s going to be a different opponent and a different feeling. When you get in that ring, that’s when you know the fight.”

Joshua was quiet throughout most of the final press conference yet showed respect for the danger he expects to be across from him in the ring later this week, even though he acknowledged his hope of eventually facing Fury for the first time following his own two-fight series upcoming with Usyk. 

“All will be revealed, won’t it? This is straight up war and relentlessness,” Joshua said. “It will be a good fight. That’s what everyone is here for. Stay tuned. We are not looking past this fight, this is our main focus.

“[Ngannou’s] first dream was to be a boxer, which people forget. He had been doing it from a young age so I know what I am up against. It’s already written in the stars what is about to happen so I am just continuing my destiny. The best man will always win, it’s not rocket science. But one of the main things I am looking forward to is showing how good I am.”

One thing appears to be certain, boxing is Ngannou’s new main focus, even with him having signed a deal in 2023 to fight with PFL, the MMA rival to UFC, which is launching a Pay-Per-View Superfight Division this year with Ngannou as its centerpiece. 

“[Joshua] would be the best win so far but, like I said, we are just getting started,” Ngannou said. “The reason why I am here is because I always believe in myself. It doesn’t matter the circumstances or obstacles ahead of me. I believe in myself but that doesn’t mean I can control the outcome. I will go out there and do my best but whatever the outcome is, I accept this.”

There’s another intriguing heavyweight fight on Friday night with title implications. WBO interim champ Zhilei Zhang is set to take on Jospeh Parker. Zhang earned the interim title with an April 2023 TKO win over Joe Joyce. He retained that status in a rematch five months later with a second TKO of Joyce. Now, he takes on Parker, who is coming off his own impressive win over former WBC champ Deontay Wilder in December. The winner is likely to become a mandatory challenger for the winner of Usyk-Fury at some point later this year.

Let’s take a closer look at the rest of the undercard with the latest odds before getting to a prediction and pick on the main event.

Joshua vs. Ngannou fight card, odds

  • Anthony Joshua -345 vs. Francis Ngannou +270, heavyweights
  • Nick Ball -190 vs. Rey Vargas (c) +158, WBC featherweight title
  • Israil Madrimov -400 vs. Magomed Kurbanov +310, vacant WBA super welterweight title
  • Zhilei Zhang (c) -240 vs. Joseph Parker +195, WBO interim heavyweight title
  • Mark Chamberlain -278 vs. Gavin Gwynne +222, lightweights
  • Andrii Novytskyi vs. Juan Torres, heavyweights

Viewing information

  • Date: March 8
  • Location: Kingdom Arena — Riyadh, Saudi Arabia
  • Start time: 11 a.m. ET (main event expected around 6:30 p.m. ET)
  • How to watch: DAZN PPV | Price: $39.99 (with subscription)


Given the sheer mixture of Ngannou’s crushing power in both hands and the occasional vulnerable chin Joshua has showed throughout his career, this is the type of fight where literally anything can happen. 

While Ngannou is certainly a quick learner and shouldn’t be underestimated, this is also Joshua’s fight to lose. Should he prove able to box comfortably from the outside and use his physicality to prevent Ngannou from crowding him and looking to rough him up in the clinch (where Ngannou surprised Fury), there’s even potential that he can make it look easy given the gap in experience between them. 

All bets are off, however, should Ngannou land a big shot early, which completely changed the tone of the Fury fight once the knockdown in Round 3 took place. Joshua is far less durable than Fury historically and could transition into survival mode much faster should Ngannou’s power give him pause. 

If this were six months ago, however, the idea of a Joshua implosion would be much easier to digest, even to the level of outright predicting an Ngannou upset. But Joshua’s revival appears to be very real, which included a four-day stay last fall at a darkness retreat in solitary confinement. 

Ngannou will have his moments and will likely continue to elevate the validity of his brand as a crossover boxing star. But Joshua’s experience and heart should be just enough to allow him to advance, particularly if he can tire Ngannou out by making him chase. 

Pick: Joshua via UD

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