Anthony Joshua’s legacy is on the line – Francis Ngannou is his ultimate risk-reward opponent

Anthony Joshua's legacy is on the line – Francis Ngannou is his ultimate risk-reward opponent
Anthony Joshua (left) will meet Francis Ngannou in Riyadh on Friday night - Richard Pelham/Getty Images

Anthony Joshua might be in receipt of a boatload of cash for his latest assignment in the ring against UFC star Francis Ngannou but his legacy remains on the line against the fighter who crossed combat codes last October to shock the world against incumbent world champion Tyson Fury.

Ngannou may not have won on two of the judges’ cards, but the viral moment when he felled Fury in the third round made him a player in boxing’s blue-riband division. None of it has been lost on Joshua, whose watchword all week here going in to this has been the word “relentless”, which the Briton must be if he is to make his mark in what appears to be a resurgent moment in the career of the two-time heavyweight world champion under trainer Ben Davison and his fight strategist Lee Wylie.
Defeat is unthinkable, and would be a disaster for Joshua’s aspiration to face the winner of the double-header planned between Fury and Oleksandr Usyk on May 18, and then potentially, some time in October this year, for the undisputed crown. Either a trilogy fight with Usyk, after back-to-back defeats to the Ukrainian, or that blockbuster contest with Fury are guaranteed should Joshua fulfil his destiny and have his arms held aloft here on Friday night at the Kingdom Arena.

Joshua needs to start fast and composed and pick up from where he left off against Otto Wallin in December, in a fight in which he never allowed the Swede a foothold in the dance. Momentum is a huge thing for fighters and a fourth fight in 11 months augers well for the Londoner. Domination – by boxing skills and jabbing at range to start – will be the key to success. Joshua will want to chop Ngannou down round by round like a big oak tree.

Otto Wallin (left) and Anthony Joshua -  Anthony Joshua's legacy is on the line – Francis Ngannou is his ultimate risk-reward opponent
Joshua picked off Otto Wallin (left) with relative ease in December - Richard Pelham/Getty Images

What we do know now about Ngannou is that he possesses patience and holds his shape, not to mention having the ability to switch to the southpaw stance effectively, and indeed, as in the Fury performance, will throw punches with Joshua while in range and look to exchange fire. That will be his best option of breaking through against his much more experienced foe. Joshua’s more direct punches against Ngannou’s arcing hooks ought to offer the advantage early, yet Joshua must be wary against the left hook of Ngannou, the punch that floored Fury.

Ngannou weighed in at 272.6lb, the same as he did against Fury, and with Joshua coming in 20lb lighter at 252.4lb, the man mountain will be looking for the same explosive performance as he produced against the Gypsy King by taking the fight to the former champion early in the contest.

“He’s insane. Big tall guy, long reach. But I know what I have to do. I can’t focus on him, it’s about me. I have to be relentless. Anything can happen [in the fight]. It’s a 10-round fight which makes it interesting,” Joshua said on Ngannou’s size.

“Even if I don’t put a dent in him, there’s many ways to skin a cat, but just let me find a way of beating him.

I look at him as a boxer, not an MMA fighter. And I think he’s a good addition to the heavyweight division, he brings another audience and it’s great for boxing.”

Prior to the main event, former world champion Joseph Parker meets Zhilei Zhang in a terrific, intriguing match-up of styles. Parker consigned the dangerous Deontay Wilder to an also-ran here in December with a brilliantly executed gameplan to win a landslide points victory, while Zhang stopped Joe Joyce twice in the UK last year, in consecutive contests.

It ought to be a fight of two halves. Zhang dangerous early; Parker taking over if the fight goes late. The two fighters are slated already to meet twice this year. Before that rising Liverpudlian Nick Ball, undefeated in 19 contests, challenges for the World Boxing Council featherweight crown against experienced champion Ray Vargas, in a little and large bout: Vargas is close to 6ft tall; Ball 5ft 3in, and a pocket battleship.

The addition of tens of millions in Joshua’s bulging bank vault will mean nothing to the fighter if he is forced to trudge back to the UK with his lion’s tail between his legs. The main players have been in a room together this week, eyeing each other like prowling lions.

“His Excellency invited us and wanted us all there and we all go out of respect to him, we are all in the room together. If it was our choice we’d probably say ‘f--- that’. That’s the way we are, we are all rivals, we have to fight each other. But it is good for boxing and the heavyweight division,” Joshua said.

If Joshua wants to emerge as the king of the heavyweight jungle this time next year, this is the opportunity to ravage one of those rivals and put his mark down as the most dangerous man in the division, as he rumbles in Riyadh with the giant fighter from Cameroon. After all the hype, now the fight, and time for action.

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