What should Francis Ngannou do next? Anthony Joshua knockout provides a difficult question

Referee Ricky Gonzalez was waving his arms in a frantic moment of concern, even before Francis Ngannou’s seismic frame had finished unfolding on the mat. The ex-UFC champion’s fight with – or dismantling by – Anthony Joshua had lasted barely five minutes, and it may well be that his boxing venture now ends after five months.

Ngannou is a special athlete and a special human, and the manner of his loss to Joshua should not be taken as evidence contrary to those facts. For the Cameroonian to have dragged himself from poverty, across borders, out of jail, to a world title in the UFC was incomprehensible. It also proved that he has always had a stupefying mental fortitude to match his freakish athleticism and power in the ring.

On Friday in Riyadh, all Joshua did was reduce Ngannou to what he is: through a specific lens, and in simple terms, a boxing novice. Ngannou’s stunning showing against Tyson Fury in October, when he not only dropped the unbeaten champion but arguably outboxed him for the best part of 10 rounds, belied that reality. It also raised expectations for his sophomore effort in boxing, against an opponent who many fans and pundits saw as more hittable than Fury.

The flipside was always that Joshua had greater potential than his fellow Briton to badly hurt Ngannou, and that was the side of the equation that nullified and annihilated the 37-year-old on Friday. Ngannou has never been significantly hurt in mixed martial arts and ate a clean elbow from Fury in October, yet he was put down three times in two rounds by “AJ”.

Joshua, a former two-time unified champion, has struggled with southpaws at times – including generational great Oleksandr Usyk, understandably – but when Ngannou switched to that stance last weekend, it was as if AJ thought plainly: ‘This man is not a boxer, and he sure as hell is not a southpaw.’ The final knockdown, after Ngannou had abandoned that unorthodox stance, was as ruthless as it was decisive. Ngannou had barely risen from the canvas when Joshua stepped in with a shotgun right hand to obliterate the novice.

Joshua finished Ngannou with a powerful right hand in round two (Getty Images)
Joshua finished Ngannou with a powerful right hand in round two (Getty Images)

In a cruel visual twist, the way Ngannou lolloped sickeningly to the canvas closely resembled the manner in which Stipe Miocic crumpled in 2021, when the Cameroonian won the UFC title in their rematch. The reversed reimagining of that moment, on Friday, gave cause not only to look back on Ngannou’s MMA run; it gave cause to look forward to the resumption of it.

When Ngannou left the UFC in early 2023, vacating the promotion’s title in the process, he was approached by the Professional Fighters League (PFL). The rival company seemed happy just to have Ngannou on its roster, and entertained his contractual demand to fulfil his decades-old boxing dream. Now, however, the PFL will surely want a return from Ngannou.

A week before the “Predator” boxed Joshua, the PFL staged its first-ever Saudi event, with the main event revealing Ngannou’s first opponent in the company: heavyweight champion Renan Ferreira.

Ferreira, frankly, will not generate the kind of interest to appeal to Ngannou, though many MMA fans would be content just to see the ex-champion in the sport again. And Ngannou may not have a choice, if the PFL puts its foot down. The issue facing Ngannou is that, if ring rust and the natural chaos of the heavyweight division see him suffer a surprise loss to Ferreira, his own boxing venture may not generate enough interest to justify its continuation.

Ngannou was knocked down three times by Joshua (Getty Images)
Ngannou was knocked down three times by Joshua (Getty Images)

Perhaps the optimal move for Ngannou, if he can renegotiate, would be to box one more time against a known boxing name – but a B-level fighter, so to speak, rather than the likes of Usyk, Joshua and Fury – before making his PFL debut this winter. Dillian Whyte has been cleared to box again after returning an adverse finding in a drug test last year, while Daniel Dubois and Jarrell Miller – who boxed each other in Riyadh in December – could also be fun opponents for Ngannou. The Cameroonian could get one more boxing payday before serving his duty to the PFL (his first boxing purse alone reportedly eclipsed all of his UFC earnings, and his pay against Joshua was apparently double what he made against Fury.)

PFL founder and chairman Donn Davis told The Independent in February: “I’m 100 per cent confident that Francis fights MMA for PFL – not just once, but several times.” ‘Several times’ seems fanciful, but the specifics of Ngannou’s deal with the company are unclear.

Joshua, for his part, had this to say after Friday’s main event: “I told him not to leave boxing. He’s two fights in and he fought the best [...] Don’t let this discourage you [...] I think he’s an asset to boxing. I think he’s an asset to the fight game. Don’t be discouraged, and I respect you regardless.”

Joshua and Ngannou during their post-fight press conference (Queensberry Promotions)
Joshua and Ngannou during their post-fight press conference (Queensberry Promotions)

Ngannou has expressed his desire to keep boxing, too. “Right now, I think I’m going to go home, get some rest, process what just happened,” he said. “I’ll process it and see what is the next step, but maybe MMA. But you can be sure that I’m not done [in boxing], absolutely not.”

Whether Ngannou’s next bout is in the boxing ring or the cage, it will be crucial for his future. Either way, at 37 years old, Ngannou may not fight for much longer – and that is not a sad thought.

Ngannou was a winner in boxing simply by entering the ring. Maybe it is time for him to be a winner in MMA again. Most importantly, however, he won the fight of his life years ago, when he made his way out of poverty and to the top of the mountain in combat sports.