It was not the great desert robbery the mania on the internet would have you believe. Nor was it the farcical sham most had predicted.
Tyson Fury did put on his most febrile performance since first becoming a world heavyweight champion and was made to suffer the pain of being corrected for presuming this would be a stroll across the dunes of Arabia.
Francis Ngannou did vault over from the caged octagon into the square ring of boxing with astonishing alacrity. In putting Fury down early and then through a spasmodic bludgeoning he transformed the dubious prospect of an exhibition into brutal unarmed combat and himself into a hero.
The UFC icon also cut the forehead of the Gypsy King and catch the eye of most of the watching millions. Who doesn’t rise to an underdog socking it to the big dog? But in the end two of the judges scored it for Fury. As did my humble self and the majority of an extraordinary assembly of boxing legends drawn to a night of fabulously expensive and dazzling promotion of the new Saudi Arabia.
Tyson Fury clinched a narrow split decision victory over Francis Ngannou on Saturday night
Fury put on his most febrile performance since first becoming a world heavyweight champion
Ngannou sent Fury crashing to the canvas in the third round as the Englishman was rocked
Including Iron Mike Tyson who had helped tutor Ngannou in the arts of boxing and Lennox Lewis who, until Fury and Usyk finally get it on, is still the last undisputed world heavyweight champion.
Fury, having clawed himself off the canvas and back from the precipice of a disaster which would have sent hundreds of Saudi millions hurtling into the void with him, then had to be saved from himself.
The grit and pride with which he had clambered upright from horizontal distress, yet again in his undefeated career, were leading him to insist that he would go ahead with his Christmas cracker against Usyk regardless. He said: ‘Let’s still do it on December 23.’
Promoter Frank Warren revealed: ‘I had to coax him out of it in the dressing room.
‘Forget any talk about that fight not ever happening. It is a signed, done deal. There is a lot of money at stake (think $200million for Fury if you include a rematch whoever wins) but it will take place now in January or February.
‘Tyson trains every day of his life and has been in full camp preparing for Usyk three times before they kept putting back the fight, as well as for Ngannou.
‘The head cut wouldn’t be a problem, nor any bumps and bruises. But he needs time to cool off, spend Christmas with his family and reset after a bad night at the office.’
That he does. Fury was cumbersome and lacking focus as hostilities began following the spectacular sound and light show in an indoor football stadium built out of the sand in only 90 days to open the months long Riyadh Season of multiple entertainment and sporting events.
If the greatest ever upset – a WBC heavyweight champion being humbled by an MMA fighter on his boxing debut – was not to be, then the 25,000 in a roaring crowd were treated to the numbing shock of seeing Fury dumped on his ample backside.
Then they and the pay-per-viewers were given unexpected value for money as Ngannou astonished us all. The downside for boxing folk back home in the UK and the US is that the success of this event makes it yet more likely that the biggest fights in the immediate future, especially the heavyweights, will happen here and not in Wembley, the T-Mobile in Vegas or New York’s Madison Square Garden.
Fury was adamant he wanted to still fight Oleksandr Usyk on December 23 but the fight will now take place next year, with promoter Frank Warren (second left) eager for Fury to cool off
Ex-heavyweight champion Mike Tyson was responsible for teaching Ngannou the art of boxing
Ngannou believes his performance against Fury proves he can ‘box with the best of them’
The money is inevitably with the Saudis, not least because the Crown Prince is an avid boxing fan.
But after the extravagant presentation of this fight and the drama it delivered, so is the power.
Warren spells out that not only will Fury-Usyk be here but also a contracted rematch. That will take care of 2023. And who wouldn’t want to see the Gypsy King and Ngannou go at it again now that Mr UFC is saying: ‘I’ve proved I can box with the best of them.
‘One or two more big fights and I’ll be ready to do better against Tyson next time.’ No prizes for guessing where that would take place.
The way Usyk was licking his lips at ringside, the Ukrainian war emblem will have a say in that agenda.
He pushed the big fat envelope by saying: ‘I want Fury soon. I would be very happy to fight him on December 23. I’m ready. Really ready.’
Who could blame him? Concerns about Fury’s future whirled beneath the desert stars in the early hours of Sunday morning.
Was he caught complacent by Ngannou’s lack of boxing experience? Had he been drained by losing 26lbs of that famous flab in only eight weeks? Are there real signs of deterioration in his 30s?
Warren said: ‘Some fighters do get old overnight but I don’t believe that’s the case with Tyson. It was not so much him taking Ngannou for granted as being surprised that he boxed so well in an unusual style he had no chance of preparing for. He does the weight loss every time but I think him being out of the ring for so long this time had the biggest effect. Give him a break.’
Concerns about Fury’s future whirled beneath the stars in the early hours of Sunday morning
Fury and Usyk will compete to unify heavyweight division, but that fight is now likely in 2024
Fury was the one who suffered most on this sultry night in Saudi Arabia, not Ngannou
It would be churlish not to. Fury was the one who suffered most on this sultry night. Not Ngannou, who was first to admit: ‘I’m delighted with my performance but I know that I came up just short.’
That he did with one judge scoring the 10 rounds 95-94 for him and a second by the same margin for Fury. The third concurred with my card at 96-93 for Fury.
Corruption, some cried in a knee-jerk. No dodgy decision here. Ringcraft, experience, a left and occasionally right jab and some meaty blows of his own which the powerful Ngannou took better than he did that peach of a left hook in the third round were the factors which kept the points ticking over. Also on those accursed punch stats which were in Fury’s favour.
Usyk was surely wishing this had been his Fury night. But he will know that the Gypsy King is not dead. Not yet. And that in all his contrariness he might well rise again.