Francis Ngannou knocks down heavyweight champ Tyson Fury, who escapes with split decision

Francis Ngannou wanted to prove he can hack it in the boxing world, not just in MMA. Mission accomplished.

He didn’t win his debut Saturday, but certainly will leave Saudi Arabia with a newfound respect from many in the boxing world. Despite a size disadvantage, and despite no pro boxing experience, Ngannou gave Tyson Fury, the unbeaten WBC heavyweight champion, a competitive fight – and even landed the fight’s only knockdown.

But in the end, Fury (34-0-1), who was a prohibitive betting favorite around 14-1 when the fight started for his fight with boxing debutant Ngannou (0-1), took home a win on the scorecards by unanimous decision. Fury won with a pair of 96-93 score and a 95-94. The dissenting scorecard for Ngannou was 95-94. The list of fighters who haven’t been able to go the distance with Fury is long and distinguished, and the immediate talking point was whether Ngannou overperformed or Fury underperformed.

The showcase fight – Fury’s boxing title was not on the line – took place at Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in a venue that was built in about three months for this event and future events.

Despite the loss, Ngannou said he was glad to have a good showing in his first fight in a new sport. He left the UFC as its heavyweight champion earlier this year after contract negotiations fell through. He signed with the PFL and is expected to return to MMA there next year, but also has the ability to box – and was guaranteed a reported $10 million payday for his fight with Fury.

“I feel fantastic. I’m very happy,” Ngannou said. “It didn’t go my way … I’m just a fighter and I’m ready to fight any time soon. We can run it back, and I’m sure I’m going to get better. This was my first boxing match – great experience.”

The size difference in the ring was noticeable. But 30 seconds in, Ngannou wasn’t afraid to let loose with a big right hand. He closed the distance and tightened the quarters early. But Fury’s lengthy reach – north of 85 inches at 6-foot-9 – paid dividends with his jab.

Ngannou went to the body with 40 seconds left in the opening round, but a few seconds later Fury came over the top with a big right hand, and a jab a few seconds later. At the end of the frame, Fury stared at Ngannou and stuck his tongue out as if to say, “Welcome to the boxing world.”

A minute into the second round, Ngannou landed a shot that drew some blood from Fury. He switched to southpaw stance, but Ngannou followed to give Fury a different look, too, and the result may have been a closer round for the judges to look at.

Ngannou threw a big right hand a minute into the third that Fury mostly blocked, but he dropped his hands and Ngannou landed a left right behind it that might have been the best punch of the first seven minutes.

But with 45 seconds left, Ngannou drilled Fury with a left hand and put Fury on his backside on the canvas. It was the seventh time Fury had been knocked down in his boxing career. He made it up for the standing 8-count and stayed safe the final 25 seconds or so to get to the fourth round. Fury landed just one punch in the third round.

Fury started the fourth with a bevy of confidence. his punches seemed to come even faster and harder. Fury threw a big left that just missed, but Ngannou stayed in his face and Fury tied Ngannou up a couple times in a row, perhaps to get breaks. But despite Fury’s size advantage, Ngannou seemed to have little problem with his size and the power that comes from it. Fury landed a two-punch combo with 40 seconds left, and hit a couple after that to grow some confidence.

In the fifth, Fury landed some big shots late and Ngannou seemed to start to slow down after 15 minutes – five three-minute rounds instead of the five-minute rounds Ngannou is used to in MMA.

Ngannou swung for the fences in the sixth and Fury just got out of the way of it. Ngannou tied things up midway through and seemed to start to tire. He seemed to look for a one-punch finish in the middle and later rounds and it became less about a strategy. Of note in the round, Fury threw a punch that turned into an elbow that landed.

Somehow, through seven rounds, Fury had landed only five more punches than Ngannou. In the eighth, Ngannou bloodied Fury’s nose, thenn got into a close-distance firefight with him and got the better of things so much that Fury had to tie him up. Fury looked worn out with a minute left in the eighth, and Ngannou drilled him to the body and forced another tie-up.

In the ninth, Ngannou landed a punch early, but Fury fired back with jabs and a right hand. Neither did much to separate himself down the stretch.

Ngannou entered the 10th as the live odds betting favorite, which seemed miraculous in and of itself. The fans seemed to back Ngannou late, though he didn’t do much to separate himself from Fury in the final few minutes. With a minute left, Ngannou threw a Superman punch – which he said in advance he would try to do. Fury landed one more hook down the stretch, but it was inconsequential.

When Michael Buffer read the scores, Ngannou’s 95-94 was the first announced, setting up some tension during the next two. Fury heard his 96-93, and then had to sweat out the other 95-94 – which he was fortunate enough to have in his favor.

Story originally appeared on MMA Junkie