Anthony Joshua vs. Francis Ngannou: AJ dismisses boxing against MMA narrative, vows to be relentless

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia – Not so long ago, Anthony Joshua didn’t have much interest in taking on former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou. So-called crossover fights were roundly criticised by the boxing community, and there was nothing to gain for a man who had already established himself at the elite level.

However, in this sport, things can change in a hurry when there’s enough money in the pot. A quick notion by Saudi Arabia’s Chairman of General Authority for Entertainment Turki Alalshikh saw Joshua vs. Ngannou made quicker than an AJ left jab for March 8 in Riyadh.

WATCH: Anthony Joshua vs. Francis Ngannou, live on DAZN

The storyline is also helped by the fact that Ngannou dropped and was very competitive against reigning WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury before losing a close decision last October. That fight was the biggest crossover matchup since Floyd Mayweather stopped Conor McGregor in 2017 and established Ngannou as a legitimate force in boxing.

However, when select media caught up with Joshua at a villa inside BLVD World in Riyadh, the former champion refused to pigeonhole the pending collision as boxing versus MMA.

AJ vs. Ngannou: Boxing against MMA?

“It’s purely my fight. It’s selfish, but that’s how you’ve got to be,” said Joshua. “I keep telling people, [Ngannou is] a boxer. Before MMA, he was boxing. He was an amateur boxer for Cameroon, and went to the Olympic team. He went to MMA when he got to France, I think at the age of 26.

“People think he just had a dream of being a boxer and started hitting the heavy bag. No, he had a long amateur career. MMA was a route into the fight game.”

It’s very rare for Joshua to be taking on a fighter as physically imposing as he is. While Ngannou is two inches shorter than the British star, he is approximately 20 pounds heavier in terms of functional weight. However, it was pointed out that AJ seems to perform better against bigger opponents.

“Yeah, with little fellas, they’ve been fighting bigger guys their whole life, so naturally, in their subconscious, they just know what to do at the click of a finger,” reasoned Joshua.

“When you’re the bigger guy, you’re used to fighting guys your height, So, yeah, against bigger guys, I seem to get better knockouts. Like with Jermaine Franklin (who went the distance) versus Robert Helenius (who was knocked out). You’ve got one short guy that’s a bit more nimble versus a straight-up guy that (Joshua punches hand) was easy to clip.”

MORE: Joshua vs. Ngannou: Tale of the Tape

Joshua reflects on Fury vs Ngannou

As Joshua relaxed on a cream sofa fielding questions, I asked him if the key was to keep things simple against Ngannou. My impression had been that Fury rushed his work to end things quickly and made mistakes that he wouldn’t normally make.

“When you talk about Fury making mistakes, you’ve also got someone making it awkward for you as well, so it’s always easy from the outside,” offered Joshua. “Fury must have found some difficulties, but, for me, I think you’ve gotta be relentless. You have to have that mentality to be relentless.

“Someone will always say, ‘They made it really hard for me to get going, they were constantly on me, constantly in my face, outworked me, outhustled me, and that’s it – be relentless.”

The unusual wrinkle for Joshua in this fight is that the bout is scheduled for 10 rounds and not 12, which is the distance to which he’s been accustomed. Just how long has it been since AJ took part in a 10-round fight?

“The last one was against Gary Cornish in 2014 or something like that,” said Joshua, who actually blasted out the hapless Scot in the first round of a scheduled twelve. AJ’s last 10-rounder came against American Kevin Johnson in May 2015.

“There’s a difference in mindset [with 12 rounds] because when you go into the ninth round, you’ve still got 10, you’ve still got 11, you’ve still got 12. [In a 10-rounder] you can see light at the end of the tunnel in round seven.”

MORE: Eddie Hearn: AJ has the antidote to Ngannou’s freak strength

How does Joshua beat Ngannou?

While Ngannou is light years behind Joshua in terms of professional boxing experience, he is renowned for his capacity to hold a shot. The Cameroonian warrior was never hurt in the UFC and Fury’s punches seemed to just bounce off him.

“People have never put a dent in him, so don’t bank on putting a dent in him because you’re gonna fall short,” laughed Joshua. “You’ve gotta find another way. That’s why I always say there are so many ways to skin a cat.

“Has he lost before? Yeah, so there’s a blueprint. You have to be optimistic if he’s never had a dent put in him. Let me find another way to beat him – no problem.”

Can Joshua do what no other fighter has done and take “The Predator” out? Will the ex-champ be forced to do the job over 10 rounds, as many expect? Or will this be the final affirmation of Ngannou’s quality as a boxer?

On March 8, we’ll have all the answers.

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