Tyson Fury survives knockdown, edges Francis Ngannou on points

Tyson Fury defeats Francis Ngannou by narrow split decision (0:50)

Tyson Fury tops Francis Ngannou with a split decision in the "Battle of the Baddest" from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. (0:50)

In a shocking turn of events, Tyson Fury was forced to survive a third-round knockdown to eke past Francis Ngannou via split decision Saturday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.

One judge scored it 95-94 for Ngannou, the former UFC heavyweight champion, but was overruled by tallies of 96-93 and 95-94 for Fury. Fury's WBC heavyweight title wasn't on the line in the 10-round boxing match. Ngannou was making his pro boxing debut in his first fight since January 2022.

England's Fury was installed as a -1400 favorite to win the match. He moves on to an undisputed heavyweight championship fight against Oleksandr Usyk despite arguably his worst performance against Ngannou.

The Fury-Usyk fight, perhaps the biggest in boxing, is already signed and planned for Dec. 23 in Riyadh, but it's unclear if the fight will happen on that date. Fury was cut over his left eye and forehead and suffered damage against Ngannou. He would have to turn around and fight Usyk in less than two months.

"It will be our next fight guaranteed," said Fury, ESPN's No. 6 pound-for-pound boxer.

Fury (34-0-1, 24 KOs) was expected to dominate Ngannou but instead settled for a decision. Ngannou was regarded for his immense punching power in MMA but had never even boxed in the amateurs.

Fury seemed confused throughout the bout, unsure how to attack Ngannou, who possessed surprising timing. He clipped Fury with a left hook on the temple in Round 3 for the knockdown, the seventh of Fury's career. But just like the previous six times -- including four total in his heavyweight title trilogy with Deontay Wilder -- Fury beat the count.

"That definitely wasn't in the script," Fury said. "He's a very awkward man and he's a good puncher and I respect him a lot. ... He wasn't coming forward. He was standing back waiting for me. ... He's given me probably one of my toughest fights in the last 10 years."

Fury added: "He's a good boxer. He's a lot better than I thought he'd be and he gave me a good fight. ... I would like to do it again down the line, and I'm sure Francis would like to do it as well."

Ngannou parted ways with UFC after he defeated Ciryl Gane last year to retain his heavyweight championship. The Cameroon native underwent knee surgery and then signed with PFL. But before he made his PFL debut, Ngannou stood face to face with Fury in April 2022 in London after Fury's win over Dillian Whyte.

The pair teased a future fight, but first, Fury ended a brief retirement to score a 10th-round TKO of Derek Chisora in a trilogy fight in December. When Ngannou finally entered the boxing ring for his fight, he was far more capable than anyone imagined outside of, perhaps, Ngannou.

Ngannou, 37, landed several big shots and showed off a jab that was effective at establishing range and dissuading Fury's pressure. Ngannou even switched to southpaw after Fury did the same.

"I'm a fighter," said Ngannou (17-3 MMA record). "We can run it back again, and I'm sure I will get better. This was my first boxing match. It was a great experience. I'm not giving any excuse.

"I know I came up short. But I'm going to go back and work harder with a little more experience and little more feeling of the game. And I will come back even stronger."

Fury used to prefer to box off the back foot, but after he began training with SugarHill Steward, he became far more aggressive.

Fury scored five knockouts in five fights with Steward, but that streak came to an end against Ngannou. And suddenly, Fury's matchup with Usyk looks quite different.

Usyk (21-0, 14 KOs) is an Olympic gold medalist and former undisputed cruiserweight champion. ESPN's No. 3 pound-for-pound boxer, he is a master of angles who defeated Anthony Joshua in 2021 to claim the WBO, WBA and IBF heavyweight titles. Usyk, 36, again beat Joshua in last year's rematch.

Usyk returned in August with a ninth-round knockout of Daniel Dubois to push forward with a long-awaited undisputed heavyweight title fight with Fury.

"Twenty-three of December, I'm ready to fight," said Usyk, who stepped into the ring after Saturday's decision.

Said Fury: "Let's go now if you want. ... He's a smaller man than Francis. I always said Francis was a much more dangerous fight than Oleksandr."

Despite the loss, it's Ngannou who grabs the rare moral victory. This was his pro boxing debut, achieving a lifelong dream that began in Africa. Ngannou arrived in France hoping to box but found MMA. Now he might have his boxing career after all.

Fury's deal with Usyk contains a two-way rematch clause, virtually ensuring two consecutive fights between the pair. But after that, a rematch between Fury and Ngannou would be among the biggest fights in boxing, as would a bout between Ngannou and Usyk should he win.

There's also Wilder, Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr. as possibilities for Ngannou. It's unclear when Ngannou will box again, but one thing is clear: He has a future in the sport and a chance to make loads of money.

"At first, I was a little nervous," Ngannou said. "This is a new sport that I never did. Now I can do this s---. So get ready."