Zhilei Zhang didn’t even give Francis Ngannou “a puncher’s chance” before the former UFC heavyweight champion fought Tyson Fury on October 28.
Like many within the boxing industry, the WBO interim heavyweight champ considered Fury-Ngannou a complete mismatch that shouldn’t even have been scheduled. The gigantic Chinese southpaw gave Ngannou plenty of credit for how he performed against Fury during a recent interview with BoxingScene.com, but Zhilei also criticized Fury for failing to take Ngannou seriously before their 10-round, non-title fight almost three months ago at Kingdom Arena in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.
“I don’t think Fury trained for that fight, to be honest with you,” Zhang said, according to his translator. “He looked at [Ngannou] like an MMA fighter that he could just walk over. But the truth is you have to take boxing seriously. You have to put the effort in when you’re in the gym. So, that mentality of Fury gave Ngannou the perfect opportunity.”
Ngannou nailed Fury with a left hook that sent Fury to the canvas late in the third round. A stunned Fury got up, regained control of their fight and did enough to win their pay-per-view main event by split decision.
Judges Alan Krebs (95-94) and Juan Carlos Pelayo (96-93) scored that fight for Fury, who lost 95-94 on the card of judge Ed Garner.
Surviving that unforeseen scare enabled Fury (34-0-1, 24 KOs) to maintain his place in a full title unification fight with Oleksandr Usyk (21-0, 14 KOs). England’s Fury, 35, and Ukraine’s Usyk, 37, will fight for Fury’s WBC title and Usyk’s IBF, IBO, WBA and WBO belts May 18 at Kingdom Arena.
Unless their 12-round pay-per-view bout results in a draw or no-contest, the winner will become the first undisputed heavyweight champion of the four-belt era.
Zhang feels Fury should beat Usyk, yet he cautioned that the outcome largely will depend upon how Fury prepares for their fight.
“I think it depends on the training camp,” Zhang said. “If Tyson Fury trains hard, he will win. He’s taller, he’s stronger and he’s flexible. But like I said, you have to be able to focus in training camp. That’s the bottom line. If you have all the physical advantages and you don’t train hard enough, you’re not gonna win.”
The game Ngannou earned another eight-figure payday based on how he fought Fury. The Cameroon native will face former IBF/IBO/WBA/WBO champ Anthony Joshua in another pay-per-view main event March 8 at Kingdom Arena.
Zhang (26-1-1, 21 KOs) will defend his interim title against New Zealand’s Joseph Parker (34-3, 23 KOs) in the 12-round co-feature March 8. The 40-year-old Zhang doesn’t expect Ngannou to have as much success against England’s Joshua (27-3, 24 KOs) as he experienced with Fury.
“I think Joshua will win,” Zhang said. “I give credit to Ngannou. He trains really hard and he performed really well in his first fight. Even if he lost, he looked good. But there is a difference between professional boxing and mixed martial arts, and I really believe Joshua will pull this off.”
Keith Idec is a senior writer/columnist for BoxingScene.com. He can be reached on Twitter @Idecboxing.