Joshua vs Ngannou: The keys to victory for AJ in a fight full of jeopardy

On Friday night in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, Anthony Joshua vs Francis Ngannou provides another mouthwatering heavyweight matchup in what is fast becoming a golden age for boxing’s marquee weight division.

All eyes will be on the Kingdom Arena when former two-time world heavyweight champion Joshua squares off against former UFC star turned heavyweight contender Ngannou (live on DAZN PPV globally and Sky Sports Box Office in the UK).

DAZN: Sign up to watch Joshua vs Ngannou live!

The card has been dubbed ‘Knockout Chaos’ and the headline act features two men with almighty striking power.

Joshua (27-3) comes into this off the back of a three-fight win streak and has rebuilt well after losing his heavyweight world titles following back-to-back losses to Oleksandr Usyk.

It is an intriguing matchup which really has come out of left field. Former two-time heavyweight champ Joshua had originally played down any talk of a potential crossover fight against Ngannou, describing the notion as “a gimmick”.

However, this fight came to be after Ngannou put on a stunning performance on his boxing debut against Tyson Fury last October, and Deontay Wilder then wrecked his own two-fight deal with Joshua with a shocking loss to Joseph Parker in December.

Turki Alalshikh – arguably the most influential figure in boxing right now – has put the money up for Joshua v Ngannou, and so here we are.

Most people have an opinion on the fight, but here we break down what AJ needs to do to get the win and stay very much in the world heavyweight title picture.  

Joshua tactics – what is the plan?

It is going to be so interesting how AJ approaches this tactically. 

Changing trainer is a well-trodden path for a fighter, especially following a defeat. So it was perhaps not a huge surprise when Rob McCracken was removed after the first Usyk loss, and Robert Garcia and Angel Fernandez were in the AJ corner for the rematch. Yet while his performance was better in that Usyk return, he still lost again on points.

The Garcia relationship did not last long, with Joshua then moving to Derrick James and living in Texas as he tried to work his way back to the top of the division. James was the man in the corner for wins over Jermaine Franklin and Robert Helenius, but in truth AJ did not look fantastic in either of those fights (though the Helenius KO in round 7 will make the final cut in terms of the highlight reel when his career is finally over).

READ MORE: Parker vs Zhang – all you need to know about massive showdown

AJ was suddenly looking more tentative in fights. The feet were better, but he was operating as a counter-puncher and seemed a fighter caught between two styles (boxing on the back foot as opposed to pressing the action and letting his hands go).

James was then traded in for Ben Davison ahead of the bout with Otto Wallin in December. Joshua then turned back the clock by beating up Wallin for five rounds before the Swede’s corner pulled him out of the fight.

That performance was really sharp, and after working with five trainers in the space of two years he may have struck gold with Fury’s former coach Davison. Speaking afterwards, Joshua described how much of a good fit they are together:

“He’s a scholar of the game and when we spoke, he saw what I have been trying to achieve in the business and you know when someone understands you and the lightbulb comes on and you just finally get it? That was it,” he said.

Anthony Joshua Ben Davison Day of Reckoning
Anthony Joshua pictured with new trainer Ben Davison ahead of his fight vs Otto Wallin on the ‘Day of Reckoning’ card in Saudi Arabia on December 23, 2023 (Photo Credit – Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing).

The tactics are going to be fascinating here. Logically, if Joshua uses his boxing ability, he should be able to comfortably deal with Ngannou. 

However, fighters are not creatures of logic but creatures of emotion. If we break down that Wallin win, Davison had clearly encouraged Joshua to be the bully early, be on the front foot and box aggressively. Moreover, he dominated as a result and forced the stoppage after breaking Wallin’s nose and busting him up.

Do they really now plan to box and move against Ngannou, worried that if they trade in the pocket AJ could walk onto one?

If AJ gets his strategy wrong, things could get ugly real quick.

A serious test for AJ

Ngannou won the respect and admiration of boxing fans across the globe with that remarkable performance against Fury. ‘The Gypsy King’ is – or certainly was – widely regarded as the best boxer in the heavyweight division, but Ngannou gave him fits for 10 rounds.

We cannot know for certain whether that was because Ngannou is just a handful whatever the combat code, or whether Fury went in undercooked thinking the Cameroonian would be light work.

Fury, the heavyweight division’s most capable showman, was certainly dismissive of his opponent’s chances in one memorable sit-down with the press prior to their October fight, saying: “But if I told you what I really think of these guys, who would buy the pay-per-view? I’ll tell you what Francis Ngannou is – a big, fat sausage. He couldn’t beat me if he had a machete and a 9mm in his hands. How is he going to beat me? Please.

“It’s alright me saying this is a 50/50 fight. Is it bollocks a 50/50 fight. I’m going to take him to school and then I’ll let him know what a right hand feels like.”

In sport, there is being confident and then there is that. Fury looked okay at the weigh-in in terms of his physical appearance, but it was clear early on he was not at his imperious best and clearly shocked by the strength of Ngannou, who kept coming all night and was winning the fight inside.

Team Joshua will have seen that, and hopefully realised that Ngannou – despite his inexperience when it comes to the noble art – is for real and will have prepared accordingly. 

They have some data now and they know this is an opponent who can box. They will know he is a phenomenal athlete, with a great engine, who in theory should be better than he was against Fury.

Joshua is normally all business inside and outside the ring, a man who once said: “From the neck up is where you win or lose the battle. It’s the art of war. You have to lock yourself in and strategise your mindset.”

You would imagine he would not be complacent going into this, knowing what is at stake in terms of his career.

Inside line

Possibly the biggest danger the 2012 Olympic gold medallist faces is if Ngannou is able to get in close during the fight, where he will be able to deploy the inside fighting techniques he has honed so mercilessly in MMA.

The Cameroonian is used to getting up close and personal, making an opponent feel uncomfortable, tying them up, wearing them down, then getting his shots off.

Ngannou has remained with the same team that took him to championship gold in MMA: XTreme Couture head coach Eric Nicksick and striking coach Dewey Cooper. They would love a physical fight on March 8, as they know it is their man’s best chance of victory.

The two areas where Ngannou has the clear edge over AJ are strength and inside fighting. This is a man who knows what he is doing on the inside. There is a chance AJ backs his own power to overwhelm Ngannou, yet if Ngannou throws when Joshua throws, anything can happen.

Joshua targeting the body might be a waste of time. Recently ‘The Predator’ shared gym footage on social media of Cooper rhythmically launching a massive medicine ball at Ngannou’s abs region, as the man himself casually stared into space without a care in the world.

He is an absolute specimen, and if the bout turns into a dogfight inside then AJ could be vulnerable.

Francis Ngannou Press Conference vs Anthony Joshua Boxing Riyadh Season Saudi Arabia
Former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou speaks at the press conference to announce his March 8 boxing superfight vs Anthony Joshua in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia (Photo – Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing).

What Joshua must do to win

The best version of Joshua surely beats the best version of Ngannou. However, sport is all about timing and it would not be a stretch to assume that both of these warriors are now at least a few years removed from their absolute peak.

Ngannou has the raw power to cause an upset in this one, so while he should be aggressive AJ cannot get careless. He has significantly better footwork, head movement and combinations than his opponent, who holds an edge when it comes to strength.  

Patience will have to be exercised too if, as we suspect, Ngannou has Oliver McCall-like punch resistance, he is unlikely to be blown away inside a couple of rounds.

Ngannou is one of the strongest men you will ever see in any combat sport, and having already acquired a taste of the Saudi riches, will be coming to win. He will try to maul Joshua and make it nasty.

Joshua is not flawless mentally, as he demonstrated with that bizarre post-fight meltdown after losing his return to Usyk. He could see red if ‘The Predator’ catches him early, and elect to fight fire with fire. That would be just fine with us fans, but a more risk-averse route to victory would be to box sensibly and chop away.

He needs to use educated pressure, box positively on the front foot but avoid staying in the pocket. Punch through the target, and turn those hips into the shot when the chance presents itself. Joshua seems to have his Mojo back, and will fancy this, but he cannot get overconfident.

The remit for Joshua will obviously be to do a job on Ngannou, but just as importantly it will be to do it in better style than ‘The Gypsy King’ managed, so he can start banging the drum for first crack at ‘Undisputed’ once the Fury v Usyk fight happens.