I I reach out to shake Francis Ngannou’s hand and it clasps mine. As I pull back, I even feel a hint of relief that my arm is still attached to my shoulder. 50 minutes later, Anthony Joshua decides to do a fist bump. Maybe it’s just in my head, but I’m sure I can still feel the impact of his ankle hours later.
The Independent is with a small group of reporters behind the scenes at the London press conference for the heavyweight fight in Saudi Arabia on March 8th. This afternoon’s event takes place in the underbelly of a modern, dimly lit building in central London. All relevant protagonists arrive two hours before the start of the press conference. Frank Warren is ushered through the glass doors at street level by security and led downstairs to a side room where he conducts the first interview of the day.
The 71-year-old promoter appears relaxed and content as he speaks to us. Why shouldn’t he be? He says we are part of boxing’s “golden generation” and he is currently their poster boy, having been chosen by Saudi advisor Turki Al-Sheikh to be the face of recent co-promotions between Queensberry, Matchroom and other teams in the Gulf state.
After speaking to Warren, we are led out of the room and down a corridor full of whispers, while an interview – apparently with Ngannou – is being filmed in an adjoining room. As we wait in another short, dark hallway, Eddie Hearn comes through a side door. With the 6ft 4in Matchroom boss dressed all in black towering over us, the scene looks a bit like the opening images of Star Wars: A New Hopeor the climax of Villain Onebut fortunately the atmosphere is much less hostile.
Anthony Joshua and Francis Ngannou face each other before the fight against Saudi Arabia
Later we’ll see Matchroom Boxing CEO Frank Smith, also dressed in black, killing time at the other end of another corridor in this underground labyrinth. The 31-year-old’s freshly shaved head makes him unrecognizable in the shadows, while his long winter coat enhances a look that’s more reminiscent of a bouncer than a businessman. He even strolls back and forth re– introduces himself with a wink. “Frank Smith,” he says, suppressing a grin and pointing to his head. A new year, a new Smith.
The Encounter follows our interview with Ngannou, a formidable figure in modern martial arts and a commanding presence in person, whose massive body is backlit by the giant light bulbs that surround his dressing room mirror. Like many this afternoon, the Cameroonian is wearing black, although his traditional African dashiki is heavily threaded with gold. It’s not the only glittering element of his outfit: there’s the shimmering earring, the heavy gold chain on his right wrist, the black and gold watch on his right wrist. I’m clearly sizing him up, just as Joshua did two hours earlier in London and two days earlier in Barcelona (Ngannou just announced the location of the latest Riyadh Season theatrical trailer).
After his hand swallows mine, we are once again led to a corridor where a bodyguard rushes past carrying a plate full of oversized pork pies. In theory, they could be a starter, just magnified for Ngannou and Joshua. Then Ben Davison appears, his white sports top flashing through the darkness, followed by his grin. His presence is confirmation that he will be in Joshua’s corner come fight night, after the trainer first worked with “AJ” in his victory over Otto Wallin in Riyadh in December.
At this point in the afternoon, the day’s news begins to spread online. Stories confirmed in the bowels of the building are now emerging on social media for the rest of the world. Locally, the rumored co-main event between Joseph Parker and Zhilei Zhang on March 8th is confirmed by journalist Declan Taylor. In the outside world, Ariel Helwani reports the same thing, courtesy of Al-Sheikh from across the pond. The official poster will follow shortly afterwards.
Even Joshua is not informed about all developments. As we sit down with the two-time former heavyweight champion, the topic turns to Deontay Wilder, his long-time long-distance rival. “Did you hear anything about his fight on March 8th?” Joshua asks us. “It’s possibly Parker? Oh, they confirmed (Parker vs. Zhang)? No way!” Our interview drags on and all of us – Joshua included – are chased out of the 34-year-old’s dressing room. But not before he carefully shows us the screen of his phone and scrolls through all the notes he personally has about Ngannou made: hitting stats, gym plans and more.
We are led to the back of the main room as Joshua takes a different turn and soon appears on stage. About what The Independent Al-Sheikh is audible but not visible. He speaks about it from a mezzanine. He says all fighters involved in recent and upcoming events in Saudi Arabia have his personal number and can text him at any time. It’s a new era for matchmaking, and we hear several times today that Al-Sheikh spends much of his time in front of a big screen, watching as many fights as possible.
The Saudi adviser, chairman of his country’s General Entertainment Authority and owner of LaLiga team Almeria, soon points to the big screen in this room, where a graphic is unveiled: a virtual image of a new undisputed heavyweight title belt to be awarded Winner of Tyson Fury against Oleksandr Usyk on February 17th.
That will be the next big fight of the Riyadh season, before Joshua vs. Ngannou – announced today and dubbed a “knockout mess” – in March. The surreal Saudi season continues.