In pure boxing terms, Francis Ngannou isn’t on the same planet as heavyweight champion Tyson Fury. But could he be using a few mind games to help close the gap between the pair ahead of their October 28 showdown? 

Fury is the best heavyweight boxer on the planet. Ngannou doesn’t have a single professional boxing bout to his name. Those two facts alone mean that, barring a shock several multitudes larger than James “Buster” Douglas’ knockout of Mike Tyson at the Tokyo Dome back in 1990, Fury should handle Ngannou with relative ease when they face off in Riyadh later this month.

Fury’s biggest opponent heading into the bout probably isn’t Ngannou at all. It’s his own hubris. It’s already been demonstrated by his decision to book a world title unification bout with Oleksandr Usyk just two months later, with a December 23 date tentatively agreed for the matchup.

The bout is exactly the fight the world wants to see – boxing’s two best heavyweights going head to head with the undisputed title on the line – but the timing of the announcement, and the proximity to Fury’s bout with Ngannou, doesn’t just speak volumes, it shouts them to the rooftops. Sure, Fury was gushing with praise as he talked up “The Predator” on stage at the launch press conference in London last month. But actions speak louder than words, and booking the Usyk fight told us all everything we needed to know.

Put simply, Fury sees his bout with Ngannou as one that poses relatively little danger. It’s a matchup between a novice boxer and the most skilled heavyweight of this generation, after all – of course it’s a mismatch. But heavyweight combat sports always carries an X-factor. One punch, landed in the right place, at the right time, can turn the best-laid plans to rubble – just ask Mike Tyson himself – and Ngannou certainly has the raw power to do just that.

The issue is one that even Ngannou himself has acknowledged. He referred to it as his “delivery system.” Others simply call it his “boxing ability.” Ngannou can crack a humungous punch, just ask his string of knockout victims in the UFC. But MMA, where boxing defense is severely compromised by smaller, four-ounce gloves, as well as the need to defend against kicks and takedowns, offers a more open window for a power puncher to find their mark. That won’t be the case against Fury. They’ll be working in boxing gloves, and Fury’s defensive smarts are well documented. Ngannou won’t just be able to swing and connect. He’ll have to work an opening, and exploit it. The margins are tighter, the windows are smaller, and the opportunities are fewer.

It’s that “delivery system” that has been the main topic of conversation of late. Ngannou has been working with Xtreme Couture striking coach Dewey Cooper on the pads, while legendary former undisputed heavyweight champion of the world Mike Tyson has been on hand to help to refine Ngannou’s movements. But some of the footage that’s been posted to social media from Team Ngannou has drawn criticism and, from some quarters, ridicule, due to the Cameroonian’s apparent sluggishness.

English former super-middleweight world champ Carl Froch is often called upon for comment ahead of big fights, and “The Cobra” didn’t pull his punches in his assessment of Ngannou’s padwork, as shared on social media.

“Listen, this is a f*****g sparring session (for Fury), probably the easiest spar he’s ever had,” he told Best Gambling Sites.

“I don’t care that Ngannou can punch. A mule can kick really hard, but he’s never going to be able to line it up. Fury’s not going to be worried about getting hit by that monstrous punch because I’ve seen Ngannou on the pads and he looks terrible. He looks like what I’d expect a zero fight novice to look like; slow, awkward, stiff – how is he going to get near Fury? He’s going to get his head absolutely peppered off.”

Based on the footage that’s been put out there, Froch’s comments are completely understandable. The clips don’t look good. But people who have watched Ngannou in action over the years, including in prior open workout sessions ahead of his UFC bouts, have witnessed a much faster, snappier, more explosive athlete than the somewhat slow, plodding figure that’s currently being portrayed in recent social clips.

Could Ngannou potentially be sandbagging? Based on what I’ve seen of him over the years, that looks like a distinct possibility. Ngannou looked “slow, awkward, stiff” in his recent footage, but do those social media video clips represent the best of his striking ability? Do they match what we’ve seen from him in prior open workouts, or prior fights? They do not. Publishing footage ahead of a fight, either sparring or padwork, provides the opposing team with information. Ngannou’s team have control over what they put out into the world, and Froch’s response to Ngannou’s recent social clips might just be exactly what they were hoping for.

Which takes me back to what Ngannou needs to do to somehow find a route to Fury’s chin. “The Gypsy King” has already shown how little regard he has for Ngannou by booking a huge fight to follow so soon after their Riyadh showdown. Now it looks like Ngannou might be attempting to play off that hubris even more, by putting out some less-than-stellar gym footage.

Ngannou has his punch power, but that alone won’t be enough. He also won’t be able to close the skill and experience gap on an undefeated 34-fight veteran and world champion – even with Mike Tyson in his corner. But what he perhaps can do is lull Fury into thinking that it’s going to be a walk in the park, then hope that a slightly less focused Fury might open one of those windows just wide enough for one of Ngannou’s shots to sneak through and turn the sport on its head, just like Douglas did in Japan 33 years ago. Fury’s track record and fight IQ suggest that outcome remains incredibly unlikely, but it might just be Ngannou’s best shot at victory in the ring on October 28.

Make no mistake, the mere fact the fight is taking place at all means that, on a personal level, Ngannou has already won. In leaving the UFC and getting the fight with Fury signed, Ngannou went out on a limb, backed himself, and made something many people felt impossible come to fruition.

But lightning couldn’t possibly strike twice… could it?