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Ngannou's boxing switch is no gimmick. The ex-UFC star looks to pull out another surprise vs. Joshua

It was one of the most striking sights in boxing for some time, Francis Ngannou dancing a jig of delight while leaning over a floored and clearly dazed Tyson Fury.

For boxing purists, a disaster was unfolding.

Was a UFC fighter, in his first ever boxing bout, really about to knock out a reigning world heavyweight champion?

Fury got up and wound up eking out a heavily debated and unconvincing split-decision victory but Ngannou had made a dramatic entry into the world of boxing.

On Friday, the French-Cameroonian gets another chance to upset the established order — and potentially set himself up for another shot at Fury.

Ngannou is back in Saudi Arabia for the second fight of his crossover career, this time against another Brit in former two-time world heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua.

Much of the pre-fight narrative is presuming a win for Joshua that would put him in line to fight Fury, provided Fury — the WBC champion — beats Oleksandr Usyk — the WBA, IBF and WBO champion — in their rearranged May 18 bout that will crown the first undisputed heavyweight champion since 2000.

Ngannou is ready, though, to make more headlines in his fast-track bid to become a boxing champion so soon after dominating the UFC scene.

“I’ve exposed myself — the guy who is coming next time (Joshua) knows what to deal with,” Ngannou said after arriving in Riyadh.

“I’ve lost that element of surprise. So how can I surprise him again? What can I pull from my sleeve once again?”

Ngannou is giving off a cool and confident air. He might be a novice in elite boxing but the sport was his first love during a tough upbringing in Cameroon, and he said it had been only a matter of time before returning to it.

“At the beginning, it was boxing. I wasn’t aware of MMA. And for more than a decade, it was all about boxing, dreaming about boxing,” he said.

"And then, even when the opportunity came around (in UFC), it was for me an opportunity to shine, to be a world champion, and then potentially switch to do the crossover and go back to boxing. I feel like it was something that I needed, I had to fulfil, in order to be at peace with myself.”

Ngannou, 37, had a falling out with the UFC, and UFC President Dana White stripped him of his belt in January last year. Within five months, Ngannou signed with the rival Professional Fighters League.

He hasn’t fought in the PFL yet, though, while he focuses on boxing. He intends to continue his MMA career, but alongside — not instead of — boxing.

The big question heading into the Ngannou-Joshua fight — the latest high-profile boxing occasion in what is rapidly becoming the sport’s new home in Saudi Arabia — is this: Did Fury simply not prepare well enough against Ngannou, thinking he would be an easy-beat but instead finding himself sprawled on the canvas in the third round of a fight that unexpectedly went the distance? Or is Ngannou actually the real deal and a natural in all forms of pugilism?

The answer should come on Friday in the latest fight of Joshua’s journey back to relevance after back-to-back losses to Usyk saw him lose his titles and leave his career at a crossroads.

He has won three straight fights since then, but none of them have been against elite opponents. A fifth-round stoppage of Otto Wallin in Riyadh in December was something of a throwback performance, displaying his strong jab and then his renowned power, and came after underwhelming victories over Jermaine Franklin and Robert Helenius.

Ngannou promises to be a much tougher challenge and the prize is huge, with Fury already calling out Joshua to be his next opponent should he deal with Usyk.

“This is the fast road to undisputed,” said Joshua’s promoter, Eddie Hearn, who is already plotting a money-spinning Joshua-Fury fight that he has failed to secure a number of times over the last five years.

As for Joshua, he is more focused on the present.

“Francis is a hell of a fighter,” he said, “strong, big puncher and a lot better boxer than we all thought he would ever be.”

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AP sports: https://apnews.com/sports

Steve Douglas, The Associated Press