I reach out to shake Francis Ngannou’s hand, and it engulfs mine. In fact, as I pull away, there’s even a hint of relief that my arm is still attached to my shoulder. Fast forward 50 minutes, and Anthony Joshua opts for a fist bump. Maybe it’s just in my head, but hours later I’m sure I can still feel the impact from his knuckle.
The Independent is alongside a small group of reporters, backstage at the London press conference for the heavyweights’ fight in Saudi Arabia on 8 March. This afternoon’s event takes place in the underbelly of a modern, dimly lit building in central London. Two hours before the press conference kicks off, all the relevant protagonists arrive. Frank Warren is escorted through the street-level glass doors by security, and ushered downstairs to a side room where he conducts the first interview of the day.
The promoter, 71, looks relaxed and content as he speaks to us. Why wouldn’t he be? He says we are in “the golden generation” of boxing, and he is its figureheard right now, having been chosen by Saudi adviser Turki Al-Sheikh as the face of recent co-promotions between Queensberry, Matchroom and other teams in the gulf state.
After speaking to Warren, we’re led out of the room and along a corridor swirling with whispers, as an interview – seemingly with Ngannou – is filmed in a side room. While we wait in another short, dark hallway, Eddie Hearn emerges through a side door. With the 6ft4in Matchroom boss clad entirely in black and towering over us, the scene looks a bit like the opening frames of Star Wars: A New Hope, or the climax of Rogue One, but thankfully the atmosphere is much less hostile.
Later, we’ll see that Matchroom Boxing’s CEO Frank Smith is also decked out in black, killing time at the other end of yet another corridor in this underground labyrinth. The 31-year-old is unrecognisable in the shadows, on account of his freshly-shaved head, while his long winter coat augments a look that is more bouncer than businessman. He even saunters over and re-introduces himself, tongue in cheek. “Frank Smith,” he says, suppressing a grin and pointing at his head. A new year, a new Smith.
The encounter follows our interview with Ngannou, an awe-inspiring figure in modern combat sports and an awe-inspiring presence in person, his massive frame illuminated from behind by the huge lightbulbs surrounding his dressing-room mirror. Like many this afternoon, the Cameroonian is wearing black, though his traditional African dashiki is heavily laced with gold threads. It is not the only glinting element of his outfit: There is the glimmering earring, the heavy gold chain on his right wrist, the black and gold watch on his right wrist. I’m sizing him up, clearly, just as Joshua did two hours earlier in London and two days earlier in Barcelona (Ngannou has just revealed the location of the latest cinematic trailer from Riyadh Season).
After his hand swallows mine, we’re guided once more to a corridor where a bodyguard hurries by, carrying a plate stacked with oversized pork pies. Theoretically, they could be hors d’oeuvres for, just scaled up for Ngannou and Joshua. Ben Davison then emerges, his white sports top flashing through the darkness, followed by his grin. His presence is confirmation that he’ll be in Joshua’s corner come fight night, after the coach first teamed with “AJ” for December’s win over Otto Wallin in Riyadh.
It’s at this stage in the afternoon that news from the day begins to spread online. Stories confirmed in the bowels of the building are now popping up for the rest of the world on social media. On the ground, the rumoured 8 March co-main event between Joseph Parker and Zhilei Zhang is confirmed by journalist Declan Taylor. In the outside world, Ariel Helwani reports the same from across the pond, courtesy of Al-Sheikh. The official poster follows shortly thereafter.
Even Joshua is not clued up on all of the developments. As we sit with the two-time former heavyweight champion, the topic turns to Deontay Wilder, his long-time rival-from-a-distance. “Have you heard anything about him fighting on 8 March?” Joshua asks us. “It’s Parker potentially? Oh, they confirmed [Parker vs Zhang]? No way!” Our interview overruns, and all of us – Joshua included – are rushed out of the 34-year-old’s dressing room. But not before he keenly shows us his phone screen, flicking through all the notes he has personally made on Ngannou: punch stats, plans for the gym, and more.
We’re taken to the back of the main room, while Joshua takes a different turn and soon appears on stage. From where The Independent stands, Al-Sheikh is audible but not visible, speaking from a mezzanin above. He says all fighters involved in recent and upcoming Saudi events have his personal number and can text him whenever they wish. It is 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, chair of his nation’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, set to be awarded to the winner of Tyson Fury vs Oleksandr Usyk on 17 February.
That will be the next major fight in Riyadh Season, before Joshua vs Ngannou – labelled “Knockout Chaos”, as is revealed today – follows in March. The surreal Saudi season continues.