Anthony Joshua rolls the dice against Francis Ngannou | Photo by Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing via Getty Images

Anthony Joshua rolls the dice in a heavyweight game of snakes and ladders.

“That’s boxing: snakes and ladders,” Anthony Joshua explained this fight week in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. ”You win, you go up, you lose, you slide down. I have to win to continue.”

And he’s right. Despite a simple analogy of the boxing business, Joshua is acutely aware of the significance of Friday night’s heavyweight contest against former MMA star Francis Ngannou, and the implications the result will have for the rest of his career.

Getting to this point feels somewhat like a fever dream. Saudi Arabia’s recent investment in the sport – attempting to and, so far, successfully softening their image from abysmal human rights records – has turbo-charged the heavyweight division into what could play out to be a fascinating crescendo over the next 18 months. Joshua and Ngannou bring Riyadh Season to a close after Ngannou and Fury opened it last October, with AJ looking to walk through a door that has been left open by Tyson Fury.

That ‘open door’ is a win over a man that has never won a professional boxing contest. Ngannou was as impressive as Fury was disappointing last October, with the ‘Gypsy King’ edging a competitive decision despite collapsing to the canvas after feeling the full force of an Ngannou left hand. A fully fit and fully focussed Fury would have won that contest way more convincingly, but his failings have given Joshua an unexpected springboard into contention at the very top of the heavyweight tree.

“It’s going to be like King Kong vs Godzilla,” beamed a predictably buoyant Eddie Hearn earlier in the week. A critic of Ngannou’s venture into boxing only six months ago, Hearn now sees the former MMA heavyweight champion as a valuable and easy roll of twelve in his fighter’s self-described game of snakes and ladders.

At this stage of Joshua’s career, there can be no excuses. Under the tutelage of Ben Davison – Joshua’s third different trainer in under three years – the Briton has found an edge to his game that went missing following his maiden pro defeat to Andy Ruiz Jr in 2019. There is spite back in the attacks of Joshua, he’s throwing combinations with confidence, and his stoppages of Robert Helenius and Otto Wallin underlined these improvements.

“It’s the first time since 2017 I’ve had three fights, back-to-back, and getting consistent is paying off again,” Joshua added. “That’s why fighters do so well on their way up, because they’re fighting every other week and look amazing. The minute you get to the top, it all slows down and the only way out is retirement. I’m trying to rebuild and get that activity.”

Joshua won’t be planning for this flurry of activity to end on Friday night. This particular ladder leads to the undisputed winner of Tyson Fury and Oleksandr Usyk, scheduled for May 18, and if there is a conclusive winner in just over two months time, then the Saudi powers that be – namely Turki Alalshikh – may wave their magic wands and enforce the winners of these next two bouts to meet sooner before rematches can be forced.

Ngannou has nothing to lose in Riyadh – whether that makes him more dangerous is debatable. The 37-year-old earned more in his fight against Tyson Fury ($10 million) than across his entire MMA career, so if the cheques keep coming in for the Cameroonian fighter, then you can expect to see him continue to take opportunities as we attempt to slot him somewhere in the division’s rankings.

The division has been dragging its heels for a decade churning daily “will they, won’t they” headlines involving the same protagonists, but thanks to an endless pit of money and an endless obedience of those in boxing to swallow their morality, Saudi Arabia have bought the rights to the board that the final few rounds of heavyweight snakes and ladders will play out on.

Whether Joshua rolls again will be known on Friday night. If he loses, it’s game over.

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