If Ngannou returns to MMA next, who should he fight first?

After this past weekend, Francis Ngannou might be the most interesting athlete in the world.

There is nothing like Ngannou in sports right now. He left the UFC as its undisputed heavyweight champion and signed a new deal with the Professional Fighters League, which allowed him to box. That contract also allowed him to take on Tyson Fury, the WBC heavyweight champion.

And then, in the eyes of many, Ngannou beat the greatest heavyweight boxer of his era in a 10-round fight. Even though Fury won the fight on the scorecards by split decision.

Yes, there are similarities between boxing and mixed martial arts, but it cannot be understated how difficult that is to do. This is Bo Jackson territory (voted an All-Star in football and baseball). This is Deion Sanders (played in a Super Bowl and a World Series). This is Shohei Ohtani, dealing on the mound and hitting 40 home runs in a season. It’s such a rare, unique level of excellence. And obviously, it opens up a world of options.

Ngannou has an exclusive deal with the PFL to compete in MMA. That deal allowed him to fight Fury on Saturday, but it’s unclear what it looks like beyond that. Ngannou told ESPN that he intends to fight in February or March, but he did not specify in which sport. Going into last weekend, it was presumably going to be in MMA. That’s less clear now. The public’s demand to see him box again will be massive, certainly higher than seeing him return to MMA.

Nevertheless, if Ngannou is committed (or even obligated) to fight in the PFL next, he will do so. He was delighted with his PFL negotiations and views the organization as a partner. So if it is MMA next, who will he fight? Here are his options.

He’s a far cry from a household name, but Goltsov is a dangerous opponent for any heavyweight in mixed martial arts, including Ngannou.

Goltsov has made it to the PFL heavyweight final in three consecutive years, although he couldn’t compete in 2022 due to visa issues. He entered the 2022 playoffs as the No. 1 seed at heavyweight and repeated that feat in 2023. In other words, this 33-year-old Russian has done a lot of winning in the PFL. He also has a high finish rate.

He has split time throughout his career competing in MMA and Sambo tournaments in Russia. Plus, he’s well-rounded and in his prime. Outside of anyone in the UFC, he’s arguably the most dangerous opponent Ngannou can face in MMA. He is scheduled to face Renan Ferreira in the 2023 PFL World Championships on Nov. 24. I wonder how much the PFL will promote the winner of that fight as the eventual challenger to Ngannou.

2. Renan Ferreira

Ferreira is the other half of this year’s PFL heavyweight title bout — and with no disrespect to Goltsov, Ferreira would be a more marketable option.

Like Ngannou, Ferreira is a complete physical specimen. He’s 6-foot-8 with an 85-inch reach (Ngannou is 6-4 with an 83-inch reach). He moves like an NFL linebacker and is known for celebrating his first-round knockouts with backflips. He has PFL knockouts of 50 seconds, 31 seconds and 25 seconds.

There are a lot of comparisons one can draw between Ngannou and Ferreira. Even though Ferreira, like Goltsov, is not a household name, if he were to do something spectacular on Nov. 24 against an established commodity in Goltsov, and the PFL and Ngannou were on hand to really promote him, there could be some buzz in a fight between them. The hype would be nothing like Ngannou in another boxing match against a top-10 heavyweight, but Ngannou vs. Ferreira would carry intrigue.

Bader, 40, is the Bellator MMA heavyweight champion, which would exclude him from this list if it weren’t for the ongoing talks of PFL acquiring Bellator from Viacom before the end of this year. If the PFL does purchase Bellator and merge the two rosters, there will be a plethora of new matchups for the promotion to make, and this would be one of the most obvious.

Bader is a former collegiate wrestler, a UFC veteran and a three-time defending heavyweight champion. He also won Bellator’s light heavyweight championship in 2017. He fought only once in 2023 — a first-round knockout over a very much past-his-prime Fedor Emelianenko in February. Bellator has yet to promote him much as a heavyweight champion, but he’s a proven name in the MMA community. He would be seen as a legitimate opponent to Ngannou. And the fact that he’d be coming in as a champion of another organization would be a nice little marketing bonus for the PFL.

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