Regardless of whether or not he raises aloft the UFC heavyweight title at this weekend’s UFC 260, Francis Ngannou’s rise to the summit of mixed martial arts has been a triumph against the odds.
Perhaps no fighter in the UFC has had a more unlikely journey towards title contention than 34-year-old Ngannou. Born into poverty in the Cameroonian town of Batie, he was forced to confront many of the demons which had sent so many of his peers off the rails.
The young Ngannou had almost no formal education to speak of. Even as a teenager, his developing frame had made him the target of recruiters for several rival gangs in his area, but Ngannou resisted the lure of (some) money and the associated trappings of gang life which has cost the lives of so many young men on the African continent.
He had other motivations entirely. Perhaps influenced by his father who had a fearsome reputation as a street-fighter, the young Ngannou soon realized that he didn’t want to follow the same path; one where violence is the quickest path towards respect.
“I don’t find it fun to talk about [my childhood],” Ngannou told ESPN this week.
“It’s not happy. It’s sad. I always admire people when I sit around and see people, friends or somebody else, talking about their childhood; their friends when they were kids, all the things they were doing, their cartoons, kind of like culture.
“I feel like those are the missing parts of my life, no matter what I do, I can’t really fill it up. That’s why in some way, I’m still trying to deal with that childhood. Winning a UFC belt, for me, would be my own way to answer that, would be my own way to show those people that, well, after all, I wasn’t bad.”
2013: 7 years ago we were freed by Spanish homeland security after spending 2 months in jail for illegally entering Europe by sea. This, after attempting for one year from Morocco. I had nothing by then but a dream and a faith of pursuing it.Some people will always (1/3) pic.twitter.com/ogfyDT5ZNw
— Francis Ngannou (@francis_ngannou) June 11, 2020
tell you that it’s too late, that you can’t make it, that it’s not meant for you, that you’re not worth it, or that you can’t succeed without them (while their lives aren’t an exemple of success). Those voices are always around the corner to make you quit your dream (2/3) pic.twitter.com/844DwaaxbB
— Francis Ngannou (@francis_ngannou) June 11, 2020
Between his childhood and this weekend’s opportunity to win the UFC heavyweight title, Francis Ngannou has lived the lives of ten men.
After deciding to leave his homeland to pursue his dream of becoming professional boxer, Ngannou migrated north towards Morocco – but as he explains, this was just the first step in journey which would helping him realize his athletic dreams.
It came at a cost: eating from bins, two months in a Spanish jail and countless nights spent sleeping rough on the streets of Paris.
“My journey from Cameroon to Morocco was about one year,” Ngannou explained. “One year in illegal situations, crossing borders, living in the bush, finding food in the trash, living this terrible life.”
It didn’t get better quickly, either. Ngannou’s ultimate destination was Europe and he chose Spain as the gateway to his new life – only to immediately come to the attention of immigration personnel, and subsequently jail.
“It was more stressful than scary,” Ngannou said of his stint inside. “When we got to Spain, for the first while, we kind of relaxed, even though we were in jail. We knew we were going to go to jail when we got there. We would be free after, but we were going to go to jail [first].
“There was a lot of pressure in our minds. It was like a mental prison, not a physical prison. It was very hard.”
All things, as they say, must pass – and so they did for Ngannou. He eventually landed in his chosen destination of Paris, the capital city of a country which shares a mother tongue with his native Cameroon.
And while the hardships were still plentiful, it was here that Ngannou says he soon began finding his feet.
“I was homeless then, but at that moment, it wasn’t difficult for me anymore,” he said. “You might think being homeless in Paris in the fall when it’s coldwas not great, but the enthusiasm that I had at that time.
“Beyond everything, I was happy to be in the land of opportunity. I was happy to have my own life and be able to chase my own dreams. So that’s definitely one of the happiest moments of my life.
“Even though I was sleeping in parking lots and I didn’t have food or money, I was just free. Compared to where I was in Morocco, a parking lot was like a five-star hotel.“
In Paris, around a decade after he first made a promise to himself to pursue combat sports, Francis Ngannou stepped into a fight gym for the first time in his life – and despite having quite literally never even heard of the sport, he soon found himself encamped in Paris’ renowned MMA Factory, where his dreams would quickly extend out in front of him.
“It took me almost 10 years to step in a gym for the very first time, but I always believed it would happen,” he said.
From here, most MMA fans know the rest. After winning five of his first six fights between late 2013 and the summer of 2015, Ngannou was headhunted by the UFC and opened his account in the world’s premier mixed martial arts organization by wracking off six finishes in a row and very much fulfilling the nickname handed to him: Predator.
The final of those wins, a downright shocking uppercut KO of Alistair Overeem, earned him an opportunity to dethrone UFC heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic in January 2018 – a fight in which Ngannou’s relative inexperience was soundly taken advantage of by the champion.
Now though, with four more KO wins under his belt, Ngannou is returning for seconds at this weekend’s UFC 260. If he is able to seize the world title from around the waist of the most dominant heavyweight titleholder in UFC history at the second time of asking, it would represent perhaps the unlikeliest path to UFC gold yet.
But judging by his background, it won’t be the toughest fight he has ever been in.