Francis Ngannou was never supposed to escape Cameroon. Despair was a fate he was born into, and where he would remain. It was a future that was written for him, even if it was one he could never truly accept.
It’s hard to find hope when there is little school, when there are few jobs, where the future taunts you from a distance always beyond your reach.
“For me, it was just something most people cannot understand,” Ngannou told MMA Fighting. “You cannot imagine what it is. You cannot imagine a life when you wake up in the morning and your only goal, your only dream for the day is to feed yourself.”
Leaving wasn’t about where he was going; it was just about getting out. About finding something that hadn’t found him: opportunity. In Batié, there had been none. There was just a back-breaking job that left him weary and panicked everyday. Looking at the older men doing the same job as him made him nervous about where this was all going. This couldn’t be it. Life couldn’t be all work and struggle until the end, not for him. And so at some point in his mid-20s, after years of consideration, he finally found the courage to quit and to leave. It was a dream that despite his size, sounded ludicrous because of its audacious ambition. Ngannou, a grown man who had never played organized sports in his entire life, had a dream of becoming a professional athlete.
The few he confided in tried desperately to stop him. They told him that he was crazy. That he had lost his mind. That he would find a life tougher than the one he was trying to leave. It didn’t matter.
When he left, there was no excitement. There was fear. There was anxiety. He didn’t know where he was going or what he would find; he didn’t have anyone waiting for him. His emigration was a shot in the dark, a last gasp at a life worth living. And he was going for it.
In the summer of 2013, he left his past behind with little idea of where he was going. The place didn’t really matter anyway. What mattered is he was out.
Francis Ngannou was never supposed to end up in Paris. The French capital was just another stop across Europe as Ngannou searched for somewhere to settle in the fall of 2013. This was just after leaving his native Cameroon, where Ngannou was scraping by as a laborer, mindlessly loading and unloading 200-pound buckets of sand from a quarry onto trucks in his tiny village of Batié.
It was grueling work, the kind of drudgery left for people either forgotten or ignored.
At 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds, Ngannou didn’t seem like he could be either. He was physically imposing, like an athlete, even though as a child he had never dreamed of being one. In those days, when anything seemed possible, he had dreamed of intellectual pursuits. He wanted to be a lawyer, an architect, an accountant. Something with numbers. Something that stimulated his brain. But as he pulled up to Paris on a train as a grown man, he was now nearing 27 years old, homeless but not quite hopeless.
France was just a place to rest, to take stock of his situation and figure out a next step. There was no excitement about arriving, no anticipation of seeing the Eiffel Tower or Arc de Triomphe; there was just nervousness. No one to receive him, nowhere to go.
It was a pit stop, and a scary one, this young man from a town of 2,000 suddenly enveloped by one of the largest and most diverse cities of western Europe.
With little to his name, Ngannou took to sleeping on the streets for two months, until he found a humanitarian organization that helped him find a place to stay in exchange for doing volunteer work.
Little by little, Ngannou was starting to settle into his situation, even finding a boxing gym in which to train.
“When I was in Cameroon and started training, they told me you’re very old [to start],” he said. “It’s a different mentality. They told me I was very old, that you don’t have no chance, that you could not be the first. They said it’s impossible. To be honest, I was scared a little bit. I could look at the people from Cameroon who did boxing and those kinds of sports before and no one succeeded. It’s scary, but I was going to try. [I thought,] I’m going to try my best, and if I fail, I’ll put away the regret. I won’t tell myself, ‘I should have tried.’”
For the first time, things were starting to go right. But just when he started building momentum, he received some bad news. His gym was set to close for a long break.
Francis Ngannou was never supposed to end up in mixed martial arts. It was just a diversion, a way to placate his coach while he awaited an opportunity to box. To throw hands, to terrify opponents with powerful combinations, to look something like Mike Tyson, that’s what he wanted to do. The kicking, the wrestling, the grappling? It was so much to learn, process and implement. Too much.
At the time, Ngannou already had enough to worry about. Just a few months into his move to Paris, he was attempting to assimilate into an international culture after emigrating from his tiny town.
Somehow, with barely 100 euro to his name when he arrived, he’d made friends and found someone to lend him an apartment. Somehow he’d been filtered toward a gym, MMA Factory, that taught combat sports.
He had set up the visit beforehand, and, after being told to meet with “Fernand Lopez,” expected to be introduced to a Latino man. But when Lopez arrived, Ngannou saw someone who looked something like him, dark-skinned. And when Lopez spoke, Ngannou immediately recognized the accent.
“He was like, ‘Wow, you’re from Cameroon,’” Lopez recalled. “He didn’t know anything about me before, but I felt like I was knowing his story a little bit because I’m from there also. I felt like I could understand some of what he’s been through.”
By sheer fate, Ngannou had been delivered to the doorstep of a fellow countryman who had fought professionally over 15 times in MMA organizations including Pancrase and M-1. In all the places of all Europe, what were the odds? It had to feel something like destiny.
A few outcomes had gone right. But his chase of boxing stalled almost immediately, after he learned of the numerous hurdles involved in earning a French professional license.
Lopez convinced him that a path to MMA was quicker, and while Ngannou trusted his new coach’s advice, that wasn’t what he wanted. But to make a couple of paydays, he would do it.
“At the time, I really didn’t give a sh*t about MMA,” Ngannou said. “I just did it for fun. I was going to do two fights because it was a tournament. My goal was to win the tournament and then leave MMA and go to boxing.”
Turning pro after less than three months in the gym, Ngannou won his first mixed martial arts fight in less than two minutes. The second, two weeks later, did not follow according to his plan. Even though he knocked down his opponent Zoumana Cisse twice, when the judges’ scorecards were read, Ngannou lost a decision.
Instead of bidding MMA adieu, Ngannou was rankled by the defeat. It could not end like that, not with a loss, not for him. His ego, even after years of being beaten down by poverty, was still too strong. He would fight on in mixed martial arts, at least until he found the right ending.
In a way, the loss became one of the biggest breaks of his life.
Francis Ngannou was never supposed to get so good, so fast. He was developing, but really, what were the chances that a 27-year old with no sports background could turn into a top professional?
Growing up in poverty, and consistently moving around, Ngannou always admired athletes and liked sports, but never found an opportunity to participate. Life was just too hard. Francis mostly stayed to himself and rarely made friends. His mother did what she could to provide support, but his father, he says, was very irresponsible and did little to care for the family.
When there is no money for school supplies like books or pens, what chance is there for leisure? By the age of 12, Francis was working.
“First of all, I was in a small town, and in the small town we didn’t have nothing like sports in school,” he said. “We didn’t have no gym, nothing. Secondly when you have money, families that have a little bit of money or a good job, they live in city. When you don’t have that, and you live in a village, there’s no way to think about any sport. There’s nothing possible.”
Still, he would dream about it. He grew up with boxing in his mind, and it became a recurring thought he couldn’t let go.
The doubters could hardly be blamed for their reservations. This wasn’t like Randy Couture starting MMA at age 33 after a lifetime spent in wrestling or Jon Jones winning a major championship after less than three years in the sport. At least those men had an athletic base applicable to MMA. Ngannou had nothing but self-belief, and it was with that that he walked into MMA Factory for the first time.
Lopez’s gym, located in Paris’ 12th arrondissement, is well known in Europe. He has worked with accomplished fighters like former Bellator light heavyweight champion Christian M’Pumbu, former Bellator standout Karl Amoussou, and UFC veteran Taylor Lapilus. So when Ngannou walked in, he had his doubts.
“We have a lot of people who come from all over the world to train and they all think they have something special,” Lopez said. “So when I saw him, I wasn’t that impressed with him because it’s about what’s real, not the cover of the book. But from the first day in training, I felt like he was different than other people. He was clever. He could adapt. Within the same sparring round, he would get caught in a mistake, training with a really experienced guy like M’Pumbu, and then figure out a solution. I was amazed.”
Progress came in leaps and bounds.
Within two years of starting his professional career, he was signed to the UFC.
Francis Ngannou is not supposed to win the UFC championship. A rise like this is unparalleled in mixed martial arts. From no athletic background to world champion in less than five years; that’s what magic he’s trying to pull off. And you know what? He might just do it.
After that first defeat that kept him in the sport, he hasn’t lost again. He’s 10-1 and the fourth-ranked contender in the world, and at UFC 218 on December 2, he will fight top contender Alistair Overeem, the former Strikeforce and K-1 champion who happens to be one of the most decorated combat sports athletes in the world. After starting his MMA training just over four years ago, if the now 31-year-old Ngannou wins, there will be little separating him from a date with current UFC kingpin Stipe Miocic.
His rise has been nothing short of stunning. He has jaw-dropping power, as evidenced by his crushing uppercut knockout of Luis Henrique and his bolo KO of Andrei Arlovski. Famed knockout artist Anthony “Rumble” Johnson is on the record saying Ngannou is the hardest-hitter he’s ever trained with, power Lopez said “you just can’t explain.” He’s also built like a truck. But his stature belies his cerebral approach to his career.
Ask Lopez for Ngannou’s best trait and he won’t cite anything physical. Instead, it’s his ability to learn and to adapt. Rewatch some of Ngannou’s early fights and you can see his rapid development. From winging arm punches to sharp technique. It’s been like that since day one, Lopez says.
“It’s not easy, but every fighter has something that keeps you focused or is your motivation,” Ngannou said. “I know where I come from. I look back, it’s kind of scary, and so every single thing I do now is important. I pay double attention to everything because I didn’t have the chance many people had to start early and to build something. This is late, so I really knew I needed to improve very fast.”
His ability to adjust to his surroundings applies both in and out of the cage. Anticipating greater media opportunities as well as the chance to speak more directly with a growing fan base, Ngannou has learned English within the last year, and is now easily fluent.
A few months ago he left Paris behind, moving to Las Vegas where he could better tailor his training camps to himself.
From the sand quarries of Batié to the Vegas desert, it’s quite a culture change, but the area fits him. He can’t quite explain why, but it feels like he’s been there before. He likes the energetic vibe, the friendly people, and prizes the ability to train at the UFC’s new Performance Institute, as well as with new coaches Dewey Cooper (striking) and Vinny Magalhaes (jiu-jitsu).
Maybe it’s all that, and maybe it’s also what the move represents. Las Vegas is about gambling, about taking a chance on yourself against long odds that are constantly being thrown in your face. You’re going to lose. You can’t do it. Surrender. Failure floats around the air like stale smoke, begriming everything in its path. That’s the way it is designed. Ngannou is supposed to fail, too, so now it is the force of his will against the forces of time, fate, experience, odds.
He wants to snuff out the suffering of his childhood and adolescence. He wants to both prove his nation wrong and give them an example for the future. He wants to provide them the most important gift he can offer: hope. And after all that came before, after accomplishing all the things he was never supposed to do, ask yourself one thing: Is now the time to doubt him?