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Francis Ngannou targets Cain Velasquez after knockout win over Andrei Arlovski

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Francis Ngannou
Francis Ngannou
Esther Lin/

When Francis Ngannou left his homeland of Cameroon for France in 2013, the aspiring boxer had about $100 in his pocket and very little idea about the sport of mixed martial arts.

“I saw it on TV one time,” the red-hot UFC heavyweight said on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour. “But I didn’t know what it was. I said what is this type of box? The takedowns, the wrestling, it’s not boxing. What is that?”

Turns out, the 30-year-old Ngannou is picking up MMA about as quickly as he’s improving his English. Ngannou (10-1) is coming off his biggest victory to date, a first-round knockout of former UFC heavyweight champion Andrei Arlovski at Saturday’s UFC on FOX 23 in Denver. And less than four years after needing to be taught what this strange sport of mixed martial arts is all about, he is calling out the best names his division has to offer.

And while that next opponent could be Junior dos Santos or Alistair Overeem, two-time former UFC champion Cain Velasquez is that name at the very top of his list.

“My next opponent, I have three or four months, I think Velasquez was going to be ready at the time,” Ngannou said. “I think about Velasaquez, Overeem or dos Santos. ... I’m ready for anything they propose for me now, I’m ready.”

But we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves. Boxing is Ngannou’s first love, and he came to Paris looking to make his name in the sweet science.

“I come to France just because I had opportunity,” Ngannou said of his June, 2013 move. “First I wanted to go to England because, professional boxing is better in England or in Germany, but I had the opportunity to go to France so I stop in France, and I continue. So the first time, when I arrive in France, the next day I just follow around me and I see some gym, and I ask them to let me train, because I don’t have money or assets.”

From there, Ngannou went on to prove just how bad he wanted to make it, including a stint in which he spent his nights sleeping in the underground parking lot of a bank since he couldn’t afford a place to live.

“I saw some banking, and they had underground parking, I went in the night maybe around 10, and I go and I find some place and sleep, then tomorrow morning I wake up and get out,” Ngannou said.

And while some might view that as a low point in their life, Ngannou doesn’t see it that way. It was a character builder from which the successful career he’s developed sprang.

“I still remember that time, and it’s amazing to me, I think, wow, now I have opportunity to expand myself,” he said.

Eventually, Ngannou hooked up with Paris’ MMA Factory — which has produced the likes of Karl Ammassou and Francis Carmont — and began competing in MMA while still holding on to his dream of making it as a boxer.

Two things became clear pretty fast: 1. His training as a boxer served him well, as he began piling up finishes, and 2. Maybe MMA was his calling after all instead of boxing.

“Boxing is not easy to make a career when you come somewhere and you didn’t know anyone,” Ngannou said. “No one will support you, continue training, continue for competition for MMA, and I still continue about two years later, that is when they me I have a contract for UFC, and I said, ‘now we dedicate.’ That is my destiny, that is my opportunity a lot of people don’t have it in their life, so I am going to take this. That is exactly the time I accept to be an MMA fighter.”

Five UFC fights and five victories via finish later, Ngannou believes he’s ready for anything that comes his way.

“When I said I’m going to do MMA, I’m going to make my career in MMA, was just after last time in UFC, really in the mission,” he said. “Then when I was in the mission I know everything can happen. So it’s an opportunity to me to make something beautiful to be champion, so I say to myself, for MMA you can be a champ okay like in boxing so in my mind, I know that I can fight any one of them.”

And who knows? MMA inexplicably remains illegal in France, but Ngannou envisions himself one day headlining a show in Paris as champion.

“It’s still illegal,” said Ngannou. “But one day, I think things will change and I will bring the belt to France.

Given what Ngannou has already accomplished, we’re not going to stop him from daring to dream big.