It’s been four-and-a-half years since UFC heavyweight title contender Francis Ngannou first walked into the MMA Factory in Paris.
Head coach Fernand Lopez had been tipped off about his fellow Cameroonian’s visit the day before, when a friend from charity foundation La Chorba told him that he had suggested Ngannou stop by.
Homeless at the time, Ngannou had been helping out at La Chorba, chopping up vegetables in the kitchen. The non-profit organization puts together over 900 free meals a day for the homeless in Paris. Having benefited from their service, Ngannou wanted to lend a hand.
After Ngannou told the staff of La Chorba that he hoped to become a professional boxer, Lopez was considered the first port of call for the aspiring athlete.
“The day before he first came to the gym, a friend from La Chorba stopped by and said that there had been this really big guy helping them out. They said he wanted to train with me but he couldn’t afford the membership,” Lopez remembers.
“My friend said to me, ‘I think you’re going to like him.’ When I asked him why, he said, ‘because he’s huge!’ The next day I saw this massive guy standing by the front desk and I knew it was Francis.”
Lopez has had countless heavyweights walk through the doors of his gym. Although the world has been marveling at Ngannou’s physical prowess since his UFC debut two years after their initial meeting, the coach admits that he was initially unimpressed.
It was only when he began to bend Ngannou’s ear that he took a keen interest in him.
“At first, I wasn’t all that impressed. I have so many huge guys at the gym that come from all over the world, but especially from Africa because I’m from Africa. A lot of guys come to me for help when they’re trying to get into martial arts. At the MMA Factory, we cater to all of the combat sports, so there are a lot of different people from different backgrounds coming in,” Lopez says.
“It was only when I started to talk to him that he really got my attention. He just really wanted to get into a sport. He wanted to have somewhere he could train everyday.”
Knowing that Ngannou wanted to forge a path for himself in boxing, Lopez tried to gift him some gear to help with his training. It was only at that point that he realized that Ngannou had nowhere to go outside of his facility.
“At the time, he really wanted to box, so I went and got him a bag of apparel — old clothes, gloves, head gear — and I told him to take it home with him. When I tried to give him these things, he said, ‘Can you hold these for me because I can’t take them outside?’
“He went on to tell me that he had nowhere to sleep and he didn’t think that he could keep the gear safe. That’s when I knew that his situation was a lot worse than I thought. That was when I took him under my wing.”
It wasn’t until Lopez saw Ngannou mixing it with some of the gym’s elite heavyweights that he realized what a special athlete he had on his hands. A national television channel was on hand to record his reaction to the Cameroonian goliath.
Interestingly, it was not Ngannou’s power or size that grabbed Lopez’s attention.
“We have a lot of big names and champions in the gym, and on the first day that Francis trained properly with the team, a television camera crew was filming,” Lopez recalls.
“It’s funny because they actually have footage of me watching him training for the first time, and I was like, ‘F*ck!’
“He was training with Christian M’Pumbu, a former Bellator champion. Francis was raw and he was making some huge mistakes. He was swinging wildly. It was nasty to look at, not beautiful at all. At the same time, he was adapting in real time. Every round that went by, he was improving and he didn’t make the same mistake twice. In the next training session, he worked on some of his problems and learned how to solve them almost immediately. I knew then that this was the guy.”
The problem was, Ngannou only had eyes for a career in professional boxing. By Lopez’s estimation, his new student could gain more financially from MMA, so he found a way to make him train in jiu-jitsu and wrestling — two disciplines that he had steered well clear of since his arrival at the gym.
“He really didn’t seem to like MMA at the beginning,” Lopez says. “It was hard to try and convince him. I think he really didn’t know what he wanted to do. I knew that time wasn’t really on his side, and I thought MMA could provide more for him financially because he could climb the heavyweight ladder a lot quicker than he would in boxing.
“It’s not like he was saying, ‘No, I won’t do MMA,’ but I could tell from the way he was training that he was focused on boxing. Sometimes he would show up to the gym and he wouldn’t do the sessions because we were grappling.
“The one thing he would always do is boxing. I knew that it was all he was doing, but I don’t think he knew that I was aware of it.
“Eventually I said to him, ‘You need to give me two sessions outside of boxing every time you come in here and we can still be friends.’ That was my priority. I wanted to push him as much as I could. Every time I would see him boxing, I would say, ‘No!’ and I would make him do some grappling.” Lopez laughs as he remembers.
After just three months of training with Lopez, Ngannou made his MMA debut in Nov. 2013 — and wouldn’t you know it, he took his first-round victory by way of submission.
Regardless of his rudimentary recognition of the gentle art, Lopez believes it was the heavyweight’s ability to absorb information that allowed him to pull off the gnarly arm lock.
“He didn’t even know what he was doing. He just went on top of the guy and grabbed hold of his arm. That’s as far as we had gotten with him at that stage,” says Lopez, again laughing.
“To try and explain to him how to submit someone with an arm lock, I flexed my arm and said, ‘Instead of this way, force the arm the other way.’ That was just a really basic way of explaining to him how to put pressure on the joint.
“Of course that was before, and he has been able to develop his grappling game a lot since then.”
A little over two years after his professional debut, Ngannou’s 5-1 record won him a call up to the UFC. A year into his tenure, there were plenty who thought he could climb to the top of the division. Another year after that, his brutal first-round shovel hook knockout over the most decorated striker in the bracket, Alistair Overeem, made him undeniable.
Instead of needing someone to vouch for him just to get access to a gym, nowadays the Cameroonian has the red carpet rolled out for him at the UFC’s state-of-the-art Performance Institute in Las Vegas, Nevada.
After spending a few weeks without his coach in Las Vegas, Ngannou arrived back in France two weeks out from his Jan. 20 championship tilt with Stipe Miocic at UFC 220. Not for the first time in his life, the veteran coach found himself marveling at the No. 1 contender’s ability to soak up information.
“I really can’t believe how much he has improved. You have ideas of how he might look, but it’s even better than I expected,” Lopez says.
“Being a good boxer is one thing and being a good grappler is another thing. Being a natural fighter is greater than both of those things. When you consider how long Francis has spent in the cage or ring competing, it’s nothing.
“It’s kind of weird how quickly he can learn. It’s beyond logical explanation.”
One of the knocks against Ngannou’s ascent is the speed at which he has climbed the ladder, and his coach can understand that line of thinking. Throughout Ngannou’s short career thus far, Lopez has felt as though he has been holding the giant back.
“It’s happening very quickly, but does he deserve it? Yes,” says Lopez, answering his own question.
“To be honest, I’ve spent most of time trying to protect him from taking steps too quickly. There have been so many times when I thought he was trying to take too big of a jump. He has always wanted to fight the best opponents that were available.
“Even when we first went to the UFC, he wanted to fight the best. We were looking at the division, and I was thinking about who could be good matchups for him and he said, ‘I don’t care, I will beat them all.’
“That was before his first fight in the UFC. He knew he was going to clean out the roster. If I weren’t holding him back, he probably would have already fought for the belt a long time ago. He wanted that straightaway.”
The soft-spoken African has become brasher as he approaches his title shot at UFC 220, showcasing his ever-evolving sharp tongue as his English improves. While Lopez has run out of superlatives for the way his student has carried himself up to this point, he admits that “The Predator” is ruthless when it comes to competition.
“He can be very cold-blooded when it comes to competition. When he speaks about his fighting career, you can’t help but believe everything that he says. It’s like Jesus is speaking to you,” Lopez says.
“He makes me think he can walk on water like the old Bible story. Jesus walked on the water because he wanted to prove a point to all of the people who said he couldn’t. The certainty that Francis talks with makes you feel like he cannot be defeated.
“At the same time, he is a realist. He trains all the time. He knows that he cannot achieve these things without putting in work. He’s always on time, he listens to everything his coaches have to say and he always has a great attitude.
“He is a great guy, but he isn’t afraid to tell you how he feels. Just today he told me, ‘I’m going to beat this guy, I’m going to take his belt and I’m going to keep it for a very long time.’ He is a true a competitor in that sense.”
It feels like there is a lot more than a title on the line for the UFC ahead of the Boston event.
As we have witnessed with the eruption of Conor McGregor, having a nation behind an athlete can add endlessly to their marketability. For Ngannou, a whole continent could potentially become engaged with MMA, and more critically, the UFC brand, should he manage to topple Miocic in Beantown.
“The Predator” is the most likely out of the ever-growing African representation inside the UFC to bring an event to his home continent. Even without the title, Lopez’s interactions with fans make him believe Ngannou could already sell out stadiums in Cameroon.
“I can feel the power of the African support behind Francis,” Lopez says confidently.
“My Twitter and my Instagram are full of messages from kids from all over the world of African descent that want to be like him. I’ve got guys from all over Africa telling me that they’re going to Boston, and some are even telling me that they will move to France to train to become the next Francis Ngannou.
“If the UFC were aware of how big the African market is, and how much Francis means to the African people, they would already be putting on events over there.
“He will be the one who forces UFC to put on a show in Africa. I’m from Cameroon myself, and I know if the UFC did an event in Cameroon right now I could guarantee that they would get 30,000 people into a stadium.
“I never expected that kind of support in Cameroon, but as I said, even with my own social media channels, the amount of Africans that are really into the sport is insane. I think the African people are excited to see someone like him winning the way he is. He’s not just getting over the line, he’s smashing people. I don’t think they have ever saw someone do that before.
“If you saw Francis’ story in the movies, you would think it was ridiculous. It’s a real life movie playing out in front of our eyes.”
From the sand mines of Cameroon to Sin City, life has changed dramatically for Francis Ngannou.
Miocic is looking to set the all-time record for heavyweight title defenses on Saturday night at the TD Garden, yet it is Ngannou, the meteoric challenger, who opened up as favorite for their showdown.
It feels as though super-stardom is within touching distance for Ngannou.
Legendary boxer Marvin Hagler once famously gave insight into the mindset shift that occurs from hungry challenger to champion.
“It’s tough to get out of bed to do roadwork at 5 a.m. when you’ve been sleeping in silk pajamas,” insisted the Marvelous One.
Lopez believes Ngannou is ready to be champion — and ready for the platform that comes along with it — regardless of what material his pajamas might be made from.
“When you see the level of fame Conor McGregor has, I think it’s incredible how he has managed to keep everything going. Look at they guy — he has the same girlfriend he always had, he still has the same coaches beside him when he fights and he still fights out of Dublin,” Lopez says.
“Of course he is cocky, but who wouldn’t be cocky if they were beating people the way Conor is beating people, or if they had the same money that he has?
“I don’t put pressure on Francis to be a perfect guy, but so far it seems like he can still be a good guy and be successful at the same time. I really don’t know how he would act if he became a huge global megastar, but I don’t know how I would act if that happened to me and I’m sure you can’t predict how you would behave in those circumstances either.
“Francis has been in Vegas for a while ahead of this fight and over there everybody thinks he will be the next big name in the UFC. He’s got people lining up to kiss his feet, but he still wanted to come back and train with us before his title fight. I think that says a lot about who he is.
“Not only does it show that he is loyal, it shows that he is still determined to be the best he can be when he fights for the heavyweight title. He knows what he has to do to be champion. He could train with anyone in the world right now, but he knows that he is always at home in Paris and that we are his family. I know Francis better than anyone knows him in the world.
“I think Francis will be fine, but I do think that it is hard to be humble when you’re the champion of the world. You can’t stand at the press conference and tell everyone that you are the best in the world and you plan to knock your opponent out and then be this wholesome, humble guy.”
Unsurprisingly, Lopez believes another test of Ngannou modesty lies beyond Saturday night in Boston. The head coach is confident that capturing the UFC’s heavyweight gold could put Ngannou on par with the Cameroon’s most heralded sporting icon: World Cup legend, Roger Milla.
“I think he will knock him out in the second round,” predicts Lopez.
“I know that Francis thinks he will get it done in the first round, but I think Stipe is tough. It could take two rounds to stop him.
“Francis is very popular now, but this win will make him one of the biggest stars in Cameroon. When he is champion, he will be on course to be as big as Roger Milla. After that, who knows how big it can get.”