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Francis Ngannou Media Workout

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Predator 2: The Reinvention of Francis Ngannou

A nightmarish year may have dimmed his star, but towering UFC heavyweight Francis Ngannou is far from done.

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — “Are you the UFC fighter?”

The pretty blonde in her mid-20s is the third server to ask in the last five minutes, and just like the other two, the clatter of dishware from the kitchen does little to mask the anxiousness in her voice.

Oh, no…you’ll know him when you see him. Trust me.

The line already feels rehearsed by the third time it leaves my mouth, but the tease of a mystery celebrity has this cozy brunch nook aflutter.

It isn’t until a few moments later, when the mid-afternoon sun gets swallowed up by the hulking figure approaching the doorway, that she understands.

Cue silence.

Cue gawking.

One of the servers in the back rips another woman away from her work and points, mouth slightly agape. More silence. More gawking. At once, they all understand.

In the heart of Arizona’s most affluent city, Francis Ngannou may as well be a direwolf in a dog park. Standing every inch of 6-foot-5, with a thickly muscled and impossible Marvel-esque frame, there is no hiding the African heavyweight. Though he is soft spoken, he commands the room in an instant with a shy, disarming smile. His tight white and grey long-sleeve shirt bulges with every move. For the rest of the day, no one asks if I’m the UFC fighter.

Ngannou takes his seat, flanked by a small army — camera people, his coach, his agent. One by one, the selfie requests begin to flow like cheap coffee. He has been staying in Scottsdale for a week now. He doesn’t mind it here. He says the climate reminds him of arid Las Vegas, his home away from home where he spends most of his time whenever he’s in the United States. In six days, he will make history by headlining the first UFC main card to ever air on ESPN, ushering in the sport’s new five-year, $1.5 billion era with a pugilistic thunderclap. He will do so opposite former heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez. It is a nightmarish stylistic matchup versus a foe who seemingly excels in every area where Ngannou is believed to be lacking — a dogged wrestler with boundless cardio whose reputation foretells a knack for grinding opponents into dust, Velasquez is nobody’s easy out.

But it’s also an unlikely big spot for Ngannou, who began 2018 as the heir apparent to the heavyweight throne then nearly ended the year as an afterthought.

If not for a late November torching of Curtis Blaydes in China, the fireball that engulfed Ngannou’s once dazzling hype train may have burned among the brightest in recent memory. All it took was two losses — an eye-opening failed title shot against Stipe Miocic, then a second, more ignominious affair against Derrick Lewis — and Ngannou was relegated to a scrap heap overnight. It was pure MMA. One second you’re the darling of the UFC’s marketing machine, the next you’re the new punching bag of UFC president Dana White. This game does not stop for nuance.

Ngannou has had plenty of time to think about his roller-coaster 2018. For an once-impoverished child of Cameroon of who grew up the farthest possible lengths away from the global spotlight, it was a lot to deal with. The abrupt rise and the trappings that came with it, then disastrous fall from grace and the darkness that followed. And at some point, after much reflection, the heavyweight who not long ago was one good shot away from superstardom came to realize that it was all a bit too much, too soon.

“It wasn’t the right time. I needed time to figure out things around me, and I kinda got pushed,” Ngannou admits between bites of a salad, his voice barely above a murmur. “[People told me,] ’Do this,’ and I was like, yeah, it’s OK. But it was a mistake. It was a mistake, then I learned from it. I know how to handle it for the next time. Because for me, I was just happy to have the opportunity. I didn’t see differently or otherwise, and I didn’t want to be the bad guy. I care about people.

“There’s some things you can warn about, and there’s some things that you have to learn on your own. And what I had to learn is something that people used to learn even before the UFC, because they have an athlete’s career. They’ve been through a lot, they’ve faced all these different challenges. But I just had less than five years to get into what I could, so there were still some things that I hadn’t figured out, because the time was very short to pick everything up, to understand many things.”

Thus it is no accident that Ngannou has kept a low profile since his nightmare at UFC 226. He’s had his fill of the attention. He calls the months preceding and following the Lewis fight his own personal “deep darkness.” He is both thoughtful and honest when reflecting, perhaps to a fault. Ngannou barely threw a punch in that fight. It was a baffling performance. Many fans dubbed it one of the worst of all-time. Some wondered afterward if Ngannou was broken; if the thoroughness of the Miocic loss and its subsequent comedown had shattered the confidence of a once indomitable slugger. In a way, his fate appeared to be sealed — another Next Big Thing derailed well before he could even touch the crown.

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Blaydes vs Ngannou
Francis Ngannou after defeating Curtis Blaydes at UFC Beijing.
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

But November showed how silly that narrative really was.

In the most typical MMA sense, it took just 45 seconds at a small show in Beijing for Ngannou to jar a short-term-memoried populace back awake and remind them why the UFC had once strapped a rocket ship to his back. The combination of the comic book physique, against-all-odds story, and penchant for ending foes with murderous displays of violence? They soared back into view with one booming right hand upside Blaydes’ head.

For Ngannou, it was a cathartic return to form — and also validation of a realization he had come to understand.

Ask Ngannou today what his goals are for 2019 and the answer is telling. The pre-Miocic version of the man may have mentioned money and titles, or perhaps even fame. He may have spoken of devastating knockouts and all-time records he wanted to shatter.

But today, his goals for the next 12 months?

“Be happy,” he says with a smile.

“I lost sight of that.

“I used to care a lot about what people think, about what people say. But now, I’m kinda like very careless about this, don’t give a fuck. I don’t give a fuck about it. Just have fun, because that’s how I made it here — and I always made it my way. I believed in myself. When people told me it’s not possible, you can’t become a boxer — everyone told me that; like, giving me examples of those who have tried, those who were in the best condition, and look, it’s never worked for them. But I always believed in my way. And at some point I kind of forgot that. And now I’ve got it back. It’s going to be on my way.

“This is the week to go out there and have fun. I don’t have anything to prove to anybody.”

Ngannou’s coach Fernand Lopez understands.

A fellow Cameroonian who was the first to convince his countryman to give mixed martial arts a try, Lopez has been there since the beginning, since before Ngannou had four walls and a bed to call his own. Lopez was there for the meteoric rise. Lopez was there for the post-Miocic fog. For him, the experience and transformation Ngannou had to undergo to understand what the heavyweight understands today is a simple one. “You have three of us,” Lopez says. “The young guy who’s very, very certain of what he can do — too sure of himself. Then the young fella who gets surprised by how the game can change with a bad performance, so he becomes unsure of himself, becomes not sure of what he can do. And then, you try to find the balance. And now he’s found the balance.”

That balance was always going to trickle in with time. Ngannou is, after all, a relative newcomer to all of this. Even still. He’s just five years deep. It’s something Lopez is quick to remind folks of — and something an all-too-mercurial fight world is quick to forget.

“There’s a point in your career that you’re training without knowing what you are training,” Lopez says. “You just train because your coach says you have to train. And there’s a point that you understand the logic of the grappling, you understand the logic of the fighting, and then everything starts to come together in your head like, oh, now it’s clear. And when you have that, that’s everything.

“Now he has that, now he’s [turned that corner]. That’s what I’m saying. That’s what I’m saying — now it’s completely different. When you see him train now, he’s not just following something. He’s following the game like chess. There’s a purpose. He’s seeing something that he didn’t use to push and didn’t use to see. And at that point you know that your guy is starting to understand the logic of the sport that he’s doing. And to be honest with you, if Francis shows up like the Francis we know, like ‘The Predator,’ like everything that I say, like everything that we’ve done…man, people are going to love what they are going to see.”

“Even today, I’m still in a learning process,” Ngannou adds. “I still don’t know, like, having a diet, stuff like that. I’m still figuring out, like, OK, how did they eat good? How should somebody eat good? Because I grew up somewhere that when you have some food, you’re not checking what is in it. It’s what’s going to save your life right away. You enjoy the food and then [hope] that the next time you are hungry, you have something to eat again. That’s the type of mindset that I grew up with. We didn’t have choice. We don’t know. All we know is, like, eat to live. So it’s not like I had that figured out — there are many things that I had to figure out. I’d never been an athlete. I’d never do all of these things before.

“But it’s OK,” Ngannou pauses, sets down his fork and smiles. “I’m learning and getting everything ready, and then I can shock them.”

Francis Ngannou Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

The big man is recounting his journey through childhood to a documentarian seated to his left, who is listening with rapt attention while Ngannou retraces his nostalgic paces for what must be his thousandth time. He stops at one point to allow a bearded patron to take a photo. His is a story wholly unique. Born in the small Cameroonian village of Batié, raised in poverty and without a formal education, the former teenage sand quarry worker rose from abject homelessness to international renown through only the fighting arts. On the sheer improbability scale, his success rates about as highly as one could rank.

Ngannou still visits his old village often. He was there two months ago when UFC matchmakers offered the Velasquez fight. He says it is important for him to remember — remember where he came from, remember the feeling of hopelessness that once was all too familiar. “It’s the only place that I feel like that,” Ngannou says. “Because when I’m here, I can still tell the story. But the real feeling — when I get back there, I still remember everything. Everything is still fresh in my mind. And this is special. You realize that you accomplished something that everyone told you that you cannot do. Today, everyone believes. They join [me for the ride]. It’s amazing.”

The culmination of three hard years of work came into view for Ngannou during his last trip back home when he opened a self-financed, multi-purpose combat sports gym deep in the heart of Batié. Ngannou says it’s the first full-service MMA and combat sport gym in all of Cameroon, and the first of what he hopes to be many eventual community projects by the Francis Ngannou Foundation.

The foundation’s work is just another extension of his newfound focus on happiness, and Ngannou says the day he opened the gym is one of the most rewarding he’s had.

“I realized they need everything — everything — because there is no [way for them to learn] in this small village, so that’s when I started to work on the foundation and thinking about it the way I am,” he says. “In the future, in the very near future, we’re going to try to help the foundation in other ways, like helping kids with school with scholarships, helping those who are sick and cannot go to hospitals. We are trying to figure out a way to help everyone, not just in sport, not just by the gym or in that way.

“It’s just something, a way — my first way — that I had to impact this village, this society, this country, by giving back, to help these kids live their dreams. I realized that the most important thing, the most important gift for somebody is their personal self. Belief in themselves. So this is the way I’m trying to impact that and bring them that and let them believe in something. … It’s not just about sports and talent. It doesn’t matter what we do — if you want to be that, take control of your dreams and follow it, believe in it. So this is the purpose. This is my purpose.”

Children from villages miles and miles around Batié traveled to attend the grand opening. It was the perfect sendoff to set the stage for a showdown long in the making.

Because for the student and his coach, Sunday at UFC Phoenix is no ordinary night — and Velasquez is no ordinary opponent.

A dream fight, is what Ngannou calls it. Lopez goes even further than that.

Because Velasquez is the ideal. The end boss. The stylistic kryptonite that would one day prove whether Ngannou was ready to be a world champion.

He always has been.

“This was easy for me, because I know [Velasquez] so well because as a fighter, I love him,” Lopez says. “That’s the fighter that I used to [show my students] as a coach, as a fighter, so I know him very well. I’ve been studying him for a long time. Each minute of every fight of Cain Velasquez, I have that in my mind. Like, no need to go watch this tape anymore. Everything is in my head, broken down in my head, because I always loved him.

“And to be honest with you, when I started to train [Ngannou] for the UFC and I knew that I would get him to the UFC, I told him: The worst guy that we could have at this point in the new age in the UFC will be Cain Velasquez. That’s why we wanted to challenge him. Therefore, I had him training since day one [with Velasquez in mind]. And now with all of those things coming up, the time we’ve had, the losses that we’ve had, it’s different. I think we are something else now. At this point, I think he’s ready. I think he’s ready for Cain.”

Here, Lopez can already hear the chuckles from the MMA twitteratzi. The scoffs at the claim that the Man With No Wrestling is ready for the Pressure King.

It is one of the reasons Lopez was so strangely disappointed with the Blaydes rematch.

The fight world knows that Francis Ngannou is capable of hellacious 45-second knockouts. Regardless of how impressive it was, revisiting that well did nothing to change perceptions. But a thorough mauling — one with takedowns and ground-and-pound, and most of all, patience — that would have sent a message.

That would have proven just how much this whole game is starting to make sense for the goliath heavyweight still in his MMA infancy, and just how scary that notion truly is.

“Find the balance — not too much, not none at all — and that’s what is the big difference,” Lopez says. “Because all of the tools, [Ngannou] has all of the tools. Everything is there. And because of people were questioning, always, his wrestling ability and his grappling abilities, he’s become a lover of grappling. A lover. He’s in love with grappling. Obsessed with working. The number of black belts that he’s rolling with that he’s submitting in the gym — black belts, legit black belts in BJJ — you don’t even know. Eventually, because he’s gotten submitted so many times in the gym, that’s how you learn.

“When you see this guy, 31 years old, in this shape — he ain’t going anywhere. You’re foolish if you think he’s done, because he’s there and he’s not going anywhere. You see people with 15 years more [experience] than him, in bad shape, barely on their legs, and they’re still in the UFC in the heavyweight [division]. He’s not going anywhere. He’s here for a long time.”

Lopez glances across the table at Ngannou, who is growing increasingly uncomfortable as one of the documentarians heaps lavish praise upon him for overcoming his upbringing.

Ngnanou maintains a friendly smile and listens patiently, but it’s obvious he would rather be elsewhere. Flattery was a crutch for the old Ngannou. The new one has no use for it, because he knows just how intoxicating its siren song can be.

No, now is winning time — and there is work left to be done.

Before we say our goodbyes, I ask Ngannou one last question about the past. Eight years ago, the UFC debuted a major broadcast deal by pitting Velasquez against a power-punching challenger. Velasquez lost in 64 seconds, the victim of a monstrous knockout.

Will history repeat itself again on Sunday?

Ngannou takes a few seconds and considers the question.

“Perhaps.”

Then he grins.

“But it can end up a different way — submission, too. I really believe I can submit even Cain Velasquez.”

He stops and reads the surprise on my face, then grins even wider.

“Yes, sure. Yes, I’m telling you. You’re going to get shocked. I’m learning.”

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