Chronicling the journey of the new UFC Heavyweight Champion. From poverty stricken Cameroon to the bright lights of the Octagon and MMA Glory!
Chasing a Dream
Francis Ngannou was born in Batie, Cameroon, Africa in September 1984. Batie is a small village with a lack of resources and infrastructure. Resultantly, he grew up to a life of poverty and little opportunity. Homelife was not the best for Ngannou. Francis’s family were unstable and his father had a reputation as a street fighter and a troublemaker. At the age of 6, Ngannou’s parents divorced, and he was sent to live with his aunt. Education was sadly not really an option where the priority was getting food on the table. As a result Francis missed out on formal education, instead having to opt for working in a sand quarry. His days at the quarry were spent picking at rocks with a crowbar and pushing wheelbarrows of pebbles up a steep hill. Despite all the back breaking work or hours of toil at the end of the day he barely had enough money to feed himself.
'Too old' to box
Even at this early age, Francis Ngannou knew he had a higher calling and was determined to rise above his situation. Due to his large size he was approached by several local gangs in his area and asked to join. Avoiding the lure of these gangs and the opportunity to make ‘easy money’ he walked away from the offer. Francis instead, became interested in Boxing and decided to aim for that as a positive motivating force in his life.
So at the age of 22, Francis Ngannou began training in boxing undertaking odd jobs to pay the bills. His family had concerns that he was wasting time on ‘dreams’ when he had a stable job. To them it made no sense, to throw money into the wind when cash was scarce enough. The locals thought he was crazy also, and in their eyes ’too old’ to become a boxer at the age of 22.
In Search of Opportunity
At 26, Francis Ngannou realized to make it in Boxing he had to go where the opportunity was. And that opportunity was not in Batie, Cameroon. Francis decided he was going to break free from what was holding him back. He decided to gamble everything on the throw of the die and risk it all. He began putting aside what little money he made and plotted an epic journey to head for Europe. Where he hoped to find a decent living that would afford him the opportunity to pursue his boxing goals.
The epic journey took 14 months to complete from Cameroon. Francis states that he had to take the backdoor into Europe as he would be denied entry otherwise. Until this point in his life, he had never left home. He still wasn’t sure entirely where he was going, just ‘North’ into Europe where he hoped to find opportunity. He visited his family and his mom one last time realizing only too well that it might be the last time. After giving backup money to his sister in case he was robbed Francis embarked on his epic journey.
Francis Ngannou travelled to Nigeria, Niger and then onto Algeria in North Africa using bus and car. Along the way, Ngannou faced many hazards and obstacles. He had to avoid being robbed by corrupt police officers who would shake down immigrants and smugglers. He had to swallow plastic bags containing the money he needed for his journey to avoid this. Later retrieving it once he had passed it out of his bowels.
Another hazard was crossing the Sahara desert (the biggest desert in the world) in a poxy truck with other travellers. The journey took over 24hrs in sandstorms and extreme heat 150 degrees (during the day) and extreme cold 20 degrees (at night)!! Since the truck was heavily overloaded with other travellers the only thing to hang onto was a metal frame. To let go of the frame meant almost certain death as the unsympathetic drivers would not stop. There were also few fluids onboard meaning that all the travellers had to suffer extreme dehydration. On arrival at their destination, Francis was so dehydrated that he drank out of a well poisoned containing dead animals. This made him very sick but it was either that or die of thirst.
The Sickbed of Morocco
Francis Ngannou’s journey took him through Algeria and eventually into Morocco. Keeping one step ahead of the border police all the time determined to send all immigrants back to their countries of origin. Francis spent around 1 year in Morocco and remembers it as a living nightmare for immigrants. Morocco forms the border between North Africa and the continent of Europe (Spain). As such it is a haven for desperate immigrants. All with the same goal, to escape their poverty and destitution by jumping the border for a new life in Europe.
Francis spent a year living in and around cities in Morocco such as Tangiers and Casablanca. Using them as bases to plan his runs at the border. He would live with other immigrants in forests at the edge of the cities, camping out. Exposed to the elements he soon realized the value of basic equipment such as blankets and plastic covering. The police would often raid the forests looking to arrest and detain the immigrants. Any equipment the police found was burned and destroyed if captured. As such the immigrants had to be able to grab their gear and run at a moment’s notice. At night, the immigrants would descend into Morocco’s food markets to pick from the bins for food. Francis remembers fighting with rats as they competed for leftovers and rotten food just so he could survive.
First Attempts at the Border
The police have a very simple way of dealing with captured immigrants. That method involved driving them miles to the Moroccan border to the edge of the Sahara desert and leaving them for dead. Quite a number of times this occurred to Francis. He was captured, driven out to the desert, and then had to make the long journey back to the border.
The border between Spain and Morocco is notoriously heavily guarded. High-tech security cameras cover the perimeter. The authorities patrol the area 24/7 routinely by land, air, and sea. Additionally, the entire border is covered with 20ft high fences covered with razor-sharp barbed wire.
Francis Ngannou was cut many times on the barbed wire. One time he was cut and bleeding so badly where he had no option but to attend a local hospital. Police regularly scoured these hospitals to find and capture immigrants. During his visit as he was being stitched up, the police arrested him. They did not allow the medical staff to finish the stitches. He was thrown in the back of a van and driven back out to the desert. If the police captured you on the police they could be very brutal. Some police would beat captured immigrants with iron rods. Often the ringleaders of immigrant groups were singled out to be made an example of. These leaders could expect the worst treatment from their captors. Bigger immigrants like Francis were also targeted for similar reasons, to be made an example of.
Francis Ngannou found that attempts to cross the border had to be carefully planned. There were many considerations and calculations that had to be made. For example, judging the weather, the tide, patrol times, hours of daylight, time of day, etc. A successful crossing was dependent on taking these factors into account and using them to your advantage. The immigrants would scout the border for days in advance, looking for weaknesses in the fence that could be exploited. This often required lying still for hours in the sand to avoid detection by the authorities. Everything had to be planned to the letter. After being captured it would be a long time before he could re-attempt another border run.
If driven out to the desert the immigrants could expect no mercy. They were not provided with any rations or water, just left to die. If they went near the Algerian border they could expect to be shot, so that was not an option. The only option was to begin the whole journey again. So they would follow the distant lights of airports in the cities to the North. Gradually making his way back to the border to start all over again. This occurred several times to Francis Ngannou. Eventually, he realized another approach was needed if he were ever to make it into Europe.
Captain 'Van Damme'
Ngannou considered circumventing the Moroccan/Spanish border by sea using a dinghy or other inflatable boat. Crossings of this kind were notoriously hazardous. It took lots of advance planning, cooperation, and a lot of luck. Particularly in the winter months with the colder and wetter weather and the likelihood of large waves. There were also boat patrols to consider from both the Moroccan military and private border-control corporations. Trawlers in the waters would report spotted crossings by immigrants to the authorities. And it would not be long thereafter before the authorities would send a high-speed boat out to intercept any crossing.
To qualify to be part of a crossing team you would require something of use to assist the crossing. For example, money, a boat, sea-faring skills, or information that would help the crossing. Francis Ngannou came from a landlocked country and had never been in a boat. Despite this, he convinced many of those he traveled with that he was a sea ‘Captain’ and had great experience. What he really did was use his initiative, ingenuity, and survival instincts to learn new skills very quickly. He learned from others and from gauging the situation himself, what would work best to help them succeed. He became well known as a ‘captain’ and people would recommend him for proposed crossings. He was given the nickname ‘Van Damme’ after Jean Claude Van Damme (due to his muscles and size). This was just as well since at that point Francis had very little money left. He had no other way to persuade the other immigrants why they should allow him to travel with them.
The Straits of Gibraltar
Francis Ngannou had a number of sea-crossings all unsuccessful but on a couple of occasions, he almost made the border. The idea was to cross the Moroccan/Spain international water line. Once they were near land to call the Red Cross on the Spanish side. The Red Cross has a duty to save lives and help immigrants who are in danger. They meet immigrants making the crossing in pathetic boats and dinghies before turning them over to the authorities on the Spanish side.
On April 3rd 2013, Francis’ small boat finally made it through to Spain. This was with a degree of luck and also by taking advantage of an opportunity. A helicopter had spotted Francis and their crew in a tiny boat not far from the coast of Spain. Knowing he could use the helicopter’s location as a landmark and reference point, Francis called the Red Cross. They spotted the helicopter circling the straits of Gibraltar. They promptly sent a lifeboat out to look for the boat of immigrants. Francis and his crew were picked up by the Red Cross boat. When they reached the mainland they were handed over to the Spanish authorities.
Detained in Spain
Upon entering Spain (and Europe), Francis Ngannou was detained and questioned by the police for illegally crossing the border. The authorities tried to use legal threats and charges to persuade the immigrants to return to their countries of origin. Francis was very uncertain about his future at this time. He dreaded that after all his time and effort he would be returned home. Eventually, the authorities released him and the other detainees. A few associations approached him and offered assistance finding accommodation and work. Francis refused, he knew what his goal was and he was determined to find it his own way. He called his family and asked for money one last time. They gave him roughly $300-400 and this would be the money that would help him on the final step of his long odyssey.
After debating about which country to go to to find a base to start his boxing training, Francis chose France. Getting into the UK would be too much of a bureaucratic nightmare and the cultural barriers in Germany were too high. He spoke fluent French since it was his mother tongue in Cameroon. Furthermore, there were a number of African communities in Paris that might provide a helpful starting place. So France was the logical option. Ngannou entered France on June 9th, 2013.
Paris - Stranger in a Strange Land
When Ngannou arrived in Paris he was so poor he had to live on the streets. His journey had eaten up his savings, he had run out of money and did not know a single person. For three months Ngannou lived homelessly, although never giving up his dream of being a professional boxer. He began to look for gyms where he could train for free during the long days. He trained at the free gyms during the day before returning to the streets to spend the night alone. Chancing upon one such gym Ngannou met men whose compassion would turn his life around.
Upon entering the gym Francis asked to meet a coach. The coach was very understanding of Francis’ situation. He gave Francis 50 euros, provided him with boxing gloves and told him he would speak to the gym owner. Francis used the 50 euros to purchase gym gear including shorts, a gym bag, and a towel. The 50 euros did not cover the costs of a mouthguard or hand wraps so Francis had to start his boxing training (including sparring) without these. Soon Francis Ngannou received a phone call from the gym. The Gym owner Didier Carmont agreed to let Ngannou use the gym for free and invited him to train at boxing classes there.
Although Didier recognized Ngannous boxing talent he also appraised Francis’s financial and living predicament. He knew for Francis to make it in France he had to make money quickly. Didier knew the red-tape, politics, and shoulder-rubbing necessary to make it in boxing would hinder Francis. Didier suggested that Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) might be an easier path. Didier knew that Francis could get into the MMA fight game much quicker and potentially make some well-needed easy money. Francis was at the time however fixated on the Boxing world and reluctant to deviate from this path. Eventually, he agreed to consider training in MMA.
MMA Factory - Welcome to the Jungle
Didier eventually introduced Francis to neighbouring gym owner and friend Fernand Lopez. Lopez was the owner of Crossfight (what would eventually become MMA Factory). Lopez reiterated that MMA would be Ngannou’s best option given his predicament and despite his aspirations to become a boxer. Grateful for the opportunity Francis began training in MMA. Lopez paid for Nagannou’s gym membership and pushed him to train hard every day he could. He would phone him whenever he did not appear for training. Lopez also took Francis off the streets, allowing him to sleep in the gym. A bit of compassion by a couple of gym owners would result in one of MMA’s biggest stars.
Ngannou rewarded Lopez’s investment, by always working to the best of his abilities. He would watch old fights of Mike Tyson on Youtube to help motivate him. Ngannou was amazed at the speed, ferocity and strength of Tyson and decided to be just like him.
After 1 month, Fernand set up Francis Ngannou’s first MMA fight, to which Francis agreed. Ngannou won his first match against Rachid Benzina by submission using a shoulder lock after in-fight advice shouted to him by his then coach. (A side note: although more renowned for his striking talents, Francis currently has 4 submissions to his MMA record). From this victory Francis finally started to earn some well needed funds. MMA was his future.
MMA Career and being signed by UFC
Francis Ngannou won five of his first six fights between late 2013 and the summer of 2015. UFC agents saw potential and Ngannou was headhunted and signed by the organization. He made his UFC debut against fellow newcomer Luis Henrique on 19 December 2015 (winning the fight via KO in the second round). Six convincing finishes in a row later and Francis had gained a fearsome reputation and his nickname ‘the Predator’.
Many wins later, including some of the more vicious KOs in the history of UFC, Ngannou is in his prime. He has notched up quite a trophy cabinet of scalps over major heavyweight opponents. On 20th January 2018, Ngannou faced UFC heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic for the title at UFC 220 in a fight that he would eventually lose by a unanimous decision. Although beaten, it made Ngannou realize his inexperience and the holes in his game. Going back to the drawing board, Ngannou looked to make himself a more composed and relaxed fighter. He saw his weaknesses in wrestling and on the mat and addressed them.
After clawing his way back, Francis Ngannou eventually returned for a rematch with Miocic at UFC 260. This time around he was able to overcome the most dominant heavyweight titleholder in UFC history. Even managing to outwrestle the wily veteran Stipe and winning the match with another incredible KO. The win made Ngannou the first Cameroon-born UFC champ and first African Heavyweight UFC champion.
The time it took for Ngannou to start training and reach the UFC heavyweight title took less than 5 years. An incredible achievement for someone who came from such disadvantage and poverty. It is a lesson in how the will to win can help overcome all obstacles.
The Future for the Predator
Francis has a number of competitors waiting to challenge him for a title match. All are keen on the moniker of ‘Baddest man on the Planet’. Among these are the Stipe Miocic trilogy rematch; lethal slugger Derrick Lewis; and a proposed challenge from Light Heavyweight GOAT Jon ‘Bones’ Jones. Jones recently jumped up from Light heavyweight to Heavyweight and has verbally stated Ngannou is the fight that he wants. Given Jon Jones’s history and experience, this would easily be Ngannou’s greatest challenge to date.
Jon ‘Bones’ Jones
Derrick ‘The Black Beast’ Lewis
Until that fight is made, Francis has since returned to visit his native Cameroon. There he has spent time with family and friends. Celebrating with the adulating crowds the UFC title belt and inspiring the next generation of hopeful potentials. Despite his background, Francis Ngannou never forgot where he came from. He actively seeks to improve life for youth back in Cameroon. He started a foundation to help him achieve this as well as a gym where the local youths can train. This is something that was not available to Francis Ngannou in his youth. His foundation also strives to make opportunities in Cameroon for the youth to push and excel themselves.
He also seeks to make people aware of the high dangers associated with his epic journey to enter Europe. Africans lose their lives every day attempting this, including some of Ngannou’s friends. This is something he eagerly wants to make Cameroonians aware of since many look up to him for inspiration. They also believe fortune will follow them also if they make the journey. It is something that makes Francis feel guilty, especially for the unlucky ones who don’t make it.
Francis Ngannou’s rise to the top of the heap in the UFC is the classic rags-to-riches story. Perhaps no fighter in the UFC has had a more unlikely journey towards the title than the 34-year-old Cameroonian fighter.