With a towering frame and an enormous amount of power, Francis Ngannou’s journey to limelight was a rather subdued one for a man his frame.
The story of the UFC heavyweight champion is one of resilience and holding on to a little thread of hope.
When Stipe Miocic received those power punches, he felt the force of a man that had crossed a sea and slept on the streets to get to that point of his life. They were packed with a damning reflection of a bitter beginning.
Francis Ngannou became the first African to win the heavyweight title in the UFC and he made history. Nicknamed ‘The Predator’, the only things he hunted at the start were rotten tomatoes from bins, and he had to compete with the rats.
A Dream with No Path
Francis had always wanted to become something in life, but his story was like that of many African kids that life had handicapped with opportunities right from birth.
He grew up in Batie, Cameroon where poverty is the biggest demon to battle. Francis never had the luxury of options for something as basic as food. He was never spoilt for choice. He fought before he could eat, not against humans, but against local rats that tried to get the rotten foods in the bin before him.
“You would have to go to the market at night time to go find food in the trash, Sometimes you’d argue with a rat in the trash – ‘Get away from this tomato, it’s mine, this rotten tomato is mine, not yours.'” – Francis Ngannou
Francis didn’t lack good food because he couldn’t work hard. As a young boy at only ten years, he forcefully had to dig a local sand quarry to provide for his mum and aunt.
Among other jobs, he also rode a motorcycle as a taxi so that he could have some basic things in life.
As if lacking food was not enough, Francis also lacked tools to get good education. He attended school with a pen and a bag.
Although, Francis might have lacked basic amenities but no one could rob him of his dreams. His dream of having a new beginning and being prosperous remained intact.
After several failed attempts, he found his way into Northern African country Algeria. He tried to cross the Sahara desert at least six times but he kept failing. He didn’t give up until he successfully crossed the Morocco-Spain border via the sea.
It didn’t become all rosy despite his rare success of crossing into Europe. He slept in jail for two months for illegal immigration.
After his release, he escaped to France where he had to sleep in the streets of Paris due to lack of funds. He still didn’t give up his dream of fighting. After all, his father was a street fighter and his uncle held belts in both Karate and Judo back home – so it’s in the blood.
In the pursuit of his dreams against all odds, Francis met Didier Carmont who introduced him to MMA and trained him for free. Francis had always dreamed of being a boxer, but his power and 6ft 4in frame meant he was perfect for MMA.
In a sport where many had to train for years before competing. Francis had his first fight after only six months of training, and in two years he was in the UFC.
Since winning his first UFC fight against Luis Henrique. Francis has not looked back as he continued to rise.
After suffering a defeat to Miocic in 2018, he went to train harder and become better. Few years later, he now has the heavyweight belt defeating Miocic.
A Champion That Inspires
Ngannou might have escaped the unpleasant experience of his childhood but he has not forgotten his roots.
He set up the ‘Francis Ngannou Foundation’ to provide young people in Cameroon with facilities and opportunities he never had as a kid in Batie. He built the first gym in his hometown Batie and still helps out in the sand quarry sometimes.
“A lot of children now in Cameroon, because of me, they have a dream. They say, ‘I will be a champion in MMA. I will do boxing like Francis,’ because they saw me when I was young. I didn’t have anything. I didn’t have any opportunity. And today, they see me and they are dreaming. They are thinking that something is possible. Even when they are so poor, something is possible in life… It’s not easy. It’s so hard, but it’s possible.” – Francis Ngannou