Francis Ngannou’s incredible story is not only a rags-to-riches tale but also how he went through hell to reach the brass ring at the top.
Rising from grinding poverty in Cameroon, staring death in the face during his travels in Africa to being homeless on the streets of Paris, he suffered it all before rebuilding his life and becoming the newly-crowned UFC heavyweight champion.
Africa has their first heavyweight champion!
— UFC (@ufc) March 28, 2021
‘The Predator’ scripted history when he became the first African to win the heavyweight championship, knocking out Stipe Miocic with his fierce punches at UFC 260.
The tough start
Life was hard and unfair for Ngannou right from the beginning as he had to start working in a sand quarry from the age of 10 to support his single mother.
#ThrowbackThursday – I may be top ufc heavyweight, but when I go home to my village, every time I always stop to the sandmine to work with my friends like when we grew up. Today, it’s enjoyable and fun to do, but as a kid forced to do it, it was a stone on my throat .. (1/2) pic.twitter.com/Qh9OdX39MX
— Francis Ngannou (@francis_ngannou) June 25, 2020
“I hated this place growing up…I hated the sand mine, everything, I hated my life…Sometimes you’d argue with a rat in the trash…It really hurts me to remember everything where I came from…,” Ngannou said in a recent interview for the podcast ‘Joe Rogan Experience’.
It was then, at the age of 17, that he decided to focus on what was within his power and change for the better. He decided to become a fighter and moved to Morocco in pursuit of his dream. However, there were several hiccups before he could finally reach his goal.
Fighting with rats
During his journey from Cameroon to Morocco, Ngannou crossed borders illegally, lived in a bush and scrounged the trash to find food.
His progress was halted several times in the Sahara Desert where he had to drink water from animal-infested wells.
When he finally did reach the promised land of Europe, there was yet another roadblock — he was jailed for illegally crossing the Morocco-Spain border by sea. After his release two months later, Ngannou fled to France.
Paris & Parking Lots
“I was homeless then, but at that moment, it wasn’t difficult for me anymore. You might think being homeless in Paris in the fall when it’s cold was not great, but the enthusiasm that I had at that time… Beyond everything, I was happy to be in the land of opportunity,” he said. This part of his life is what he remembers as the happiest because he was ever so close to his dream.
2013: 7 years ago we were freed by Spanish homeland security after spending 2 months in jail for illegally entering Europe by sea. This, after attempting for one year from Morocco. I had nothing by then but a dream and a faith of pursuing it.
Some people will always (1/3) pic.twitter.com/ogfyDT5ZNw
— Francis Ngannou (@francis_ngannou) June 11, 2020
“Even though I was sleeping in parking lots and I didn’t have food or money, I was just free. Compared to where I was in Morocco, a parking lot was like a five-star hotel,” he recalled.
To make ends meet, Ngannou worked at a homeless shelter ‘Lo Chorba’ where his job was to chop vegetables. It was here that his life finally took a turn for the better when the director of the La Chorba foundation introduced him to Didier Carmont, who ran a boxing training centre in Paris.
Carmont introduced him to the MMA Factory in Paris and it was here that Ngannou, who idolises Mike Tyson, started learning boxing for the first time in his life. “Until I went to France, in 2013, that was the first time then I walked to the gym,” Ngannou said, casting his mind back to his early years.
Recollecting his coach’s words, the 35-year-old said, “They said if you need the faster (road to fame and fortune), you have to do MMA. Then I’m like, what’s MMA? What’s mixed martial arts? I didn’t know UFC at the time, I didn’t know what was UFC.”
Living the dream
In November 2013, roughly three months after beginning his MMA training, Ngannou made his debut and registered a first-round win via submission. He received an amount of two thousand Euros, something which he treasures to date.
“Two thousand Euros! Wow, that was my first money in Europe. I call Africa, I’m like ‘Hey mom, you have to celebrate this, because it’s March 8th, you can have a special international women’s day. Your son is out here and (can) take (you) out to dinner,” he said.
By April 2014, ‘The Predator’ won his first heavyweight tournament and in 2015, he was on the radar of the UFC with whom he penned a contract.
In 2018, when Ngannou, as a 32-year-old was on the threshold of being a champion, he was stopped by Stipe Miocic at UFC 220. Taking the defeat in his stride, Ngannou worked harder to come back stronger and after three long years, he finally had a shot at redemption.
This time, Francis Ngannou would show why he is the all-conquering beast as he knocked out Miocic in the second round of their rematch, thus fulfilling his boyhood dream.
Ngannou has now gone on to create the Francis Ngannou Foundation – a charity that offers people in his village the chance to achieve their dreams in the same way he has. He has built the first official gym in his hometown, Batie and hopes to open many more across Africa.
It gives us great joy to see the smiling faces as the kids at the Francis Ngannou Foundation receive their custom Scramble gis. We are very happy to donate these gis to help with the foundation. Scrambler Sam Crook is currently in Cameroon giving his time and effort to the kids. pic.twitter.com/uRb3W2BSC9
— Scramble スクランブル (@Scramble_) November 11, 2019
“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.”