Francis Ngannou fidgets in the driver’s seat of his luxury SUV several times as he discusses his path to the top of the combat sports world.
It’s not that the 35-year-old UFC heavyweight champion is impatient—he breathes before answering almost every question and shares long, thoughtful responses in a soft, slow-speaking voice. It’s more that the Las Vegas resident is still a bit uncomfortable with the life his devastating knockout punch and highly determined mindset have provided for him.
“When I went to the dealership to choose my car, I would be like, ‘No, I don’t like this one,’” Ngannou says. “I felt a little spoiled and picky.”
He’s taking a midday break from training at one of the world’s most renowned mixed martial arts gyms, Xtreme Couture, for a Zoom call in the shadow of the Strip. The setting is worlds away from the country he considers his true home, and all the places where he spent time working to get to this point less than 10 years ago.
In 2012, Ngannou put a long-envisioned plan to leave his native village in Batie, Cameroon, into motion. Over the year that followed, he trekked more than 4,000 miles- to Paris, sleeping everywhere from Algerian deserts and Moroccan forests to Spanish jail cells.
It was a resolve-testing, life-threatening journey, all in service of realizing his dream to come to America and win a belt—a goal he accomplished in March by knocking out Stipe Miocic at UFC 260 here in Las Vegas.
Since then, Ngannou has been in dispute with UFC regarding his next move, but even UFC President Dana White—notorious for speaking his mind when at odds with one of his fighters—can’t deny what Ngannou means to the company going forward.
“He’s a big, scary-looking heavyweight who viciously knocks people out,” White said in an interview over the summer. “It literally doesn’t get any better than that.”
Between the cuts, bruises, sore muscles and restricted diets, getting ready for a fight might be the most grueling process in all of sports. But Ngannou describes it as easy, because, he says, he learned the true definition of physical exhaustion at a young age.
From the time he was 10, Ngannou worked in Cameroon’s sand mines to help support his mother, a victim of domestic abuse forced to raise five children on her own. He says he’d often lack enough money for food, so he’d be left fighting off sickness and starvation—and dreaming of a brighter day.
“I worked in the sand mines for over 10 years, but it never felt final to me,” Ngannou says. “For me, it was just an obstacle to find a better situation. Even though I didn’t like it, even though it was sad and tough, it fueled me.”
He’s unsure exactly why, but something about fighting has always fascinated Ngannou. He never saw any bouts as a child, but he heard about his father’s local legend as a street fighter, and caught tales of Mike Tyson’s exploits on the news.
As a teenager, he saved up enough money to travel to an internet café in the city. His first search? Tyson fights on YouTube. Soon after, Ngannou filled a juice bag with sand and hung it from a tree in his village, spending his free time trying to emulate Iron Mike.
Ngannou gave himself the nickname “San Francisco”—to this day, he still signs autographs “SF,” to the bewilderment of casual fans—because he’d heard it was a big city in America and liked the way it sort of sounded like his name. It wasn’t until Ngannou turned 22 that he first stepped foot in a Cameroon boxing gym, and he quickly realized it couldn’t provided him the instruction necessary to become a champion.
With America so far away, he set his preliminary sights on France and took off through Africa, evading immigration authorities to the best of his ability, eating out of trash cans but never stopping, no matter the circumstances.
One of the lowest moments, he recalls, was a near-death experience caused by a severe cut suffered while climbing a barbed-wire fence. The wound required hospitalization, which resulted in Ngannou getting thrown out of Morocco and dumped back in Algeria, he says, the first of six times he was deported from Morocco.
“Every time, there was something inside of me that told me there was a light at the end of the tunnel,” Ngannou says. “There was a light I could see wherever I was, and I could follow it. That was my motivation, and I knew it was going to happen.
“That might sound crazy, but that’s how I felt. … My way from Cameroon to France is the most challenging thing I’ve been through. It was unbelievable. I’ve been through a lot of things out there that even now, when I think about it, I can’t believe it.”
More trials awaited once in Europe, including imprisonment in Spain for crossing the Mediterranean Sea and homelessness in France, but Ngannou eventually landed at the now-famed MMA Factory Gym in Paris. The coaching staff convinced him to switch from boxing to mixed martial arts, and his career took off immediately.
It wasn’t a straight shot to the top, however, as Ngannou lost to Miocic in his first championship bout, in January 2018. That was followed with another unanimous-decision loss to Derrick Lewis shortly after.
Ngannou had already moved to Las Vegas before the first Miocic fight, but after that, he decided to permanently relocate and begin training full-time at Xtreme Couture. He hasn’t lost since, knocking out four straight opponents in the first round before stopping Miocic in the second to win the title.
Opportunities flooded in for Ngannou after the victory—appearances on television shows, acting roles in movies and commercials, even first pitches at baseball games. He took advantage of many of them, but mostly, he says, he just wanted to travel back home to Cameroon.
He made the trip in April, and thousands filled the streets in the country’s capital of Douala to welcome him. Ngannou stood in the bed of a truck holding the belt in a parade that had swarms of fans rushing the vehicle for miles.
“It was all over the news in the country for one week or more, and everyone came out,” Ngannou says. “It was unbelievable. When I was there, I was working for the title, for my dream, but it was more than that. When you come back, you find out it was more than that. It was more than just a belt. It was a hope. It was an inspiration. It was a dream realized. And I think that’s why they loved it. All those people back there need those moments more than anyone.”
He went on to spend time in his old village and even traveled to a quarry where he used to work, grabbing a shovel and tossing sand into a truck, the way he had done for so much of his youth.
“You have playback of your life, like you were right here, and that’s something quite special,” Ngannou says. “I was there nine years ago, [but] it feels like just last week. And then I realize all this happened. But I can feel the feeling I had nine years ago. I feel the moment. That’s why I like to go back. Those memories, those moments fill me up.”
The happiest moment of all, Ngannou says, came when he jumped into a car outside a house he’d bought for his family. He headed to the freeway, and one of the first billboards he saw was an advertisement featuring his mother.
“She’s a superstar out there now,” Ngannou says with a grin. “It’s like, ‘Man, she made it.’ One of my biggest concerns was if my mom could survive, but now I can help her after all she’s given.”
Cameroon might be where Ngannou feels most at peace, but he says he doesn’t foresee moving back. In fact, he doesn’t envision leaving his new home in the desert. He calls Las Vegas the “warmest” place in which he’s ever resided—and he’s not talking about the weather.
“People here are nicer, welcoming, supportive,” Ngannou says. “Even though I didn’t speak English [at first], they were motivating me to speak English. While I was in France and speaking French, they were making me feel bad about my accent, even though I was speaking French perfectly. Here, people are complimenting you about your clothes, your shoes, how good-looking you are. That’s not what I’m used to.”
Ngannou’s clothing, in particular, has been drawing raves. He consistently pays homage to his heritage by wearing traditional African outfits during media appearances. He sports different types of clothing from his native Cameroon during fight-week events like weigh-ins and news conferences.
Ironically, given his profession of choice, Ngannou is known for being non-confrontational, which makes his current spat with the UFC noteworthy.
Ngannou says he doesn’t understand why the UFC instituted an interim heavyweight title—which Ciryl Gane won by TKO over Derrick Lewis at UFC 265 in August—when Ngannou says he informed the UFC he’d be ready to fight at UFC 266 in September.
Ngannou has mostly let his management team deal with the issue, and a unification bout between Ngannou and Gane is reportedly in the works for UFC 270, which takes place on January 22, 2022.
Until then, Ngannou says, he’ll channel a mindset like the one he had when he left Cameroon, thinking about the promise of what’s ahead. He’s focused on his first title defense, while grappling with newfound fame that might never feel completely normal.
“I get to hang out and go to the parties, the nice parties with all these classy people that grew up in rich families and have quality education and know how to set the silverware on the table, which glass is for wine, which glass is for this,” Ngannou says. “I didn’t have that education, so when I go to that stuff, I’m embarrassed. I’m not comfortable.
“But when I go back to [Cameroon], I’m like, ‘I know these people.’ That is my culture, even though today I can afford to be at another type of party. It’s my education. This was my way.”
Big man on the big screen
Francis Ngannou made his film debut earlier this year with a cameo in F9, the ninth installment of the Fast & Furious franchise, and his second movie role is already lined up.
He’ll be featured in a stunt in Jackass Forever, the fourth Jackass film, scheduled for release on February 9, 2022. Ngannou’s scene reportedly involves him punching one of the cast members in the groin region.
“I wasn’t familiar with Jackass until they told me about it,” Ngannou says. “I did some research about it, and I was like, ‘This movie is silly. This is crazy.’ They were like, ‘Yeah, that’s the concept. That’s how it’s meant to be.’”
Ngannou says that while he has enjoyed his time on both movie sets, he doesn’t expect to follow in the footsteps of fighters who have retired early to pursue acting more seriously. He says he still has too much to accomplish in the UFC.
“It’s about my dream. It’s about my calling. I think when you prove yourself to be hungry, you never get satisfied, because there is always something that you have to accomplish all the time. It’s never over,” he says. “Yes, you’ve been a world champion, but so many people have been world champion before you and after you. So what can you do different, and how high can you set the bar? So that’s kind of the motivation for me. The more you get, the more you get hungry.”
Those who await
There’s never been more talent in the UFC’s heavyweight division with a long line of potential contenders that make the prospects of Ngannou’s reign even more exciting. Here are the three opponents on the top of the list for Ngannou to face—potentially all in 2022—if he stays healthy and keeps winning.
The undefeated Muay Thai kickboxer out of Paris recently won the interim heavyweight title that Ngannou thought shouldn’t have existed. In case that didn’t set up a rivalry, Gane fights out of Ngannou’s old MMA Factory gym. The two were briefly training partners before Ngannou had a falling-out with MMA Factory owner/coach Fernand Lopez and moved his training to Las Vegas.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” White said of Ngannou vs. Gane. “You couldn’t write it. You couldn’t script it. [WWE President] Vince [McMahon] couldn’t have written a better script for this whole thing. It’s beautiful.”
Ngannou and Gane are expected, though not confirmed, to fight at UFC 270 in January.
Often considered the best fighter in UFC history, Jones has bulked up for more than a year, anticipating a move to heavyweight. Ngannou was under the impression that Jones, the longtime light heavyweight champion, would be the opponent for his first title defense and still prefers that matchup. Some have even suggested the fight could be big enough to headline Allegiant Stadium.
But the matchup no longer seems imminent, with Jones locked in a contract dispute with the UFC. Jones was also recently arrested for domestic battery and tampering with a police vehicle while in Las Vegas for UFC 266.
Ngannou defeated Miocic definitively earlier this year, but the inverse was true the first time they met: Miocic won every round on every judge’s scorecard in their first fight in 2018. A trilogy bout to break the deadlock between the two fighters seems destined to happen at some point.
Miocic holds the UFC record for most heavyweight title defenses (4), and Ngannou’s time at the top might not feel complete until he faces Miocic one more time.
African trinity: Francis Ngannou is one of three current UFC champions from his native continent
Francis Ngannou held up three fingers shortly after beating Stipe Miocic for the UFC heavyweight title, and it was far from an empty gesture. Ngannou meant that he had just become the UFC’s third African-born champion, alongside fellow current belt-holders Kamaru Usman and Israel Adesanya.
Usman, a 34-year-old born in Nigeria, brought Africa its first title when he defeated Tyronn Woodley by unanimous decision for the welterweight belt at UFC 235 in March 2019. He’s currently rated as the No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter in the world by the UFC rankings and will go for his fifth title defense November 6 at New York’s Madison Square Garden when he fights against rival Colby Covington at UFC 268.
Adesanya, a 32-year-old also originally from Nigeria, got his championship a month after Usman in the middleweight division and has since unified the belt and defended it three times. An electric striker who attacks from all angles, “The Last Stylebender” might be the most exciting fighter currently in the UFC.
The UFC is reportedly trying to book his next title defense, a second meeting with former champion Robert Whittaker, as the co-main event for Ngannou vs. Gane at UFC 270 in January 2022.
Although none of the three champions have ever been teammates —Usman is now based out of Onx Sports in Denver and Adesanya is entrenched at City Kickboxing in Auckland, New Zealand—they’ve become close friends and are driven by each other’s success.
Behind the trio’s success, mixed martial arts is booming on the world’s second-largest continent. And UFC President Dana White says he will bring a card to Africa for the first time as soon as pandemic-induced global travel restrictions lighten.
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(this story/news/article has not been edited by PostX News staff and is published from a syndicated feed)