Fighting off rats for food, working on a sand quarry aged 10, JAILED for illegally entering Europe and living rough on the streets of Paris – Francis Ngannou has been a fighter long before he knocked off Stipe Miocic to claim UFC’s heavyweight title
- Francis Ngannou defeated Stipe Miocic at UFC 260 to become heavyweight king
- It marked a long journey to the top from Batie for the tough Cameroonian fighter
- He worked in a sand mine at the age of 10 and often foraged in bins for his food
- Ngannou was jailed when trying to get to Europe and later slept rough in France
Francis Ngannou can still remember the dream he had as a 10-year-old shovelling sand into the back of a truck for hours on end in blazing heat – it wasn’t to become UFC heavyweight champion of the world.
That dream came later. No, growing up in the mountainous town of Batie in Cameroon, a young Ngannou wanted to be a truck driver.
‘The biggest dream alive in that environment is to become a truck driver and better yet, a truck owner as they are on-top of the chain of command in a sand business,’ he explained.
Francis Ngannnou became UFC heavyweight champion after beating Stipe Miocic at UFC 260
It was a world away from his early days shovelling sand to be transported back in Cameroon – he still returns to help former colleagues with the work when he goes back to his hometown
The mining work was as gruelling as it was dangerous – and yet to Ngannou, a young man void of fear, it was survival.
Known as ‘The Predator’ in UFC circles, survival feels an apt buzzword when looking back at Ngannou’s staggering rags to riches story.
It is, quite simply, a blockbuster movie in waiting.
Ngannou knows what it is like to have nothing. Poverty was rife throughout his town and the country of Cameroon. He felt the lack of opportunities stopped kids dreaming.
‘In Cameroon, kids have many problems,’ Ngannou told Bleacher Report in 2017.
‘They think everything is lost before they are born. It seems like they are not allowed to dream. They are not allowed to be ambitious.
‘They just accept being the victim of their life.’
Ngannou would not be deterred. A lack of food at home meant a fight for survival and from an early age his fighting instincts were sharp.
He would rummage through bins in search of salvageable food and would often find unwanted visitors joining him in digging through the rubbish.
‘You would have to go to the market at night time to go find food in the trash,’ Ngannou said on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast.
‘Sometimes you’d argue with a rat in the trash saying, “Get away from this tomato, it’s mine, this rotten tomato is mine, not yours”.’
People would laugh at him, he later said, for daring to dream of emulating his hero Mike Tyson as a boxer.
There was nowhere ‘within 100 miles to train’ he told Tyson on a recent appearance on his podcast.
Having left school at 17 the mission now was to fight not just because he had idolised Tyson but also to provide a different life for his mum and his siblings. The struggle had gone on long enough.
Ngannou (right) was raised by a single mum (left) and his family often went without supplies
It became a lifetime ambition to be able to have enough money to buy a truck for his family
For a while he needed to be realistic. Five years as a motorcycle taxi driver in his native Cameroon provided an income but it was unfulfilling. He needed to dream again.
So he sold the bike. His family thought he had gone crazy, selling off the key part of his income source.
Despite scorn he would become like his father, a notorious street fighter in Cameroon, Ngannou moved to Douala – the largest city in the country.
There he studied boxing, the artform and how to improve his craft.
He shifted heavy bags of clothes in the garment manufacturing industry to give him some way of providing food, water and shelter.
But as years rolled by he had outgrown Cameroon. His family were still in impoverished conditions and his dream of making it to France was calling him.
It was a long road that took 14 months and six failed attempts, detailed brilliantly by writer George Mack.
‘I couldn’t go to the airport and take a plane to France – I had to use all the back doors to get there,’ Ngannou once said when asked of his battle into Europe.
Step one was crossing the open border to Nigeria, heading north to Yola.
Step two was getting into Niger and so much border-hopping matured Ngannou – he quickly realised he needed to get creative or risk having all his assets taken by authorities.
It was a tricky path to Europe in search of a better life. He was jailed for two months in Spain for illegal entry but is pictured (left) upon his release before he made his way across to France
‘It was a game. You needed to know how to hide money,’ Ngannou recalled.
Now things would step up as professional smugglers helped take him through Niger to Algeria. This was, without hyperbole, the biggest fight Ngannou will ever face.
Crossing the Sahara desert was a hazardous task few dared attempt but so determined was Ngannou to fulfil his goal of getting to Europe, he drank from a well full of dead animals to ensure his efforts so far were not wasted.
‘It was so dirty,’ he said. ‘I may drink this water and die – but if if I don’t drink this water, I will die anyway. So I drank it.’
Algeria to Morocco was one tricky navigation but Morocco to Spain was another and it was one where Ngannou’s game of cat and mouse with authorities came to an abrupt end.
Detained by Spanish authorities after crossing by boat, Ngannou was made to spend two months in jail before he was awarded refugee status.
Reflecting last year, he wrote on Twitter: ‘I had nothing by then but a dream and a faith of pursuing it. Some people will tell you that it’s too late, that you can’t make it, that it’s not meant for you, that you’re not worth it, or that you can’t succeed without them (while their lives aren’t an example of success). Those voices are always around the corner to make you quit your dream.’
Eventually he made it into France – he’d made it, eventually, but even then life was to get in the way, or at least it tried to.
Ngannou showed a build and skillset few trainers in France at that time had seen in their gyms
Ngannou slept rough and was solely concerned in finding a gym that would let him train. Once a specimen as elite as Ngannou walked through the door, trainers soon realised a star was ready to be born.
Advice was given for Ngannou to change from boxing to Mixed Martial Arts – it was something he had not considered but soon showed he was a natural.
He should have known really. His uncle Maurice was a black belt in karate – something in the genes of the family.
It was 2015 when the unthinkable became thinkable, a UFC contract extended in his direction to fight Luis Henrique. A devastating second-round knockout set the tone for what followed.
Curtis Blades was next up. Beaten. Then it was Bojan Mihajlovic. Beaten. Anthony Hamilton had a go. Beaten. Ngannou had worked so hard just to get out of Africa, he wasn’t going to go down without a real fight.
Andrei Arlovski and Alistair Overeem were the next two to fall and then came Stipe Miocic, part one.
January 20, 2018, is a date Ngannou will remember forever. His first headline contest with the eyes of the world watching. It is hard to say he was under pressure given his story, fighting in UFC was the easy part of Ngannou’s journey.
It was a blowout loss, a sign that Ngannou still had plenty of learning to do. What he showed in his virtuoso at UFC 260 was that he is now top of the class – and it showed as he became heavyweight champion of the world.
He proved a natural in the octagon after getting his first UFC contract to fight back in 2015
Exacting revenge on Miocic at UFC 260 made all the sacrifices in leaving Cameroon worth it
But Ngannou never forgot about that first dream, one that meant more to him than anything when shovelling sand.
‘My older brother is a mechanic and he also learned how to drive trucks while I was doing everything in my power to become a world class boxer,’ he wrote on Instagram.
‘After a few MMA fights and three in the UFC, my savings was just enough to buy this old truck for about $30k so my brother who back then was unemployed can drive and provide for the family with it while I keep hustling out here to make more.
‘And I bought the truck in October 2016 and I was happy to satisfy one of my childhood dreams.
‘But what made me happiest – and I almost teared up – were those pictures with my mom in front of the truck smiling as her suffering was about to end for real and she’s seeing the light at the end of the tunnel.
‘At that exact moment, even though I was out of money and my utilities couldn’t go through until my next paycheck from my fight in Albany 12/9/2016, I felt like I made it.
‘My former co-workers were loading truck and my sister was playing around throwing sand into it, it was a turning point for my family.’
It may not be a championship belt but that £30k truck set change in motion – that was what drove Ngannou across continents to achieve. A better life. And boy has he managed it.
A post shared by Francis Ngannou (@francisngannou)
He revealed on social media he was able to buy the truck for his family (pictured: Ngannou’s mum in front of the truck he bought for them for £30,000 back in 2016)
Now the heavyweight champion of the world, he hopes his story inspires kids across the world
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