Francis Ngannou has gone from an unstoppable force, to a possible flop, and back to an unstoppable force over the span of his last three fights.
Once the rising star in the UFC heavyweight division, it may seem strange to say the No. 3 ranked fighters is on the comeback trail.
“When I lost the two fights in a row, I think I took that experience for granted,” Ngannou said during a recent sit down interview. “Before those last two fights, I had never been in a three round, let alone a five round, fight and I didn’t know what to expect.”
Now, as he prepares to face a returning Arizona native Cain Velasquez February 17 in the headline fight of UFC on ESPN at Talking Stick Arena, he is more focused on life than expectations.
Growing up and Paris
Ngannou said his life growing up in his native country Cameroon was tough and his home life was even tougher.
“When I was young, it was a mess up and I don’t have good memories as a child,” Ngannou said. “My parents got divorced when I was 6 and that was when everything started being a mess.”
His tiny hometown of Batie was sometimes called “The Sand Village” and the average Cameroonian gets by on less than $1,500 per year. His father was barely in his life after the divorce but Ngannou said he was still close to him.
“My father was a difficult guy and he was tough on me,” Ngannou said. “I was very close to both my parents, but my father was very tough on me and he had a reputation of fighting in the streets.”
Ngannou said he started working in the sand mines at age 12, doing grueling and dangerous work and he would spend hours shoveling sand into the backs of trucks so it could be shipped to big cities for use in construction. Sometimes he would stand all day in water up to his shins, scooping sand out of the riverbed. Other days would be spent at the bottom of a steep quarry, where large chunks of earth often broke free from the high cliffs and tumbled down onto workers.
“In Cameroon, kids have many problems,” Ngannou said. “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.”
So, at 22, after years of idolizing Mike Tyson, Ngannou decided to follow his dream to become a boxer. He packed his bag and left Batie to follow that dream.
“It was a long process, but I just wanted to go somewhere I could have an opportunity to become a boxer,” Ngannou said. “Then, once I decided to stop dreaming, I just packed my bag and left and went country to country.”
He ended up in Spain where Ngannou said he spent two months in prison for illegal entry. He was released thanks to the lack of a repatriation agreement between Spain and Cameroon; the boxer then took the opportunity to get on a bus headed for France.
“Prison was like a concentration camp,” Ngannou said. “I got on a bus headed for Germany or England, but ended up in Paris.”
Homeless and MMA beginnings
When he got to Paris, Ngannou spent two to three months homeless on the streets, before a chance encounter got him the opportunity he had been seeking.
One summer evening in 2013, volunteers from La Chorba, which distributes meals to undocumented migrants throughout Paris, noticed Ngannou. They offered him food and he offered to work with them.
“I was bored all day, I asked them if they were looking for help,” Ngannou said. “I became a volunteer for them and, during a conversation, I realized that their space was adjacent to an MMA gym!”
Boredom turned into Ngannou volunteering with La Chorba by cutting vegetables and helping to hand out food and necessities to the homeless in Paris.
“That was a good way to meet people and help people,” Ngannou said. “I then met with the director and he told me about MMA Factory in Paris and Fernand Lopez.”
Lopez has coached Ngannou since he walked into his gym in Paris and said he saw a fighter when he walked in for the first time.
“When he walked into my gym, he looked like a fighter, but I didn’t immediately think much because I see a lot of big fighters,” Lopez said. “The first time I knew, during his first training session, I knew he was something special.”
Lopez said during that first training session, Ngannou showed mental corrections and quick movements that showed he was something special.
“The way he moved and the way he processed everything mentally, it was quick,” Lopez said. “He was quickly thinking about the next step and he made mistakes but would correct them immediately.”
After spending his childhood dreaming of becoming a boxer, Ngannou was reluctant to give up on it, and to this day said he is a boxer fighting MMA. Lopez said he didn't try to convince Ngannou to become an MMA fighter. He just booked him a couple of MMA fights to let him get a taste for it — and the money he'd make in the fights.
“I had so much fun, I thought this is interesting,” Ngannou said. “Then, I started to get money for my MMA fights and I was hooked ... money and having fun, I thought this is great.”
Ngannou started his independent career winning five of his first six fights, when the UFC came calling.
UFC debut and Phoenix fight
In his first UFC fight, Ngannou fought Luis Henrique in December 2015 and won with a knock out in the second round before following that up with a technical knockout of Curtis Blaydes four months later.
“(Blaydes) is a tough fighter and he can take a punch,” Ngannou said.
He would win his four fights, all in the first round, to earn a UFC Heavyweight championship fight against Stipe Miocic in January 2018, where he would lose a unanimous decision to the champion.
Ngannou would then lose his next fight in July 2018 to Derrick Lewis, again to unanimous decision, which he said helped him grow as a fighter.
“I learned more about the martial arts of fighting as well as the business side,” Ngannou said. “Toughest part for me was all the pressure on me and I had never gone to three rounds, so I didn’t know what to expect and it got to me.”
He rebounded in November with a first round technical knockout of Blaydes in their rematch before getting the call of the bout with Velasquez.
Velasquez, who wrestled at Arizona State University, is making his return to the octagon after last fighting in 2016. Ngannou is focused on a fight that he hopes will get him another title fight.
“(Velasquez) is a well-rounded fighter and I am focusing on everything and he is very experienced and I am going to take it carefully and not make mistakes I made in the past,” Ngannou said. “I expect a win over (Velasquez) to get me another title shot. When I win, I am looking for another shot at the Heavyweight title.”
After leaving Cameroon, Ngannou was focused on giving back to his homeland and decided to start a foundation for the youth of his country.
“When I was growing up and I set out to achieve my goal of a boxer, I was in my small village that had nowhere to train or any sport activity areas at all,” Ngannou said. “Cameroon is a very big soccer country, but even at that there are not a lot of soccer facilities for kids to train at.”
When he started earning money, Ngannou decided to start the Francis Ngannou Foundation.
“When I got some money, I wanted to do something so when I returned to Cameroon, I brought some boxing gloves, mouth guard, head gear and heavy bags,” Ngannou said. “The kids were so appreciative and I realized that nothing had changed since I left and I wanted to help change that.”
Ngannou wanted to provide the same opportunity given to him for those in his hometown, thus, the Francis Ngannou Foundation was formed. Using the beauty of combat sports and teaching the principles of respect and discipline, he said the aim is to arm those children with the skills to expand their horizons and realize their dreams.
The foundation built the first fully equipped gym in Cameroon and Ngannou also aspired to provide kids the chance to fight for good and open doors to all their goals.
“It took me three years to get the gym opened and I want to give the kids all hope,” Ngannou said. “I want to let them know that anything is possible and it is not just athletics, but we want to help schools and kids who cannot afford to go to school. Through the foundation, they can have that opportunity.”
He said the foundation is giving the youth of his country something he never had when he was there, a chance at success.
“It has given me something that helps me, pride in being a real person,” Ngannou said. “All of this is for me, because I want to give kids the satisfaction that they can look at me — that I did it. I was focused on a dream and that dream turned into a reality.”
But Ngannou says his ego hasn't become inflated: "I'm still the same person I was in Cameroon. It's thanks to my pride that I am where I am now."
Ngannou said the goal of his foundation is to remember his roots and build champions, not just in the athletic world.
“I see a lot of Francis Ngannou in the kids that are working out at the gym in Cameroon,” Ngannou said. “These kids are talented, not just for MMA, but in life. Being a champion is not just a belt or a championship, but being a champion in life.”
Ngannou added, “If they struggle and battle back, that is what being a champ is and that is what I am looking for. I am looking for kids that have a dream of becoming a lawyer, doctor, architect or whatever they want that they believe that it is possible.”
He finished by adding, “To bring that hope to the kids, that is what it is all about for me. To see the kids getting excited about something, it doesn’t matter what, but the fact that they are working hard, that makes them all champions to me.”