Mixed Martial Arts or MMA bouts are fought in a nine-meter wide cage octagon. Punches, kicks, elbows, knees, tackles, throws, chokes and armbars are all fair game. It is not a game for the faint hearted but Francis Ngannou shakes off the challenge like it’s simple. Towering at about six foot four with fists that throw the world’s most powerful punch, the Cameroonian-French MMA fighter knows he was born to punch.
From digging holes in a sand quarry in Cameroon, doing double that of adults as his mother puts it to defeating three of the UFC’s top fighters, Francis Ngannou was destined to fight and this dream of his started when he was a young boy.
“I always had a dream that created a lot of trouble for me and my family. Since I was very ambitious, I freaked people out, they were like ‘calm down now, reality doesn’t work like that’. My dad would say, ‘you cannot be from where you are to become this’ but I was like ‘why?’”
When Francis was six years old his parents went through a messy divorce. As the family split he was separated from his siblings and was sent to a distant part of the country to live with an aunt. He never felt part of that family, and they were so poor he could rarely afford pens, books or shoes for school.
“I don’t have many friends because I’m not a good friend-maker since I used to be alone. I cannot remember a friend that I had when I was a kid because honestly I never really had a true friend. I was always rejected, I was always a stranger everywhere,” Francis says.
“To overcome all that I had to create a virtual world in my mind, a perfect world, a world that looked like a normal childhood with family, with a father, a mom, brother and sister and a house. That was my space, that was where I found my own peace.”
Francis returned to his mother and family in Batié, a commune in the Western province of Cameroon when he was nine but as a young man he was restless and left the village to work a string of hard labour jobs in the city. At the age of 10, he found another job in a sand quarry.
“When you’re like 10 or 12 years old while your friends go on vacation and you have to go work, I never enjoyed this kind of work. There were some adults who were doing that as a job. For me I couldn’t accept that.
I looked at the older men and just decided ‘no, I am not going to be here.’ That’s when I started thinking, I have to change this. My dream was already set. I knew exactly what I wanted to be, a boxer.”
“I wanted to be a boxer because that was something that was unbelievable for me,” Francis adds.
There was an old small brick house at the quarry site where Francis made a makeshift gym.
This is where his early days in training began. Later it became the official Francis Nganou training grounds.
“I would go in there and express my dream. That’s where I wanted to be. If I didn’t go in there without my childhood life, I wouldn’t be what I am today. Without all that suffering I wouldn’t be who I am today. Because all that helped me build my determination.”
Then one day in 2012 without telling anybody he packed his bag and set of on the migrant trail to Europe.
“The route to get to Europe was hell. It was hell on earth. It’s a road that at some point you can die of the need of water.It’s a road that at some point you can die from the cold because you don’t have clothes to wear. Somewhere you are barefoot in the winter, you don’t know where to sleep but you have to keep going. The entire journey was dangerous.
First we started crossing borders and you say, ‘it is difficult’. You reach the desert and say the same thing; it was like the more you go, testing the difficulty. The worst bit is to cross the sea. You don’t have anything and it’s just a huge risk. It was dangerous but there wasn’t a way back.”
After 14 months on the road Francis was rescued in the Mediaerranan by the Red Cross along with eight other migrants and refugees. Once in Europe he made his way to Paris where he found himself living on the streets.
“For me for what I have been through, being homeless in Paris, it was just a great opportunity for me. It’s definitely one of the happiest moments of my life because at last I had that opportunity that I had been searching for.
I had the opportunity to express myself – to do something on my own and to do it well. Coming from Africa people will always think Europe in general is a heaven, or a paradise. Then I’m like ‘you know, I understand you but I’m not expecting to find paradise,” Francis says.
“I don’t believe there is somewhere on earth that you can get there and everything will just be nice. If there is somewhere you can go to build on your opportunity, then you can build your own paradise.”
In Paris Francis found a boxing coach who gave him some training equipment and allowed him to sleep in the gym. Despite his inexperience in the ring, he showed astonishing talent and he started making waves.
But it was when he made the move from boxing to MMA that he really took off.
Just two years after arriving in France, with almost no exposure to MMA he got a contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, UFC – a golden ticket for any aspirational fighter. Since thenm Francis keeps winning his fights.
Francis’ meteoric explosion through the ranks of the UFC heavyweight division, was unprecedented and his infamous knockout power earned him the moniker, ‘The Predator’.
In early 2018, he had a fight for the belt of heavyweight champion of the world but lost on points and soon after suffered another defeat on points. Doubts were raised to whether the Cameronian fighter phenomenon was everything the pundits and fans had come to expect.
Then, in the first half of 2019, Francis defeated three of the biggest names in the sport. All were sensational first round knockouts. He came back.
And in one other place he usually returns to his home in Batié. There he gives back to the children of his community.
Having defiantly pursued his dreams to reach his global heights and the highest echelons of the fight game, UFC, Francis now returns home regularly to Battie to the remote western highlands of Cameroon. It is there that he wants to inspire and motivate the next generation.
As a child Francis dreamed for the man who would come to his village to give him training and facilities, and inspiration to help him realise his dream of becoming a world class boxer. Of course, that never happened. So now he himself wants to be that man for the new generation.
He has opened an academy in his neighbourhood and trains the children from ages five to about 15 years old in Mixed Martial Arts.
“When I look at them I can see myself among them. I can see it in their eyes, many of them are in the same spot that I was and expected the same thing I was thinking. Clearly definitely have some kids who want to be boxers and have the same passion I have had.
But barely 10 people I train have a passion for boxing. We take the kids to teach them how to believe in themselves. They may not have a passion for the sport but they still need to believe in themselves.