Francis Ngannou’s journey to the upper echelons of the UFC is nothing short of remarkable.
Working in a sand quarry as a schoolboy, he realised he would have to leave Cameroon if he wanted a better life and the chance to chase his dreams and follow in the footsteps of his idol Mike Tyson.
That would mean leaving his family and making his way up the African continent and into Europe, illegally hopping across borders before finally reaching France, sleeping on the Parisian streets.
This weekend, at UFC 260 in Las Vegas, the 34-year-old is bidding to become the UFC’s first African-born heavyweight champion.
The fight against Stipe Miocic is a rematch three years in the making.
At UFC 220, in his first title fight, Ngannou came up short, losing via unanimous decision.
Against a fighter many consider to be the greatest heavyweight in UFC history it ended up being a tough night in Boston.
Ngannou insists lessons have been learned.
“I didn’t fight my fight,” Ngannou says when reflecting on his first encounter with Miocic. “When I look at that fight, I do not recognise myself. The way that I fought, that’s not me. That fight helped me to understand and experience a lot of things, things I will get right in this one.”
Ngannou reflects on the sacrifices he has made to get this far.
“When I first left Cameroon that was the hardest part. I didn’t know where I was going and I had to leave my family, not knowing if I will see my family again. It was very difficult.”
With an emotional farewell to his family, he set off on his journey.
“I just worked my way, city after city, country after country. From Cameroon to Morocco just by road, walking, hiding, illegally,” he recalled.
“In Morocco, the stay there was horrible, it was like a hell of life being in Morocco. But I got to France and I was homeless but coming from Morocco from that situation, I think I was more happy than ever, like that was one of the most happiest moments of my life.
“I felt like for the first time in a very long time I felt freedom.
“France was the land of opportunity. I had a lot of enthusiasm, lots of expectations, a lot of hope and I was seeing my dream getting closer. I was homeless but I was more than excited and happy to be there.”
Ngannou walked to a number of boxing gyms to ask if he could train for free and one coach took pity on him. When he saw his boxing skills, he was impressed but felt he would be able to make money in mixed martial arts.
Despite not knowing what the sport was, Ngannou made the switch.
Fast forward to 2021, and Ngannou’s UFC record stands at 15 fights, 11 knockouts and three defeats. He is now relishing his second opportunity to fight for the title.
“I never got anything in life for free,” he said. “I’ve earned everything so it’s nothing new for me. I always knew that I would earn back my chance. I always believe that if you do the right thing then you will earn what is yours.”
A win, Ngannou says, would help erase some of the childhood trauma that he still carries to this day.
“For me it’s going to be my own way of dealing with my childhood, to knock my childhood out,” Ngannou says.
He recalls feeling ashamed when teachers made an example of him because he did not have the money for a new book or pen.
“This will mean a response to all of that and a promise I made to myself to do something big, to do something that will put me in the spotlight, to show all those kids that were looking at me as a failure, that I’m not a failure. That I’m just like them and even better.
“I was just a kid with no luck, with no chance to have a decent family. That was the dream, that was the goal, that’s what got me into this. I haven’t got that answer yet and there is no better way to answer that than becoming a world champion.
“I want to become the first African heavyweight champion. Mostly, I want to do that to impact and influence everyone there who has their own dream as I had my own dream.
“I just want to prove to them that anything is possible.”