Mail & Guardian
MMA’S greatest fairy tale
Francis Ngannou’s unbelievable power – and life story –may help him win gold
Francis Ngannou is a terrifying man; possibly the scariest man plying his trade in combat sports today. There’s no hyperbole in saying that he demolishes his opponents, ruthlessly pummelling them with his solid, soccer ball-sized fists.
But the rise of his fame has also revealed his most incredible story; a story that pitted him in a fight for survival long before he first entered an arena.
For much of his short career he’s been denied the right to possess any nuance. Built like a cement truck, in many eyes he has neatly fulfilled the archetype of the physically blessed athlete who uses his supreme attributes to overcome his lack of fight IQ, a brute who can be tamed with superior technique.
When Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic controlled him over five rounds in 2018 this narrative seemed vindicated. Against one of the best fighters in the world he was unable to impose the full extent of his power, ultimately gassing out his enormous frame and falling short in his first shot at the title.
This weekend he returns in a new attempt to strip the gold off the same opponent. Having climbed his way
diligently and violently back up the ladder, he now has the opportunity to showcase that he has become a complete fighter and well and truly banish any notion that he is one-dimensional.
While it’s true that he has looked raw in the past, it is also often overlooked that Ngannou came to the
sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) at the late age of 26. Until then life had offered far more severe challenges than an octagon ever could.
Raised in the Cameroonian village of Batié, Ngannou had few prospects of global stardom early on. In the grip of poverty, he claims he had no choice but to labour in a sand quarry as a 10-year-old, shovelling heaps into trucks that serviced city construction sites.
The end of his adolescence didn’t herald a drastic change. Despite picking up boxing in his earlier 20s, he still saw no way out of the cycle of odd jobs that were keeping him afloat. But his ambition compelled him to force his way into Europe.
Having traversed the Sahara desert, he ended up in Morocco, where he spent a year trying to cross the Strait of Gibraltar, living like “an animal” in the interim. He made it into Spain, only to be scooped up by the authorities and imprisoned for two months, thanks to his illegal passage. Finally he reached his destination: Paris, France — a city in which he knew no one and had nothing. He wandered around single-mindedly, asking strangers if they knew of a boxing gym he could join.
Eventually he convinced a coach to give him a shot. Impressed by his punching prowess, his new training supporters suggested he join the growing, more lucrative realm of MMA, a sport he’d never heard of.
It’s been less than eight years since that day and now the 34-year-old Ngannou is on the threshold of being dubbed the baddest man on the planet: the informal title bestowed on the incumbent UFC heavyweight king. He can no longer be accused of relying on his forceful attributes, which is why a win in his second bout with Miocic would be a perfect close to his arc.
His victory would also be a special one for Africa. While popular champions Kamaru Usman and Israel Adesanya fly the Nigerian flag proudly, both left the country at a young age, benefitting from the training infrastructure of the US and New Zealand, respectively.
In Ngannou we have an athlete who has forged his own path in the truest sense of the phrase. Should he leave Las Vegas with a belt on Saturday, MMA will have told its greatest fairy tale to date.
After crossing the Sahara and being arrested in Spain, he asked strangers in Paris where a boxing gym was