Cameroon’s Francis Ngannou, the star raising the African stakes in the UFC

By Sherif Tarek
Posted on Friday, 11 February 2022 10:57

Francis Ngannou (red gloves) competes against Ciryl Gane (blue gloves) during UFC 270 at Honda Center. Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Francis Ngannou, 35, went through unimaginable hardships to become the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) heavyweight champion. He and the Nigerian-born stars Israel Adesanya and Kamaru Usman are Africa’s mixed martial arts (MMA) ambassadors, as more fighters from the continent are expected to follow in their footsteps. 

Following their relatively uncelebrated African Cup of Nations third-place finish at home, Cameroonians may find some consolation in Francis Ngannou’s first UFC title defence last month, and the future challenges that the mixed martial artist is set to face.

One of the heaviest punchers in the history of combat sports, the Cameroonian UFC heavyweight champion was deemed the underdog when he squared off in January against contender Ciryl Gane, who was widely hailed as a much more technical and all-rounded fighter.

The general consensus was that Ngannou, who at 26 moved to France, where he kicked off his MMA career, could only hand the up-and-coming Gane his first defeat by knockout. Given the latter’s lithe lateral movements and diversified skillset, this possibility was largely ruled out.

Indeed, Ngannou did not end the fight with one of his trademark brutal shots in the early rounds, like he did with many previous opponents. Instead, he raised eyebrows by patiently out-wrestling Gane to keep his belt via a deserved unanimous decision. The ‘Predator’s’ high-level wrestling was not the only surprise: he went the distance in the five-round – 25-minute – bout with the durable Frenchman, shrugging off years-long doubts over his stamina.

Embracing his roots

“For the first two rounds, I couldn’t find my spot, couldn’t move properly and was a little concerned basically by the end of the second round,” a victorious Ngannou said in the post-fight press conference. “And then something came to my mind… I remember[ed] all the support that I’ve been receiving from my country, and I’m like, ‘I’m not letting them down’.”

Ngannou has always been proud of his origins. Receiving a hero’s welcome every time he returns, he often visits Cameroon, the last of which was ahead of his country’s third-place football match against Burkina Faso. He is the third African-born fighter to be crowned a UFC champion after Nigerians Kamaru Usman and Israel Adesanya, who won the welterweight and middleweight titles, respectively, in 2019.

This is going to happen either way, and even if I stay – even if or when the UFC and I … finalise a [new] deal, the boxing part has to be into it, because I can’t see myself to retire without boxing.

The Francis Ngannou Foundation in his homeland provides young Cameroonians with different forms of support, which the fearsome fighter was deprived of for many years.

Bumpy ride to France

Born in the mountainous south-west of Cameroon, Ngannou has had a challenging journey. In the impoverished town of Batie, securing enough food was his everyday struggle. From the age of 10 to 17, he worked at a local sand quarry to provide for himself and his family.

Eager for a fresh start, Ngannou sought to head to Europe, yet he repeatedly found himself in tough situations, particularly in the Sahara Desert after failed attempts to transit through Algeria.

He later moved to Morocco and then made it to Spain, where he was detained by authorities for two months for illegally crossing the sea border. He went to France upon being freed.

It took Ngannou more than a year to arrive in Paris. His fortunes changed when he met French professional MMA fighter Didier Carmot, who offered him financial support and allowed him to train for free in the French capital at the MMA Factory, where he sharpened his skills until 2018, before moving to Las Vegas’s Xtreme Couture MMA.

Ngannou initially wanted to build on the boxing training that he had started in Cameroon when he was 22, an age when boxers would normally have turned professional after years of training. He however switched paths and stepped into the MMA world.

Bouncing back after rise and fall

After about one year of training, Ngannou made his professional MMA debut in 2013. Two years later, a series of sensational performances and submissions earned him a contract with the UFC, the world’s most prestigious MMA competition.

He took the UFC by storm, with his unmatched knockout power on display in six out of seven victories, including a devastating uppercut that put veteran Alistair Overeem’s lights out in late 2017.

I have a lot of plans in Africa, not just to fight over there, but to open a couple of performance institutes and start cultivating some talent from that.

The winning streak gave him his first title shot the following year against then champion Stipe Miocic, who out-wrestled Ngannou to get a unanimous decision victory and retain the heavyweight title. Perhaps Ngannou’s inability to defend Miocic’s takedown attempts that night was the main reason why not many people had much faith in his wrestling and cardio ahead of his showdown against Gane.

Ngannou’s defeat by Miocic was followed by another loss to Derrick Lewis months later, but he soon got back to winning. The mighty Cameroonian knocked out five opponents, the last of whom was the highly acclaimed Miocic, avenging his loss and becoming a heavyweight champion in 2021.

Chasing a long-held dream

Commended for his victory over Gane, Ngannou has come a long way since his back-to-back losses in 2018. But even though he is seemingly revelling at a high point of his career, contract disputes have put his relationship with the UFC in a parlous state, with the towering man eyeing his long-held dream: stepping into the boxing ring.

“This is going to happen either way, and even if I stay – even if or when the UFC and I … finalise a [new] deal, the boxing part has to be into it, because I can’t see myself to retire without boxing,” Ngannou told TMZ in late 2021. He floated the idea of facing top-notch boxers Tyson Fury and Deontay Wilder.

Earning $600,000 for his win over Gane, Ngannou once again complained about his UFC contract, which he says curtails his earning potential. After undergoing surgery to fix his torn medial collateral ligament, the MMA fighter is touted as a possible contender in a lucrative cross-sport spectacle, similar to the 2017 boxing exhibition between legendary boxer Floyd Mayweather and former UFC two-weight champion Conor McGregor.

Fury, the ‘Gypsy King’ (GK), made £20m ($27m) for beating Wilder in their third fight last October.

Nigerian champions may be at crossroads

For another big payday, Usman and Adesanya have recently emerged as a possible big UFC draw, although their close friendship has long made the match-up unlikely. Usman said he pondered moving up to the light heavyweight division and “skip[ping] Israel” in middleweight. But his agent, Ali Abdelaziz, later insisted the all-Nigerian bout is not that far-fetched.

“They’re cool, but I don’t think they’re like best friends. If [there’s] enough money for both of them to fight, they will fight in the parking lot. I know how people work,” the renowned Egyptian-American agent told TMZ this month. “I know [UFC president] Dana [White wants] it, I want it … It makes a lot of sense.”

When Conor became champion in Ireland, it exploded in Europe and now with Usman, Adesanya and Ngannou, it’s blowing up in Africa.

Usman and Adesanya, who moved from Nigeria at an early age to the US and New Zealand respectively, rose to prominence at the UFC after the organisation started to increasingly promote African fighters in recent years.

“When Conor became champion in Ireland, it exploded in Europe and now with Usman, Adesanya and Ngannou, it’s blowing up in Africa,” White told BBC Sport Africa last October. “I have a lot of plans in Africa, not just to fight over there, but to open a couple of performance institutes and start cultivating some talent from that.”

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