LAS VEGAS — It was Jan. 20, 2018, when Stipe Miocic outclassed Francis Ngannou to defend his UFC heavyweight title. The truth about that fight, however, was that Ngannou wasn’t ready to be a champion. Take nothing from Miocic, who was terrific that night in Boston, but Ngannou was so inexperienced, so overwhelmed by the speed in which he’d gotten there. He lost by unanimous decision.
“I still remember I was asking myself, ‘How does it feel to fight a third round?’ How do I prepare for a title fight?'” Ngannou told ESPN. “I was sitting in my hotel room before the fight and was like, ‘What’s after this?’ I didn’t even know exactly, if I won, where I would go from the fight location.
“I hadn’t found my spot in life at that moment. I was in the air, but I didn’t know where to land.”
Following that loss, Ngannou revamped everything. He established his camp in Las Vegas, instead of splitting it between there and France, where he previously lived. He hired an agent, who assembled a support system around him. He added a new head coach, a social media manager and at least a dozen others to assist with everything from training to sports psychology to marketing.
And by early 2019, one year after coming up short against Miocic, Ngannou believed he was ready to rule. He felt his experience and preparation had caught up with his talent.
Had he been right, and had he been granted an opportunity to prove it, he might have been a superstar by now. Because when Ngannou is on, he is capable of things that, frankly, no other heavyweight in the history of MMA can replicate. His past four wins have ended in highlight-reel knockouts, in 45, 26, 71 and 20 seconds.
“This is as close as you can get to the Mike Tyson effect,” said Eric Nicksick, Ngannou’s head coach. “There’s something alarming about his calmness in the back, before a fight. He’s calmer. It’s f—ing eerie. And when that cage door closes, it’s something different. It’s like, ‘This dude is about to kill somebody.'”
The UFC’s heavyweight division has moved remarkably slow since 2018. There have been only four heavyweight title fights in the past three years, and three of them consisted of a trilogy between two men: Miocic and Daniel Cormier. All this time, during which Ngannou felt he was ready to be champion, he has been forced to wait for that opportunity.
“He had a shot at the title and he lost. You always have to work your way back to the title, because there is always someone next in line who is deserving of it,” UFC president Dana White said. “If you think about the last time he lost to Stipe, that was 2018, and it took him all the way until now, 2021, to get it back — but he’s done it. He’s the guy. He’s the guy that should be getting this shot.”
For Ngannou (15-3), who will finally get another shot at Miocic (20-3) and the heavyweight crown at UFC 260 on Saturday, there have been moments of frustration in the past two years, but throughout the delay in getting his second chance, he has remained positive, believing that his time would come.
Part of that outlook comes from what brought him here and what lies ahead. Going into this weekend, Ngannou is standing on the cusp of what could be one of the greatest years of all time in the UFC, but had a few things gone slightly different in his life, he never would have left the sand mines in Cameroon where he was born.
“Francis’ story — you can’t not be inspired by it,” said Marquel Martin, his agent. “The impact of him winning a UFC championship could inspire an entire continent.
“And I feel like the universe is pointing to this really being his time.”
IT’S A FRIDAY evening in Las Vegas, and Ngannou, who learned to get by on one meal per day as a child, is standing in a private room at Barry’s Downtime Prime, an upscale steakhouse located on historic Fremont Street. Dressed in a cardinal red suit, Ngannou converses with Barry himself, the head chef. Barry’s a big fan and is ready to prepare his special guest anything he wants, on or off the menu.
It’s a far cry from Cameroon, where Ngannou used to walk two hours to school and back, at least on the days he went. He started working in the region’s sand mines at age 10, but he still didn’t have enough money to buy a pencil and notebook.
By his mid-20s, he was ready to leave, even though he didn’t have the documents to legally migrate to Europe. He left Central Africa by foot, on his own, and embarked on a 14-month trek north that wouldn’t end until the American Red Cross plucked him from a raft in the Strait of Gibraltar, a waterway between Morocco and Spain.
“Fourteen months in hell,” Ngannou told ESPN during a 2018 interview.
Once he was in Europe, Ngannou made his way to France, where he had no plan other than to find a boxing gym and begin learning the sport. Professional boxing had been a dream of his since Cameroon, from the moment he first saw a Tyson fight on video. Ngannou was homeless at first in France, but he eventually found a gym, discovered a passion for MMA and, remarkably, made it to the UFC in just three years.
But Ngannou isn’t satisfied. The stakes have never been higher for Ngannou, because somewhere along the way, winning a UFC title became more than just about him.
“Whether I like it or not, it’s not just for me,” Ngannou said of his UFC 261 opportunity. “I can see that when I go back home to Cameroon, I can see it in people’s eyes. ‘Oh, the belt.’ They won’t have the belt, of course, but the meaning of it, the hope, the expectation that comes from it — because they know my story. I’m not a fairy tale they are reading in a book.
“I know what it means for my family and for all those people expecting me to be better. I can’t afford to think I’m playing with house money. There is no house money.”
In 2018, he established the Francis Ngannou Foundation, and he opened a youth gym in Batie, Cameroon. His goal is not to produce the next crop of MMA champions, but to inspire kids to believe in and pursue their own dreams.
“I’ve been thinking about [where to put the championship belt],” Ngannou said. “I was thinking of putting it in my foundation for kids to look at, but I think there are many more kids who need to see that. Maybe some public place in Cameroon, they can look at it and think, ‘Oh, I can get to that.’ Not a fighter, but just a champion in their respective domain.”
Inspiring hope in a future generation is a heavy responsibility, and Ngannou doesn’t take it lightly. He said he feels a very real financial obligation toward friends, family and even acquaintances back home. When Ngannou says he’s fighting for more than just himself, there’s a tangible reality attached to that.
But at the same time, Ngannou is still doing this for himself. That’s what started this quest, after all.
“It might be weird to talk about, but I’m still very unsatisfied about my childhood,” Ngannou said. “I don’t find it fun to talk about. It’s not happy, it’s sad. When people talk about their childhood — friends, cartoons, culture — those are the missing parts of my life. And no matter what I do, I can’t really fill that up.
“In a way, I’m still trying to deal with my childhood — and winning a UFC belt, for me, would be my own way to show these people from my past that, after all, I wasn’t bad.”
NGANNOU BELIEVES HE’S ready to take the next step in his evolution as a fighter.
“It’s been a year I always think about, even before COVID hit,” Ngannou said. “Anytime I was thinking about 2021, I’d have this little smile on my face. Like, ‘That’s going to be my year.'”
As he prepares to face Miocic for the second time, the landscape of the heavyweight division is ripe for a blockbuster year. The UFC has already made it clear that Saturday’s winner will defend the title against former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones next, potentially this summer. Jones, 33, vacated his 205-pound championship last year and is considered the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, especially now that Khabib Nurmagomedov is retired.
As it currently stands, Ngannou has a chance to beat Miocic — who is widely considered to be the greatest heavyweight of all time — and Jones — who is widely considered to be the greatest fighter of all time — within the same calendar year.
“If everything goes perfect, Francis will become the heavyweight champion on March 27, and then knock out Jon Jones in a true superfight immediately after,” Martin said.
Beyond that, Ngannou’s dreams turn from ambitious to nearly impossible. According to Martin, he wants to challenge WBO, WBA and IBF heavyweight boxing champion Anthony Joshua or WBC and lineal champion Tyson Fury to a boxing match. Those two are expected to fight twice in 2021, and Ngannou, ideally, would like to face the winner.
“Anytime I was thinking about 2021, I’d have this little smile on my face. Like, ‘That’s going to be my year.'”
Some would likely view that plan as downright laughable. Ngannou would have to convince the UFC to get on board, and he’d be a long shot to be remotely competitive against either of the best boxers on the planet. But Martin says that’s half the point. Ngannou’s entire life has been built on the impossible. And if he’s successful against Miocic and Jones in 2021, his focus could turn only to something bigger.
“Francis’ entire life has been based on defeating odds that were stacked against him,” Martin said. “If he were to beat the GOAT of heavyweights, which we all know Stipe to be, there’s only one way to go, and that’s Jon Jones. And if he beats the heavyweight GOAT and the MMA GOAT back-to-back, what’s next? You prove you’re the GOAT across all heavyweight combat sports.”
Of course, all of that is moot if Ngannou loses on Saturday. As Ngannou knows all too well, there is no crossover, heavyweight boxing match without Miocic and then Jones. Just like there was no boxing gym in France without crossing into Europe first. And there was no crossing into Europe without months of dodging immigration officials in Moroccan forests.
Just imagine, though, if everything Ngannou has planned … were to actually come true?
“I just don’t think the universe would have brought Francis Ngannou this far to not see him become the UFC heavyweight champion on March 27,” Nicksick said.
“Resilience has been the theme of his life.”