Francis Ngannou: MMA’s greatest fairytale

Francis Ngannou is terrifying. Possibly the scariest man in combat sports today. There’s no hyperbole in saying that he demolishes his opponents – ruthlessly pummeling them with fists the size of soccer balls. But no less legendary than his power in the cage is the incredible story of his fight for survival that began long before he even entered an arena.

For much of his short career he’s been denied the right to any nuance: Built like a cement truck, in many eyes Ngannou fits the archetype of the thug who uses his brawn to overcome his lack of fight IQ. A brute who can be tamed with technique. 

When UFC heavyweight champ Stipe Miocic controlled Ngannou over five rounds in 2018, this narrative seemed to be vindicated. Against one of the world’s best fighters he was unable to bring the full extent of his power to bear, ultimately gassing out his enormous frame and falling short in his first shot at the title.

But three years later, he returned in a new bid to strip the gold off the same opponent. Last weekend, having climbed his way diligently – and violently – back up the ladder, Ngannou proved he has become a complete warrior. With a vicious second-round knockout, he put paid to any lingering notion that there is only one dimension to his fight.

Ngannou is now a superstar and the tale of his legend has gone mainstream. He came to mixed martial arts (MMA) at the relatively late age of 26. Until then, life had offered far more severe challenges than an octagon ever could.

Raised in the small Cameroonian town of Batié, the young Ngannou had little reason to entertain any notion of global stardom. In poverty’s thrall, he says, he laboured in a quarry as a ten-year-old: shovelling heaps of sand into a truck that would be taken to city construction sites.

By childhood’s end his prospects had barely improved. Despite picking up boxing, he still saw no way out of the cycle of odd jobs keeping him afloat. But ambition had taken root, a drive that compelled him not just to leave home, but to cross both desert and sea, and force his way into Europe.

After traversing the Sahara, he spent a year in Morocco trying to cross the Strait of Gibraltar, a year during which he lived like an “animal”, as he tells it. Cross he did, however, to Spain – only to be scooped up and imprisoned thanks to his illegal landing. But events conspired to return to Ngannou his liberty and, after two months he was free to move on to his destination: Paris, France. Where he knew no one and had nothing except that which he’d brought with him: an iron will, a body of steel, and fists made of pure vibranium.

Eventually, he convinced a coach to take a shot on him and, when he was finally able to enter the ring, the sheer force of his punch raised more than just eyebrows: his suddenly very invested onlookers suggested he join the growing, much more lucrative realm of MMA … a sport he had never even heard of.

Less than eight years since that day, the 34-year-old Ngannou has been dubbed the baddest man on the planet: the informal title bestowed on the incumbent UFC heavyweight king.

No longer can he be accused of relying simply on his brawn: he came to his second bout with Miocic not just as a brawler, but as an experienced fighter with technique, temperament and wrestling added to his formidable strength and stamina.

It’s an extraordinary arc. While popular African 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 United States and New Zealand respectively.

In Ngannou we have an athlete who has forged his own path in the truest sense. Leaving Las Vegas with a belt on Saturday, capped off what is possibly the greatest climax to the most epic saga MMA has ever told.

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Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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