Heavy is the Head that Wears the Crown – Francis Ngannou

Francis Ngannou is the current UFC heavyweight champion: with the scariest knockout power in the company’s history, and labelled by many as the “Mike Tyson” of MMA or “The Baddest Man on the Planet”, but his journey to reach these accolades may be his most crowning achievement.

The Road to Undisputed

Born in Baité, Cameroon, Francis grew up in poverty and dealt with some of the most challenging conditions imaginable for a young child to endure. He experienced little education at a young age, and would walk miles to and from school every day until he couldn’t afford the trip no more. At age 12, he turned to what most kids do to support their families, doing extremely physical and exhausting work, sand mining. He continued at the ‘Quarry’ until he was 17, then left and began his remarkable journey to a better life. 

Francis new himself, that if he wanted to really change his life, leaving Cameroon and heading to Europe was the only way. So, when he was 22, Francis embarked on a one-way trip travelling by boat, truck but mainly by foot, through 7 different countries taking 14 months total from Cameroon to France. The journey had setbacks with border control checks, lack of resources and plenty of hungry/sleepless nights, and alongside that, were thieving police officers looking to steal money from immigrants. However, Francis never fell victim to the crime as he would wrap his money in plastic and swallow it as when he’d be searched by police, nothing would be found. 

A live picture of Border Control Officers rounding up immigrants into a truck for interrogation after being captured (Via @george_mack Twitter).

After travelling through Nigeria and Niger with relative ease due to open borders, Francis then reached Algeria and later Morocco, where it was here he faced serious difficulties. Travelling through the Algerian Desert in scorching temperatures during daylight, and freezing cold weather in darkness made it an unbearable journey to the country closest to his final destination, Morocco. 

Many days passed of travelling and Francis now found himself in the last African country he’d hope to see for some time. However, it would be his most challenging task yet to evade through Morocco, with the punishment for capture being it’s most brutal also, as it meant he would be returned by Moroccan police officers to the Algerian Desert and would have to start again. 

So, after many failed attempts passing through Morocco, Francis would camp in forests around the border and would wait for the right opportunity to move. It meant staying there through winter, with nothing more than deceased animal ridden water holes and food scrapped over with rats, to ensure his survival.  

Once he was finally successful getting through Morocco, Francis made sail for Spain. It was only when bribing a guard however, that made his sail successful as he got the tip to wrap his boat with foil to avoid detection in the open waters, thus being able to reach the Spanish island of Ceuta. Once there, it was almost a guarantee that Francis would reach France as by obligation of the Red Cross, he had to be saved and brought to the Spanish Homeland Security centre, on mainland.

It was there Francis stayed for two months in a cell block, isolated, whilst the authorities deliberated what to do with the future UFC champion. And after much consideration, Francis was released as a refugee, allowing him to continue on travelling to France, due to Homeland Security having no credible documentation to deport him back to Cameroon. 

A picture of Francis Ngannou after being freed by Spanish Homeland Security back in 2013 (Via @francis_ngannou Twitter).

Now at 26 years old, Francis Ngannou arrives at his final destination of Paris, France and begins living in a parking lot, with the goal of finding a gym and start training to become a professional boxer (this being his dream and motivation for the journey prior). He makes contact with head coach at MMA Factory, Fernand Lopez and with his guidance and support, makes the switch from boxing to MMA and the rest is well…history.

Francis Ngannou and head coach Fernand Lopez pictured together at MMA Factory in Paris (Via mmayntt.com).

Francis Ngannou Today

Fast-forward to 2022, Ngannou, the heavyweight champion is just 24 hours away from defending his belt against former training partner and fellow Frenchmen, Cyril Gane. The pair who square off on January 22, at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California have enjoyed great rises in the division respectively. Francis was first to taste gold but not before his loss first time around against Stipe Miocic. For Cyril, this will be his first undisputed title fight after beating Derrick Lewis at UFC 265 in Houston, to become the ‘interim’ champion. 

Gane stands perfect before Saturday at 10-0 professionally, and with Ngannou’s last 7 wins by KO, it makes for an intriguing contest to say the least. The intrigue comes in various ways however, aside from their physical strength and athletic abilities, these two trained together under the same banner at MMA Factory, with Fernand Lopez as both their head coaches. However, after a reported falling out between Ngannou and Lopez, the champ left MMA Factory and found a new home at Xtreme Couture MMA. This gym is based in Las Vegas and run by Eric Nicksick who’s also Francis’s new head coach. 

However, for Cyril it’s been plain sailing as this disruption never seemed to affect his career up until now, as he’s been forced to confront the questions by media and Francis himself, now through fight week. However, the tension between fighters and coaches should not distract but only add to what is already, one of the most highly anticipated bouts of the year.

The first faceoff between Francis Ngannou and Cyril Gane at the UFC 270 Press Conference yesterday, Las Vegas (Via mma-root.com).

Winner Gets Jon Jones?

So, following UFC 270 tomorrow on ESPN+ and BT Sport (U.K viewers), the winner is being tipped to fight whom many consider the GOAT, Jon Jones later in the year. However, Jon hasn’t competed since February 2020, when he defeated (albeit controversially) light heavyweight contender, Dominick Reyes. Sometime after that win, he took to social media telling his fans that he would relinquish his title at 205 pounds and move to heavyweight, scheduling his first fight in 2022. So, the time is now is now for Jon Jones, and judging by his body transformation adding considerable muscle mass, he’s just about ready for the challenge against tomorrow’s victor. 

If Gane beats Ngannou, the UFC could make a fight between perhaps the two most technically gifted heavyweight fighters ever, and what a fight it would be from that aspect of martial arts in its purest form. Gane vs Jones would be given a more realistic chance of being made too, due to an ongoing financial discrepancy between the UFC and Francis Ngannou. 

However, if it were possible to choose, the majority of fans, media and certainly from the UFC revenue perspective, Francis Ngannou vs Jon Jones for the UFC heavyweight championship of the world, is by far the bigger fight of the two. It also has the potential to be the biggest fight in the promotion’s history, alongside the likes of McGregor vs Nurmagomedov. The interest is heavily supported with many concerns however, with Jon Jones continuing to cause himself problems away from the octagon, after being arrested again and charged with a battery case only weeks ago. He’s also had for many years the same conversations Francis is having currently in regards to his contract and advocating for more pay. 

So, in order for this fight to be made, Francis must beat Cyril and Jon must be ready without outside circumstances taking centre ring. The base to this fight happening however is through what you don’t see, the UFC matchmakers, who’ll be under extreme pressure to somehow get this signed. And if they can’t, it won’t just be disappointment for the fans but the two men themselves, who’ll begin looking elsewhere to stage the fight with a plethora of alternative promotions ready to welcome the two champions, with open arms. 

A side-by-side profile of the current heavyweight and previous light heavyweight UFC champions, Francis Ngannou and Jon Jones (Via @SandhuMMA Twitter).

The Contract Situation, Boxing Tyson Fury and Signing with Jake Paul’s MVP

These two men are some of the greatest athletes the UFC has seen since beginning in 1993. Both have long campaigned since rising to the top, that they receive their worth. However, it’s Francis Ngannou who’s making it clear through numerous media outlets, that he will not compete again during his current UFC deal. We’ve seen fighters give ultimatums before with it going both ways (fighter or company), but none have had the fan appeal quite like Francis, which makes it priority for the UFC to do whatever necessary to resign him, thus keeping the mega fight alive between him and Jon. 

Considering the difference in fighter pay between the sports at the elite level, with boxing promotions traditionally paying their fighters considerably more than UFC. This is a pattern you’d think would continue should Francis Ngannou consider his options moving forward. The champ has been very open about his ambitions of moving over to boxing at some point telling TMZ Sports recently, “It (boxing) was always down the line”. Well, he’s reaching the finishing line now, and this Sunday will make it all clear whether he crosses the line or holds off for another race.

It doesn’t help the UFC and their pitch to retain Francis however, when WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury (AKA the “Gypsy King”), is publicly calling for a crossover boxing mega fight with Ngannou. Fury is 30-0-1 with his most recent win coming against former champion, Deontay Wilder, that concluded their epic heavyweight trilogy back in October. 

Tyson Fury with a message to Francis Ngannou through Instagram regarding a potential boxing mega fight (Via espnmma Twitter). 

There’s so much unknown right now in combat sports, and yet there’s always room for a little more, so in steps former YouTuber now professional boxer Jake Paul into the equation. Jake, younger brother to Logan who fought Floyd Mayweather in a boxing exhibition match, seems to have one eye on bringing Francis into boxing under his “Most Valuable Promotions” brand. With Francis showing clear intentions during his prime, of becoming a true prize fighter, it’s highly possible that Jake Paul could well be the man to grant him that wish in this new era of boxing. 

Pro boxer Jake Paul posing with his newest signing, multi-division title holder Amanda Serrano to Most Valuable Promotions (Via mmafighting.com).

The Bigger Picture

The life story of Francis Ngannou has truly been a sight to behold and one you could only imagine in a Hollywood movie. From digging sandpits in Baité to lifting heavyweight gold in Vegas, it’s been a story already worthy of Hall of Fame induction considering the obstacles faced. 

Tomorrow he faces perhaps his toughest opponent to date against Cyril Gane at UFC 270, and if victorious, the options going forward are very exciting. If it’s Jon Jones in 2022, Tyson Fury in a crossover mega fight or becoming the next superstar added to Jake Paul’s MVP promotion, Francis Ngannou will continue to capture the imagination of combat sports fans across the world and inspire his fellow countrymen back home.  

Francis has created an aura charged by his vicious power that’s made him one of the few fighters you can’t escape from hearing about. Jan 22, 2022 is a date marked on the calendar, where the world watches in anticipation to see the terrifying power that Ngannou possesses. However, not everything in life goes to plan and a loss to his former friend now enemy, Cyril Gane, erases these future plans and means that Francis will have to rebuild everything back up again. 

Whether it goes his way, Francis Ngannou has shown with his elite mentality; that if you believe and work hard enough, dreams can come true. Just look at him now, at 26 years old he was homeless and now almost a decade later he’s a millionaire living in Las Vegas, provider to his family and those struggling in Baité, and to top it all off, he’s the UFC heavyweight champion of the world. What Francis has accomplished in MMA has been incredible, but what he’s accomplished in life overall, for himself and those around him has been inspirational.  

No matter the outcome tomorrow, his story cannot be defeated.  

Francis Ngannou returns to Baité, Cameroon for a celebration parade with his people, after winning the UFC heavyweight championship in 2021 (Via 2nacheki YouTube)

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