UFC Champion Francis Ngannou on What It Really Means to Bet on Yourself
"I'm not scared of failing because I know that if I fail, I can start over and over and over and over."
When UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou signs his name, he’s often met with a look of confusion. The “SF” people see in his autograph doesn’t match his initials.
“People never understand,” he says in an interview with The Profile. “’There is not an ‘S’ in your name,’ and I’m like, ‘Believe me, there is an ‘S’ in my name — it’s just not the one that you know.’”
That’s because Ngannou has a different name — one that he had long before he was an MMA champion. It’s a nickname he earned as a 9-year-old boy in Cameroon obsessed with the idea of the United States.
“One thing that I knew was that there was a city in the United States called San Francisco, and because my name is Francis, somebody called me ‘San Francisco,’” he says. “I loved that name so much.”
The obsession with the United States stemmed from a love for action movies starring Hollywood sensations Jean-Claude Van Damme and Sylvester Stallone. He would daydream about making it to America and becoming a world-famous boxer.
But this was the stuff of dreams. Ngannou’s day-to-day reality was far from the life he envisioned. Ngannou endured a level of poverty few people can even imagine. After his parents divorced, he moved to his grandmother’s one-room brick house with his mom and four siblings.
His family couldn’t afford to buy him pen and paper for school, and he often went hungry because he’d have to skip lunch. At age 9, Ngannou took a job digging sand mines for $1.90 per day.
When he was old enough to leave the village in which he grew up, Ngannou was ready to execute on the plan that had percolated in his head for over a decade: become a professional boxer. Even though he was a dreamer, Ngannou says he was realistic about the fact that he couldn’t become a world champion by training in Cameroon. So at age 25, he sold all of his belongings and set off for Morocco, the first leg of a winding and treacherous journey to America.
Ngannou traveled a whopping 3,000 miles across the Sahara Desert—from Cameroon to Nigeria, from Nigeria to Niger, from Niger to Algeria, from Algeria to Morocco.
It took him 14 months to make it from Morocco to Spain, an endeavor Ngannou describes as “a hell of a journey.” That’s because he attempted to float on a raft full of people to a Spanish island off the coast of Morocco where he could call the Red Cross and seek asylum. But authorities had pulled him out of the water six separate times, and either dropped him back in the middle of the Moroccan desert or temporarily locked him in a Moroccan jail.
In the interview that follows, you will hear the mind-blowing story of how Ngannou signed with the UFC, moved to the United States, and became the world heavyweight champion in a sport he didn’t even know existed just several years prior.
This Q&A has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
(Below is an excerpt of the interview, but I encourage you to listen and watch to the full interview below.)
Tell me about the journey you embarked upon when you decided to leave your village and find a gym.
NGANNOU: I was driving this taxi-motorcycle, and then I sold the motorcycle to leave the village and go to the city to find work. People thought I had lost my mind. They thought, “Okay, so this is your job. This is how you put food on the table, and you’d sacrifice that for boxing? Like what the hell is boxing? Have you ever seen somebody that has succeeded in boxing in this country? It is not meant for us.”
And I mean, to be honest, it's not like they were wrong. That was just the reality out there. But I was stubborn enough, and I had this dream inside me like so deep. Still today, I ask myself why I could believe in that dream. I can’t tell you but what I know for a fact is that I believed in it so bad that nothing could have put it out of me.
I didn't know that I'm going to make it. I had no clue. I mean, the reality was that nobody had made it — even those who had more chances.
I wasn't in the position of someone that had a chance. But I just loved the game. It’s not about the destination. It’s even more about the process.
It wasn't easy. I needed to make a living and keep training. In the new city where I knew nothing, I had to figure it out. So it took me about a year, but I got sick, and I stopped training because I had to cure myself.
When I came back [to the village], I realized that nothing good would happen if I stay here, you know? But I wasn’t going to give up. I still had a shot, which was to leave the country and go somewhere. But where? I didn’t know.
I was 26 at that time, and I couldn’t afford to apply for a visa in any consulate, so I took the route to move country after country — from Cameroon to Nigeria, from Nigeria to Niger, then Algeria, then Morocco.
Morocco was the roof of the challenge. If something has ever been challenging in my life, it was that step.
Can you describe some of the things that happened to you while trying to go from Morocco to Spain?
First of all, most of the time, we had to just stay in the forest. We would sleep on the ground, hunt animals, and we had no clothes. In the summer, it was OK, but in the winter …
We had to stay there, and we would wake during the night so we could go through the trash in the market and find whatever they threw away — whether it’s a chicken leg or a rotten tomato — and then we’d go back to the forest and cook in these aluminum steel buckets.
I then kept organizing and trying to go to the [border] fence. Sometimes, we would fail, but we just wanted to make sure that we didn’t get caught.
Because what happened in the video that I shared? (Ngannou shared a graphic video about 23 migrants killed attempting to cross the Moroccan border earlier this year. You can see his tweets here.). Yes, that will happen to you for sure [if you get caught]. And when you're a big guy like me, they consider you the leader and your punishment is multiplied.
I also tried [to cross through] the ocean multiple times in a different location from Tangier. I tried, failed, got rejected to the dessert, came back, and did it over and over again. One year, I failed in the ocean six times, but I succeeded the seventh time.
You were pulled out of the water 6 separate times on your way from Morocco to Spain, and it took you 14 months to get to Europe. During one of those 6 times, most people would think, “You know, I don't think this will ever work. I'm just gonna go back.”
I can tell you, first of all, I knew that something is abroad for me. Something is on the other side. I don't know what, but I knew that something was there for me. I always knew that I had a bright future. But it was even hard for me to explain it to people because that seemed a little pretentious.
People would say, “Oh, you're just another dreamer.” But I knew that I only had that obstacle to go through. And also when you get to a point in your life where the only choice that you have is no choice, then you do whatever you have to do.
You know, there wasn’t a chance for me to come back. There wasn't a chance for me to return. Like, I wasn't going to quit, because returning was quitting.
And the thing is that as soon as you leave your country, you become the hope of your family, even though you haven't made it yet. Coming back would be to tear up their dream. Coming back would be to condemn my kids to go through whatever I had been through.
You told me that you applied to the green card lottery a few times, but you weren't going to leave your future in the hands of a lottery. Do you believe in luck?
Yes and no. It’s a very tricky question.
I tried to apply three times to the American green card lottery, and it didn't work. I didn't go to school. I didn't have a high school degree. I didn't have a college degree. So I knew that I didn't have a good profile.
There were a million people [applying to] it, so you have to be very lucky. I don't know if it's lucky or not lucky.
Sometimes, what you think is luck might not be luck. If I had won the American green card lottery, I don't think I’d end up where I am today. Maybe it would change my path. Maybe I would just get there with my green card and have a common job, you know, be a security guard or whatever.
And for a guy coming from here, it’s like you made it. But that wasn’t my dream. So not winning the American lottery got me to go through this obstacle, which is what forged the person that I am today.
I remember when I made it to Europe, I went to France, and I was homeless living in the parking lot in Paris. People would pity me, like, ‘Oh sorry, it’s this, it’s that. It must be hard.’ I was like, ‘You don’t have to worry about me.’
Because I had been through so much. In the last 14 months, I had been through hell, so for me, [the parking lot] was like a five-star hotel. It was a palace. People didn’t have any idea. I’m like, ‘Don’t you worry about me. I’m doing fantastic.’
I don't deserve anything, but I can earn something. And my earning? Nobody is going to take that from me. My strength, my ability to stand up every time that I've fought is something that I have for myself. Nobody can take that for me. You know, I earned it.
I'm not scared of failing because I know that if I fail, I can start over and over and over and over. I have that skill. You can take everything from me, but you cannot take that.
When we reach a certain level of success, whatever that may be, many of us start to tie our identities around the jobs or the titles that we have. But you haven't done that. You've consistently bet on yourself time and time again. Where did you get the self-confidence to do that, and how can we all learn to do that?
First of all, I haven't had the title that I want. I mean, if you mean title like ‘heavyweight world champion,’ guess what? I’m not the first. There were a lot before me, and there will still be a ton after me. I’m not minimizing it, but I’m just saying I can trim down the competition. I can do something better again, something that fewer people have done.
Regardless of what happens in my life, I'm fortunate enough to be here. So I can’t complain about anything.
I think I just have the DNA of betting on myself. If you look at the story of my life, it’s [about] betting on myself. You know that quote that says, ‘Sometimes, to jump farther, you have to step back?’
I know that you have to start over sometimes, which is very hard for people. Even very talented people — they don't have the audacity; they don't have that courage to start over. And I think that makes a big difference between people.
People are afraid of starting over. They are afraid of losing something that they already have.
Will you ever start over and pursue your original passion, which was professional boxing?
For me, that is not a start-over. That is just a continuation. It's not a start-over. It's not like I'm going there to start with no name and hope to get promoted to have my own name. It’s not a start-over.
So what do you consider a start-over?
Maybe start another job. Maybe after retirement, I’ll go back to school, and get a degree to manage some business, which I'm passionate about. By the way, I'm thinking about it because I think by 40, I'll be retired.
I’ll take time to start a new passion. And if I need to study for a couple years again for that, I'll give myself that time to start a new career in a different activity. I’m excited about it because I know that I can make it.
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