The Profile Dossier: UFC Champion Francis Ngannou, The Baddest Man on the Planet
"Never underestimate somebody who has hope.”
Francis Ngannou is the heavyweight champion of the world. In mixed martial arts circles, he’s known as “the baddest man on the planet,” and that’s for good reason.
The power of his punch is unmatched. Ngannou holds the record for the hardest punch in the world after registering 129,161 units of power on a bag that measures the power of a punch.
“His punches are equivalent to 96 horsepower. That’s equal to getting hit by a Ford Escort going as fast as it can,” said UFC president Dana White. “It’s more powerful than a 12-pound sledgehammer from full force overhead. Holy s**t.”
At 6-foot-4 inches and 257 pounds, Ngannou has a long history of developing strength — both physical and emotional.
As a child growing up in Cameroon, 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. “I got to the point where I had enough of being embarrassed in front of other kids, so I made a promise I would change the way other kids look at me.”
At age 9, Ngannou got a job digging sand mines for $1.90 per day. The work kept his body busy, but he kept his mind even busier by daydreaming of making it to America and becoming a world-famous boxer. This may sound like childhood fantasy, but Ngannou felt the reality of it in his bones.
He was so obsessed with this dream of moving to the United States that he gave himself a nickname — “American Boy.”
When he was 22, Ngannou was ready to execute on the plan that had percolated in his head for over a decade. “I left the village to go to the city and find a gym,” he says. “I wanted to be a world champion.”
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. “The biggest deal was to get from Morocco to Spain because Spain is in Europe,” he says. “That was the hardest part.”
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.
He got through this chaotic journey with a laser-focused mindset, asking himself time and time again: “What do I have to lose?” Ngannou ardently believed that this temporary pain was necessary in order for him to change the trajectory of his life.
In 2013, 26-year-old Ngannou made it to Spain, and spent time at an immigration detention center, but he didn’t care — asylum was all but guaranteed. In his search for a boxing gym, he ended up in Paris where he slept in the stairwell of a covered parking lot. "The parking lot was so nice," he said. "I didn't even feel homeless.”
When he entered the gym, Ngannou caught the eye of coach Didier Carmont, who suggested Ngannou try mixed martial arts as a way to make a living before trying his hand at professional boxing.
Ngannou wasn’t interested because 1) he had never heard of MMA before; and 2) his passion was boxing, which he called “a noble art.”
As fate would have it, the boxing gym shut down two months later, so Ngannou joined a different gym called the MMA Factory to stay in shape.
The rest is history. In 2015, 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 nine years ago.
As one reporter put it: “It was a personal voyage through hell to arrive at being an overnight sensation.”
On the power of hope: This profile details Ngannou’s miraculous 14-month journey to reach asylum and get one step closer to his dream of becoming a boxer in the United States. Whenever he doubted himself and thought about heading back to his village, he repeated the words that kept him going. "Never underestimate somebody who has hope.” This is a powerful one.
On becoming a champion: Ngannou journeyed from Cameroon to France to the United States to with the hope of becoming a mixed martial arts star. And after experiencing bouts of homelessness, Ngannou ultimately ascended to the height of a sport he is still learning. Yet his future in the U.F.C. is unclear.
On being the unicorn of the UFC: What’s the best way to describe Francis Ngannou? A heavyweight unicorn who is part Mike Tyson, part Ivan Drago, part wild imagination. This profile paints the picture of a man who has already thoroughly envisioned his victory, right down to the last reflections.
On chasing freedom: Ngannou values personal freedom, and his actions prove it. He’s always believed that you’re either fighting for money or freedom, and you’ve got to give up one for the other. Ngannou doesn’t believe that the UFC contracts are fair, and he’s been vocal about it. He once said, “They may think I have no options, but I am a free man.” Here’s why he is exploring new avenues of payment, including Bitcoin.
On the power of being stubborn: As a child, Ngannou’s vision for his life was always at odds with the vision of his family and the elders in his village. This got him labeled as “a bad kid” when in reality, he was just an ambitious kid. “At every moment in my life, I knew exactly what I wanted,” he says. Here’s how he developed an unshakeable self-confidence.
On his relationship with the UFC: In this interview, Ngannou discusses his bruised relationship with the UFC, whether he plans to return, and whether there will be a potential boxing fight with Tyson Fury.
Learn who you don’t want to be: Knowing who you don’t want to become is just as powerful as knowing who you do want to become. Ngannou’s father had a bad reputation as a violent street fighter and abusive husband to his mother. "My whole life, my father was the example for me of what not to do," he says. "I think that was the best thing that ever happened to me because if my dad wasn't what he was, I could have been what he was.” Learn from the mistakes of those you love and vow to do things differently.
Live like your ideal self: Ngnannou knew he wanted to be a professional athlete, so he began behaving like a professional athlete. “In Cameroon, people drink a lot of beer. A lot,” he says. “But because I had a dream of becoming a boxer, I wanted to get myself ready to get disciplined even though I had never seen a gym in my life.” He never drank or smoked because he was embodying his ideal self — a professional athlete. As James Clear says, “I think true behavior change is really identity change.” Believe, and you will start to become.
A/B test your life: Even though some may look at Ngannou as having had six failed attempts at reaching Spain, that’s not how he saw it. Every time that he was apprehended, he used the opportunity to learn and iterate. One time, one of the guards told him that they are alerted the second the raft hits the water because they have radars, so Ngannou began wrapping the raft in silver foil so that radars couldn’t detect it. The reason he didn’t give up hope after so many failed attempts is because he knew he had the ability to figure it out. If you see your life as a series of puzzles, you can test and iterate on your approach until you solve the puzzle.
Go on a nostalgia tour: Every year or so, Ngannou returns to Cameroon and visits the sand dunes where he used to work and sleeps in the house where he grew up. Why? Because it reminds him of where he came from and how dramatically his life has changed in just two decades. When he goes to the sand dunes, he thinks back to when he was shoveling while dreaming about boarding a plane to America. “Now,” he says, “I’m getting on a plane next week to go back to America.” He credits his vivid imagination and unwavering self-belief for getting him closer to his goal. “As long as you have a dream and believe in yourself, then success is only a matter of time,” he says.
QUOTES TO REMEMBER.
"Never underestimate somebody who has hope.”
“Everywhere that the sun sets is your home at that moment.”
“The fight of the night doesn’t concern me. I’m concerned with performance of the night.”
“When you're used to having nothing, the first time you have something, you get really focused. You know if you lose it, it may not be easy to get it back.”
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