Francis Ngannou, Cameroonian MMA heavyweight undisputed champion started training for mixed martial arts 5 years before debuting in the UFC at age 29. Raised in poverty with little access to education, he worked in the sand quarries from age 12 to support his family and to pay for the little schooling he could afford. Shameful of his poverty, he was withdrawn and had few friends throughout his childhood.
Rising from grinding poverty in Cameroon, staring death in the face during his travels in Africa to being homeless on the streets of Paris, he suffered it all before rebuilding his life and becoming the newly-crowned UFC heavyweight champion.
“I hated this place growing up…I hated the sand mine, everything, I hated my life…Sometimes you’d argue with a rat in the trash…It really hurts me to remember everything where I came from…,” Ngannou said in a recent interview for the podcast ‘Joe Rogan Experience’.
It was then, at the age of 17, that he decided to focus on what was within his power and change for the better. He decided to become a fighter and moved to Morocco in pursuit of his dream. However, there were several hiccups before he could finally reach his goal.
During his journey from Cameroon to Morocco, Ngannou crossed borders illegally, lived in a bush and scrounged the trash to find food.
His progress was halted several times in the Sahara Desert where he had to drink water from animal-infested wells.
When he finally did reach the promised land of Europe, there was yet another roadblock — he was jailed for illegally crossing the Morocco-Spain border by sea like many other Africans looking for better opportunities abroad. After his release two months later, Ngannou fled to France.
“I was homeless then, but at that moment, it wasn’t difficult for me anymore. You might think being homeless in Paris in the fall when it’s cold was not great, but the enthusiasm that I had at that time… Beyond everything, I was happy to be in the land of opportunity,” he said. This part of his life is what he remembers as the happiest because he was ever so close to his dream
“Even though I was sleeping in parking lots and I didn’t have food or money, I was just free. Compared to where I was in Morocco, a parking lot was like a five-star hotel,” he recalled.
To make ends meet, Ngannou worked at a homeless shelter ‘Lo Chorba’ where his job was to chop vegetables. It was here that his life finally took a turn for the better when the director of the La Chorba foundation introduced him to Didier Carmont, who ran a boxing training center in Paris.
Carmont introduced him to the MMA Factory in Paris and it was here that Ngannou, who idolizes Mike Tyson, started learning boxing for the first time in his life. “Until I went to France, in 2013, that was the first time I walked to the gym,” Ngannou said, casting his mind back to his early years.
Recollecting his coach’s words, the 35-year-old said, “They said if you need the fastest (road to fame and fortune), you have to do MMA. Then I’m like, what’s MMA? What’s mixed martial arts? I didn’t know UFC at the time, I didn’t know what UFC was.”
In November 2013, roughly three months after beginning his MMA training, Ngannou made his debut and registered a first-round win via submission. He received an amount of two thousand Euros, something which he treasures to date.
“Two thousand Euros! Wow, that was my first money in Europe. I call Africa, I’m like ‘Hey mom, you have to celebrate this, because it’s March 8th, you can have a special international women’s day. Your son is out here and (can) take (you) out to dinner,” he said.
Since then, he has gone on to win several fights and has climbed up the ranks of MMA, become world champion
Of his youth, he says he missed a lot of his childhood due to having to work throughout his primary and senior schooling years, but credits the hard work and unstoppable drive to succeed to the building of his character.
During those early days, what he earned from the mines went on the table for the family and also paid for notebooks and stationery in school. He had to do twice the work just to be on equal ground with his peers — this indispensable building of character from having to work early is often a trait found in many highly effective people. He had to wake up at 5am — often skipping breakfast — and walk 6 miles to school, a good 2 hours going and 2 hours back.
While the other kids were enjoying the weekends and holidays, he was in the quarry, working. Strength of character was the result of this, and would see him become the man he became.
He recalls how, during the 3 month rainy seasons in the summers, the older miners would work less, leaving room for him and the other youngsters to earn a little money — who would have otherwise been pushed to the less productive parts of the mines. During these rainy seasons, in order for the youngsters to keep warm, they had to work even harder than on sunny days, which was always to the delight of his employer.
Drudgery and labor would become his indispensable tool in adulthood.
Even though he is the undisputed heavyweight champ in the UFC, he goes back there whenever he is in his hometown and spares a little time to do a little mining — a life he hated while growing up, but has realized that it is a history that is so entrenched in his past that it has now become who he is. He does it just to remind himself of where he came from, and also to show the youngsters now doing what he used to do that it is possible to get out of the quagmire.
“I always do it,” he says, “I always go back to the sand mine, it is like a tradition.” It gives him satisfaction, going back there, it fuels his fire, knowing that this is the price he had to pay for freedom.
It was a dream he never thought he would realize; success. Owning a big house, a car, flying in an airplane, these were things out of his minds’ reach, so he savored it whenever he was there, waking up at the usual 5AM and appreciating the smells, the sounds, the familiarity and nostalgia of it all.
In observing some people he used to know, the ones who had dreams seem to have made progress in life. Although not major success, those who dreamt of better things show it in their lives, year on year they make improvements. “You can see the change in their lives, improvements step by step,” he says. “This year they’re going to say ‘i want to do this and that’ next year there’s progress and growth, even if they didn’t achieve what they hoped for, they get closer, there is improvement as the years go by,” But those who don’t have a dream, he says in surrender, stay the same.
When Joe Rogan asked him if his story is an inspiration to them, he says, Oh Yes, a friend of his in the village who has several businesses and is doing well for himself says that his story is an inspiration to the village boys, “If Francis did it,” they say, “we can do it also”.
Nganou tells the boys and younger men who know him, “I grew up in the same village as you with the same challenges, as long as you believe in something, in a dream, in a hope, and believe in yourself, it is possible. Success is just a matter of time.”
Ngannou has now gone on to create the Francis Ngannou Foundation — a charity that offers people in his village the chance to achieve their dreams in the same way he has. He has built the first official gym in his hometown, Batie and hopes to open many more across Africa.
“A lot of children now in Cameroon, because of me, they have a dream. They say, ‘I will be a champion in MMA. I will do boxing like Francis,’ because they saw me when I was young. I didn’t have anything. I didn’t have any opportunity. And today, they see me and they are dreaming. They are thinking that something is possible. Even when they are so poor, something is possible in life… It’s not easy. It’s so hard, but it’s possible.”
Read more in my new book! The Trials And Triumphs of Hyperachievers