With little more than a dream, and an unrealistic one at that, Francis Ngannou packed up his belongings and made the 3,100-mile journey from Cameroon to France.
To do what, he did not know for sure. In Cameroon, as a young boy, he had become a fan of former heavyweight boxing champion Mike Tyson. He saw Tyson’s enormous punching power and fearsome countenance, and that appealed to him.
As he became an adult, he was frustrated with the direction of his life. He saw no opportunity. There was little chance of him achieving greatness in Cameroon, he came to believe.
He wanted a better life, a way to take care of his family, the opportunity to fulfill a belief he had deep inside that he was destined for greatness.
He arrived in France with the vague notion that he’d become a heavyweight boxer. He traveled alone, and arrived in Paris with no friends, no money and no place to live. Somehow, he figured he’d find a way to follow in Tyson’s footsteps.
“He was the youngest guy to be the champion, 18 or 19 or something like that, and I knew I couldn’t do what he did,” Ngannou said of Tyson. “But I still believed that I could do something great.”
He planned at least to take a shot at the life he dreamed about, and if it didn’t work out, he’d move on.
He knew, though, he needed persistence and perseverance.
“It won’t happen if you don’t try,” he said. “I said to myself to give some time to my dream. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m going to try.”
He was homeless, sleeping on Paris’ streets. This came as no surprise to him, because he had nothing with him.
But he was so desperate to learn to box that he was even willing to endure the elements and sleep on the streets of a foreign land.
He didn’t see it as humiliating, though; it was, in essence, a means to an end.
“I never had opportunity in my life,” he said. “When I was young, I didn’t go to school too much because my parents didn’t have money. My family didn’t have money. So when I came to France, I did it because I wanted to do something great.”
He walked into a gym hoping to learn to box, but he’d inadvertently stumbled upon an MMA gym. The coach, Fernand Lopez, agreed to teach him to box even though Ngannou had no money to pay him.
Lopez was quickly impressed – Ngannou is a large, powerful athletic man – but he made a suggestion: Try MMA instead.
“I did not know what is the MMA,” he said. “I never know about this before.”
But he agreed to work and made it to the UFC in just three years. He’s 4-0 in the UFC and faces former UFC heavyweight champion in a bout Saturday in Denver that will be televised on Fox.
Ngannou is ranked No. 10, and a win over the No. 7 Arlovski would move him up the ratings and turn him into a legitimate contender. A title win would make him the kind of money he couldn’t even dream about in his days in Cameroon.
And he said he wants to share his good fortune, if and when it comes.
“When I started, I had nothing,” he said. “Nothing. I needed everything. But when you start [to earn money], you starting collecting things: I want this, I want this, I want that. The purpose is not collecting things, though. The purpose is to do something great. Finish the dream you started.
“I want to help my family, first, of course, but then I want to give opportunity to children in my country like me who have a dream to become a doctor or something. If I reach my dream, it will give me the opportunity to help those in my country who have their own dreams and nothing else to fulfill them.”