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Real-life Rocky? Francis Ngannou’s story is beyond anything Hollywood could dream up

He worked in a sand quarry at the age of 10, lived homeless on the streets of Paris, then won UFC gold and is now boxing the heavyweights of his generation. Ngannou’s life and career are destined to be displayed on the big screen, writes Alex Pattle

Tuesday 05 March 2024 09:27 GMT
Ngannou during his devastating run-up to winning the UFC heavyweight title
Ngannou during his devastating run-up to winning the UFC heavyweight title (Getty)

When Francis Ngannou’s heartbreaking, tear-jerking, awe-inspiring, miraculous life is imagined as a motion picture – and it will be – Hollywood’s chosen scribes will trade sheepish glances in the writers’ room. Forget any fantasy film they have worked on, any cheesy sporting drama, any puffed-up biopic; they will ask themselves how to tone down Ngannou’s story, how to make it more believable, how to avoid raised eyebrows, rolling pupils and dismissive scoffs in cinemas.

That is because even the most creative, unhinged or audacious scriptwriter would not dare to conjure a narrative with the kind of backstory, plot twists and three-act structure that define Ngannou’s career.

The Cameroonian’s first act would take place in his country of birth, where at just 10 years old he was leaking streaks of sweat and drops of blood in a sand quarry in Batie. This start in life combined physical labour with a need to provide, a situation not fit for any child. That is to say nothing of the more relatable life-shaping events affecting a young Ngannou: his parents’ divorce when the future fighter was just six, a struggle to gain a formal education.

Yet even with that lack of education, Ngannou exhibited a precocious wisdom – one that explains so much of his impossible success. Approached by numerous gangs in Batie, Ngannou remained resolute, turning away their advances and already recognising the error in his father’s street-fighting ways. Perhaps hand-to-hand combat was in Ngannou’s blood, but he would not waste any innate pugilism on the impoverished streets of a village in Africa – sold-out arenas were to come, whether he knew it yet or not.

It was not until the age of 22 that Ngannou began boxing, only for the start of that venture to be halted by illness. Upon recovering, Ngannou set about realising his dream of a better life, setting his sights on Paris at 26. Repeatedly, Ngannou’s efforts to complete the journey were thwarted. From some unimaginable reserve of resilience, Ngannou found the will to persevere. And when Ngannou finally did arrive in Europe, he was met with more adversity.

“We were freed by Spanish homeland security after spending two months in jail for illegally entering Europe by sea,” Ngannou tweeted in 2020. “This, after attempting for one year from Morocco.”

That scene could be the crowd-pleasing denouement of any Hollywood blockbuster, but for Ngannou, it was simply the end of act one.


And so, onto act two. Upon his release from prison, Ngannou was homeless, penniless and alone. Boxing coach Didier Carmont offered him refuge, however, and introduced him to mixed martial arts. As life improved for Ngannou, he achieved an amateur record of 5-1 before signing with the UFC – at which point he began to learn English. In his first two fights, the man now known as “The Predator” earned second-round KOs, the first signs for a wide MMA audience of the frightening power he holds in his fists.

Ngannou in January, at a press conference in London (Mark Robinson Matchroom Boxing)

Four straight first-round stoppage wins followed, three coming by way of KO, and earned Ngannou a place in the Octagon opposite Stipe Miocic – the consensus greatest heavyweight in UFC history. That title bout, in January 2018, exposed Ngannou’s reliance on power, as he was comprehensively outwrestled by Miocic in a confidence-shattering defeat. That diminished self-belief was evident in Ngannou’s next outing, a wretched contest with Derrick Lewis that ended in another decision loss for Ngannou.

Perhaps that was an inflection point in the Cameroonian’s career. He once more put together a run of four consecutive first-round stoppages, with all of them coming via KO. Former champions were among his latest victims, as were would-be title challengers. Ngannou’s reward was a rematch with Miocic in 2021, but the peculiar downside of his rapid eviscerations of opponents was a lack of evidence that his wrestling had improved.

It had.

Ngannou thwarted Miocic’s takedown attempts and sent the American lolloping sickeningly to the canvas in the second round. It was a brutal image of a formidable – and now former – champion, the kind of destructive picture that Ngannou’s hulking hands had painted time and again throughout his UFC run. Ngannou, having realised a dream, simply walked away from his broken rival, a picture of calmness. Again, the film could end here, but Ngannou’s third act was still to play out.


His improved wrestling was on display again in his next fight, in January 2022, but this time in an offensive capacity. Defending his belt against former teammate Ciryl Gane, Ngannou subverted expectations to control the Frenchman for the best part of five rounds, before leaving Anaheim with his heavyweight title. He would leave the gold behind, however, when he left the UFC 12 months later.

Ngannou knocking out Stipe Miocic to win the UFC heavyweight title in 2020 (Getty)

“The UFC came around and it was an incredible opportunity and a great platform,” Ngannou told The Independent and other reporters in January. “I never gave up on my boxing dream, never in my life. I had an unfulfilled dream. I left the UFC at the top of my game, I was in the best moment in my career.”

UFC president Dana White, once Ngannou’s greatest advocate, became his most vocal critic. The American hit out at Ngannou for turning down a deal that would have made him the highest-paid heavyweight in UFC history. Ngannou said in January: “Even the UFC, in order to keep me, was willing to really pay me. It’s not about money; they were going to pay me the money that I asked, [but] something was still missing. There was a piece of the puzzle missing, that’s why I walked away.”

Ngannou after retaining his UFC title against Ciryl Gane in 2022 (Getty)

White alleged that the Cameroonian’s bid to box would end in financial and physical failure. It has not.

In perhaps one of the most miraculous developments in sport, Ngannou secured his boxing debut against Tyson Fury, the reigning, unbeaten WBC heavyweight champion. In doing so, Ngannou sealed a payday to eclipse all of his UFC outings combined. The bout, in October, produced one of the most stupefying moments in sporting history, as Ngannou – a boxing novice, by all metrics – floored the standout heavyweight of this generation, before standing over the Briton, laughing and dancing.

Ngannou, many argued, was robbed on the scorecards – a split-decision loser in Riyadh. Yet to use the word “lose” is misleading; Ngannou’s knockdown of Fury was a victory on its own, as was the moment he signed a contract to box the “Gypsy King”. Standing in a Riyadh ring with a bruised and startled Fury would not be a bad way to end Ngannou’s film.

But Ngannou’s story may yet have a five-act structure, with the fourth act beginning in Riyadh this weekend, as Ngannou returns to the boxing ring. This time, the Cameroonian will stand opposite former unified champion Anthony Joshua, against whom many fans feel Ngannou has a greater chance of victory than he did against Fury.

Ngannou mocks Tyson Fury after knocking down the boxer in Riyadh (Getty)
The fighter faces off with Anthony Joshua ahead of their March bout in Riyadh (Getty)

When asked why he was not angry about the derided scoring of the Fury fight, Ngannou had this to say to The Independent and other reporters: “I come from Africa. I come from a continent with 1.3bn people. Sixty per cent of them are just youths – I think under 20 years old – and not many of them have the opportunity to accomplish their dream. I was living the dream. From where I started, from where I was born, to get there that night and accomplish that dream I’ve been carrying for 25 years... Do you think I would let some f***ing judges take that pleasure away from me? No.

“I was happy with standing up to my dream after all those years, all the obstacles I had, all the horrors on the way. The fight itself was just... how can I say... it was a bonus, it was a win for me. I was there fighting in front of my family. They were there ringside – before [even] the VIPs, it was them. My mum was there, my brothers, my sisters, they were there watching, they were on top of the world. Why wouldn’t I be happy?”

One day, Ngannou’s family will be watching a film about his life. They will walk the red carpet before even the VIPs. So, why wouldn’t he be happy? Roll the film.

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