Francis Ngannou Could Realize Rags-to-Riches Dream with Title Win at UFC 220

Chad Dundas@@chaddundasMMA Lead WriterJanuary 17, 2018

DETROIT, MI - DECEMBER 2:  Francis Ngannou celebrates  after his bout against Alistair Overeem during the UFC 218 event at Little Caesars Arena on December 2, 2017 in Detroit, Michigan. (Photo by Rey Del Rio/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Rey Del Rio/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Francis Ngannou believes it's a matter of destiny.

He will be the UFC's heavyweight champion.

The 6'4", 263-pound knockout artist from Cameroon believes it with the placid, unshakable certainty of a man who has already survived the worst things in life.

From the abject poverty of his youth to living homeless on the streets of Paris in his late 20s, Ngannou has pursued the dream of combat sports stardom fueled largely on his steadfast self-belief.

Saturday at UFC 220 in Boston, he'll get his chance to prove himself right.

Champion Stipe Miocic, the hard-hitting Ohio native who also has a lot to fight for, will be standing in Ngannou's way. Since winning the belt in May 2016, Miocic has brought a modicum of stability to the perennially problematic UFC heavyweight division.

History, however, is not on the American's side. In the life of the UFC's 265-pound title, no one has successfully defended it more than twice consecutively. A win here not only makes Miocic's bones as a dominant champion, but it also immediately forges him as an all-time great. 

On paper, the tandem of Miocic and Ngannou make up one of the most enticing heavyweight title matchups in UFC history. Depending on how it goes at TD Garden, their scrap may well take its place on the short list of memorable championship fights in the UFC's most beleaguered weight class.

Don't tell that to Ngannou, though. He's expecting a wipeout victory rather than a war and has been dismissive of Miocic's chances.

"He's the champion because the real champ wasn't there," Ngannou said recently, per MMAjunkie's John Morgan and Ken Hathaway. "Now the real champ is on the way, and [Miocic] is not going to be the champion [for] long."

Some observers share that sentiment. Miocic is the slight underdog, according to OddsShark, and Ngannou's stupefying Dec. 2 KO of Alistair Overeem at UFC 218 is still so fresh that his rise to the crown has started to seem inevitable.

To Ngannou, it has always felt that way.

Growing up in the tiny village of Batie, Cameroon, he always harbored big aspirations. He idolized Mike Tyson and dreamed of becoming the same sort of polarizing champion—one who would conquer the world with a career full of highlight-reel knockouts.

The reality of Ngannou's childhood was starkly different than those dreams, however. His parents divorced when he was young, and by 12 he was working in Cameroon's dangerous, physically grueling sand mines.

In his early 20s, he fled Batie for Cameroon's largest city, Douala, and began his formal boxing training. Soon, however, Ngannou realized he'd reached the ceiling of what was available to him in Cameroon. At 26, he left his home country for France without any contacts, real prospects or any plan beyond one day becoming world champion.

He lived on the streets for a few months—sleeping in parks and taking his meals from homeless shelters—before hooking up with renowned MMA trainer Fernand Lopez and beginning his journey as a professional mixed martial artist.

Ngannou could be on the verge of MMA stardom.
Ngannou could be on the verge of MMA stardom.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Fast-forward five years and 12 fights and Ngannou has become nearly everything he dreamed about. He's taken the UFC heavyweight division by storm, racking up a 6-0 record that includes three first-round knockouts.

His lithe athleticism sets him apart from his more plodding peers, and his power punching is perhaps the most dangerous the Octagon has ever seen.

Talk to his coaches or professional MMA analysts and they'll tell you Ngannou's fight IQ and ability to learn on the fly make him special. So far, the work in progress has blazed through the UFC's heavyweight ranks.

If Ngannou continues to evolve as a fighter, there is simply no telling how high he might climb. There's still one thing left for him to do to complete his childhood fantasies, however: win that title.

Ngannou's starching of Overeem was one of 2017's top knockouts.
Ngannou's starching of Overeem was one of 2017's top knockouts.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Ngannou's early idolization of Tyson was perhaps prophetic. Conventional wisdom says the UFC's brass would like to install him as heavyweight champion and promote him as MMA's answer to Iron Mike's star power.

Miocic believes this is true. The current titlist told Ariel Helwani during an appearance on The MMA Hour earlier this month that he feels like the UFC would be happier if Ngannou takes his place and ensconces himself as the heavyweight division's new king.

"Obviously, for sure [the UFC wants that]," Miocic said. "Listen, I feel a little bit disrespected, but I'm not going to dwell on it."

Despite the red-hot hype around Ngannou, the pair makes for an unpredictable matchup.

Miocic comes in with more high-level experience and perhaps the better rounded skill set. If he can use his wrestling and push the fight into the later rounds, it's possible he'll be able to exploit some as-yet-unseen weaknesses in Ngannou's game.

Miocic will try to halt Ngannou's rise.
Miocic will try to halt Ngannou's rise.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

On the other hand, we have no idea just how good Ngannou is. He'll be the bigger, more dangerous athlete, and it's just as likely he ices the 6'4", 246-pound Miocic with one of his trademark power shots and adds the champion to his list of victims.

No matter the outcome, Ngannou has already succeeded in grabbing the MMA world's attention. His inspiring story and jaw-dropping knockouts have made him a unique figure in the sport's landscape.

At 31 years old—relatively young for a UFC heavyweight—Ngannou's first chance at the title may not make or break him, either. No matter how it goes, it's likely he'll get more than one opportunity to win gold before his career is over.

But that's another thing you probably wouldn't want to say to Ngannou this week.

He's certain his time is now and that his rags-to-riches dream is about to become reality.


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