Francis Ngannou has been through a lot—far more than the average person endures in a lifetime. The Cameroonian hopes that his many sacrifices will pay off in the main event of UFC 260 on Saturday, when he challenges heavyweight champion Stipe Miocic, a man widely viewed as the greatest fighter in the division's history.
UFC 260 will mark the second time Ngannou has challenged Miocic. The pair first met at UFC 220 in January of 2018 in the seventh fight of Ngannou's UFC career. Despite entering the cage as the betting favorite that night, he was taken down and battered by the champion en route to a unanimous-decision loss.
"There was a lot of things that didn't go right," Ngannou told Bleacher Report. "I didn't know how to get prepared for that kind of fight.
"Nothing was done as it should have been, from signing [the bout agreement] to the fight," he added. "Sometimes you just have to say it wasn't meant to be."
Some fighters never recover from the kind of high-profile loss he experienced in that first fight with Miocic. Ngannou, however, ultimately rebounded with four straight knockout wins over Curtis Blaydes, Cain Velasquez, Junior dos Santos and Jairzinho Rozenstruik—all world-class foes, all in less than three minutes combined.
Considering the many other struggles he'd already endured, it's really not surprising how easily he regained his footing.
Ngannou was born and raised in Batie, a town in rural Cameroon with an estimated population of just over 10,000 people. When he was old enough, he migrated north to Morocco—more than 2,000 miles away as the crow flies. His ultimate goal was making it all the way to France to become a boxer, though he had never set foot in a gym before.
"My journey from Cameroon to Morocco was about one year," Ngannou said. "One year in illegal situations, crossing borders, living in the bush, finding food in the trash, living this terrible life."
Ngannou arrived in Europe through Spain. Because he entered the country illegally by sea, he was promptly detained. He wasn't released from custody for two months.
"It was more stressful than scary," Ngannou said of his time behind bars. "When we got to Spain, for the first while, we kind of relaxed, even though we were in jail. We knew we were going to go to jail when we got there. We would be free after, but we were going to go to jail [first].
"There was a lot of pressure in our minds. It was like a mental prison, not a physical prison. It was very hard."
Ngannou was ultimately released, at which point he finally completed his journey to Paris. He spent his first months in "The City of Lights" on the streets but views that period as a crucial turning point in his life.
"I was homeless then, but at that moment, it wasn't difficult for me anymore," he said. "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. I was happy to have my own life and be able to chase my own dreams. So that's definitely one of the happiest moments of my life.
"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."
It was in Paris that Ngannou's combat sports journey finally began. Despite his longstanding focus on boxing, he began training at the MMA Factory, one of the city's most reputable MMA gyms.
"It took me almost 10 years [from the time I set my goal] to step foot in a gym for the very first time, but I always believed it would happen," he said proudly.
Most fight fans know Ngannou's story from there: his early wins on the regional circuit, his destructive stoppage wins in his first six UFC bouts, his hype-deflating losses to Miocic and Derrick Lewis and, finally, the four blitzkriegs that earned him a second crack at the heavyweight championship.
The Cameroonian can't say how much better he's gotten since his loss to Miocic, but he feels much more confident in his preparation this time around, thanks in large part to his training at the UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas.
"I push hard to get better every day," he said. "That's my goal. How much better have I gotten? I don't know. But I do believe this fight's going to be different because I've improved and I've had a different preparation for this fight. I've done everything right."
If Ngannou's preparation pays off and he wins the UFC heavyweight title, everything he's been through—from Cameroon to Morocco, from Spain to France—will have been worth it.
He admits he has a hard time anticipating how that moment will feel.
"I keep trying to figure out which kind of emotions I'll have at that moment, but honestly, I can't," he said, attempting to imagine the heavyweight strap being wrapped around his waist. "I know it's going to be huge, I know it's going to be great, but I don't know what will be my reaction. These emotions are not the kind of thing you can predict. The people who cry don't say 'Oh I'm going to cry.' They just feel it. But it's going to be great, it's going to be awesome. It's my own way to overcome my past."