Exclusive interview with gentle giant Francis Ngannou on his life in the UFC Octagon and the road to heavyweight boxing in the future.
Ngannou will most likely step through the ropes and take up heavyweight boxing, reminiscing of the fun and delight he had witnessing Britain’s ‘Gypsy King’ Tyson Fury from a few feet away at the MGM Grand Garden Arena two weeks ago.
When Ngannou talks thoughtfully and softly in his lilting Cameroonian-French tones in English, it belies the destroyer the 6ft 5ins tall 260lbs of man-mountain becomes in a mixed martial arts fight.
The physical behemoth will put his body to the task this weekend in the UFC Minneapolis headliner in what is expected to be a brutal tussle with former UFC heavyweight champion Junior Dos Santos. Here, in an exclusive interview with fight correspondent Gareth A Davies, the fighter explains what drives him.
GAD: So, tell us about your fight with Junior Dos Santos. It seems to be a fan favourite.
FN: “I’m very excited about this fight. I’ve wanted this fight for almost two years now. It’s was suppose to happen in 2017 and then something went wrong. Now, I’ve got the fight at the right time and it’s good timing for me. The fans are excited, yes. That’s why I say it’s a good match up. All of what Dos Santos has is what I’m good at. He’s a striker and a good striker, but I believe I’m a better fighter than him. It’s basically going to be in the same zone, where we are both comfortable. But I believe my power is bigger than his. But strategy comes into it and he might not want to strike, I don’t know. I’m very careful about that. I have to be careful about that.”
GAD: Will there be takedowns after you hit him, then…. few of your opponents appear to want to stand and trade punches and kicks with you?
FN: “He might try to strike, but he’s smart and might know the difference of our striking once I hit him.”
GAD: Your childhood growing up in Cameroon was very difficult, as is well documented. You went to work aged 12 in the sand quarries, and when you left for Paris, France, you were even homeless for a time. What do you feel when you look back on those times…
FN: “My childhood is not what I’m proud of it, it’s not the best memory. I think it’s sad. I don’t really like to think about it. But at the same time I owe it everything. What I am today, childhood made me into. It gave me that strength, it prepared me. If I had an easy childhood then I wouldn’t be doing this or be ready to do this. I would be studying and finding a job, having a family – what you might call an easy life. I am here because my childhood wasn’t easy. I never gave up. I always thought about my next option rather than just surviving. That’s why I keep fighting. That’s what brought me here. I don’t know if it turned out good, but it taught me a lot.”
GAD: You have created a Francis Ngannou Foundation in Cameroon, which helps youngsters through combat sports in the same situation you found yourself in. Is changing lives always going to be important to you ? Are there many children still in the same conditions you grew up in ?
FN: “Yes, there are still kids in that situation. I don’t think I can really change that. But the goal of the foundation is hope. What I do think is, in spite of everything I still had hope. Nobody believed in me, but I believed in me. I was blessed to have something like that. Unfortunately not a lot of people have the same outlook. So what my foundation does is give hope, because what brought me here is hope. Where I’m from, it’s just unbelievable to where I am today.
Hope and belief was my strength and my weapon to fight against everything I did and to face all the challenges I have faced. I’m trying to bring that back, to believe in the impossible. Because as long as you believe in yourself, you will never give up. As long as you never give up, you will end up as something. It won’t be easy, for sure, but it’s a better life. That’s why I set up the foundation. It’s to help them believe in themselves and find a solution to their problems from within themselves. Places like that get forgotten, so you have to dig deep in yourself to find a solution. The solution is always inside.”
GAD: If we rewind to your fight with Derrick Lewis almost exactly a year ago, with just 33 strikes being landed during the three rounds. Given that yourself and Lewis are two of the most frightening, devastating destroyers in the sport, it was very surprising…
FN: “I wasn’t there. I wasn’t in that fight. It happened but mentally I wasn’t there. It’s strange. I don’t know if you’ve ever had that feeling to the somewhere but not be there. I was there. I wasn’t there to fight for a win, I was there to fight against what happened in my fight with Stipe Miocic [which he lost, Miocic wrestling the life out of Ngannou]. I hadn’t finished with the fight with Stipe. I was there, but I was fighting against the weaknesses I showed against Stipe. I was five months behind the fight.”
GAD: Did you have to go away and work on yourself, mentally not physically ?
FN: “First of all, you put that down to experience. I’m new blood in this sport, I’m very new to it. My ride was too fast. I went so high so quickly, I didn’t have time to get my experience. I was I need of experience and that’s what happened. It drove me to the Derrick Lewis fight. What happened after that? I found stylistically what was wrong and I moved clear of it. Even psychologically, I did get some work done. I tried to figure out what was wrong in my mind. I didn’t recognise myself in that fight. It was a learning process, but it cost me a lot because I had to learn in that arena. I didn’t learn it in a sport experience, but I learned it in a championship fight. It caused a lot of drama, but it is what it is. I figured it out and moved on.”
GAD: Is the UFC heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier avoiding you ?
FN: “I don’t know, I can’t say he’s avoiding me. The thing is, Daniel Cormier has announced his potential retirement and has to go through Stipe Miocic. We don’t know what will happen. We don’t know if he’ll fight again. I still want the fight against Stipe. I just focus on what can happen and what will happen will happen.”
GAD: There may well be a UFC event in Africa in the future. Would you like to headline ?
FN: “I always like that idea, but it’s not up to me. I don’t have a say in that. I can push for that, but I can’t do much. It’s up the UFC. What do I do? I just focus on what I can control and let the rest happen as it will.”
GAD: What did you make of Tyson Fury in Las Vegas. You were there.
FN: “I always enjoy heavyweight boxing. That was my first passion. That’s what drove me to MMA. Without boxing, I wouldn’t be in MMA. Tyson’s the man, he’s good. I think he’s the most talented heavyweight. He’s very a technical fighter. Great work.”
GAD: Will we see you in boxing in the future ?
FN: “Of course. Once again, boxing my first love and it’s still my love. MMA was the sport that picked me. It had opportunity in it. I love boxing. I just want to improve my skills as a striker. Why wouldn’t I be interested in a boxing match?”
GAD: Will you fight Jon Jones at heavyweight ? Surely that is a fight the UFC and the fans would love to see ?
FN: “No, that’s not a fight I’m looking for. The fight I’m looking for is Junior dos Santos. I’m not looking for things that are not on the table. I don’t know why that would be exciting. It’s not something that fascinates me.”
It was announced on June 24, 2019 that MMA will officially be legalised in France in January 2020.
Ngannou tweeted ‘Thank you to our sport minister Roxana Maracineanu.’
The Ministry of Sports in France officially launched the call for tenders to structure MMA in France within an existing sports federation. This announcement opens new prospects for the development of mixed martial arts, both at the amateur and professional levels, and will be a benefit to multiple French stakeholders.
Announcing the news on Twitter, Roxana Maracineanu, France’s minister of sport, wrote:“As of January 1, 2020, #MMA will officially exist as a professional and amateur sports practice in France within the framework of defined by @Sports_gouv in harmony with the international landscape of this discipline.”
“UFC welcomes the announcement by the Ministry of Sports, which is the first step in officially recognizing MMA and integrating the sport into the French sports ecosystem,” said Lawrence Epstein, UFC Sr Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer.
“We will closely follow the progress of the consultation period and pay particular attention to the respect of the integrity of MMA and preservation of its rules by the host federation. We put our global MMA expertise at the disposal of the French authorities to make this process a collective construction.”