Some fighters know they want to be a mixed martial artist the second they see it. Others get that feeling once they’ve started training for the first time. Then there’s Francis Ngannou, who had absolutely no interest in the sport.

That seems hard to believe if you watch ‘The Predator’ at work in the Octagon. He moves like he was born to compete in a cage. His combination of speed, submission savvy and, of course, power, has combined to earn five victories by stoppage in little more than a year.

The last of those wins – a 93-second extermination of Andrei Arlovski – confirmed the 30-year-old is more than just a prospect. This is the most exciting heavyweight talent since Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos broke out in 2008.

That would not have seemed possible for a man who was born in poverty in Cameroon and experienced such hardship, he’s reluctant to share the details. “I’m not ready to talk about it because it’s a difficult story,” Ngannou admits to FO. “I will talk about it when I’m ready.”

When he traveled more than 3,000 miles from Central Africa to Paris, France, an ascension to the top 10 of the UFC’s grandest weight class seemed unlikely as he had no money, no friends and no place to live. Even when he started to get on his feet and found a place to train, there was still the issue of his lack of affection for mixed martial arts.

“When I came to France my goal was to be a boxer,” he explains. “I wasn’t thinking about MMA because I didn’t even know what MMA is. Sometimes I see some MMA fights on TV but I just changed the TV station and I go to watch other things.”

Despite training at a facility named the MMA Factory and pleas from his teammates to give fighting in 4oz gloves a try, Ngannou still dreamed of emulating Mike Tyson rather than Randy Couture. But his coach and mentor, Fernand Lopez, was determined to see him put his considerable physical gifts to good use in a cage instead of a ring.

When the gym was due to close for the holidays, Ngannou was desperate to continue training. He asked Lopez to allow him in during that time and he agreed – on one condition. “He said I should try. That is when I started training. It didn’t interest me, but I didn’t have the opportunity to box, so I kept training and they did a lot to keep me at the MMA Factory. I continued and three years later I started fighting.

“I just wanted to have fights to get experience and see what it was like. I won the first one, I lost the second one. I (planned) to win two and leave MMA and say, ‘OK, that is my experience, it was a great experience, but now I’m going to go into boxing.’ But I don’t like to lose. I can’t leave something after a loss. I have too much pride, so it didn’t let me leave. I continued to train MMA and had some fights again, and I won.”

After fights in France, Switzerland and Bahrain, Ngannou was 5-1 and one of the most intriguing fighters outside the Americas. Yet the sport still played second fiddle to the sweet science in his heart – until late 2015.

“I was just waiting for an opportunity to do boxing. One day they told me there was a UFC contract for me and I said,” Ngannou hesitates. “’Yes.’ Now I accepted that you can prove yourself everywhere. I said, ‘Right now I’m going do be an MMA fighter – definitively.’

“Maybe one month after I signed with the UFC I was told I had an opportunity to box, but I told them it was too late. I took what is strong and I continue so I can prove myself here.

“I’m going to learn and anything I can to be the champion here too. My real dream is to be the champion and to prove myself. I need to prove myself because my life is not easy. Not because I have done something wrong, but because life is like that. I didn’t have too much choice for life and I want to prove to myself that I can do something.”

Two fights and three striking stoppages into his Octagon run, this six-foot-four specimen was talked of as a the next great heavyweight knockout artist, but Ngannou is also keen to prove that he’s much more than just a puncher. While it’s still his preferred way of putting an exclamation point on a contest, he won’t rely on it.

From the moment MMA became his full-time concern, he has committed to completing his arsenal. We’ve already had a taste of his grappling skills with a slick kimura of Anthony Hamilton.

“I still love boxing but I don’t dream about boxing anymore. Since I got the UFC contract, I said this was an opportunity. I can prove something here. Right now I’m going to convert myself into an MMA fighter.

“I like to knock out, I like punches, but I know that someone can have good timing and take you down or pin you on the cage. I prepare myself to be able to control the situation all the time and win the fight everywhere. I like the knockouts, but I like to win – so much.

“Everyone is dangerous so if you have any opportunity to win, you just take it. You can’t say, ‘I don’t want to win here, I don’t want to submit, I just want to knock out.’ Win, and after, the next one, maybe you knock out.”

Conveniently, Ngannou is so skilled in the striking department that four of his five UFC wins have come by KO or TKO. The ‘Performance of the Night’ against former champion Arlovski was his quickest and most impressive yet, raising his ranking to five in the promotion’s official list. Inevitably that has amplified talk of this new threat’s title chances. Some say he could even get there this year.

Ngannou is cautious but confident about his chances: “I don’t know if that would be possible this year, but the thing I want, and will do everything to make that possible, is to win every fight they give me. I want to win every one and if you win every one, even if it is 2018, it will be the same title shot as if they give me the title shot in 2017.

“So, grow step by step, grow smartly and take care of everyone. Be smart, control yourself, control your body. I know I can have a title shot soon. Maybe 2017, but 2018 is no problem for me. I just want to win my fights.”


*** Feature originally published in the April 2017 issue of Fighters Only ***