Francis Ngannou opens up about Spanish prison stint, voyage to Europe on inflatable raft

Former UFC heavyweight championship Francis Ngannou discussed how he migrated from Africa to Europe and discovered MMA.

By: Bloody Elbow | 3 months ago

Working in a sand mine from age 9

National Public Radio has a big feature interview with the world’s reigning MMA heavyweight champ, Francis Ngannou. They introduce him as “baddest man on the planet” the heir to Mike Tyson and mention that “he holds the record for the world’s strongest punch. One strike from him is the equivalent of getting hit full speed by a small car.”

It was a long, hard journey to get to the Octagon. Francis worked in a sand mine in Cameroon alongside his siblings from age 9.

“We had no choice, we needed to survive, so it was like a survival job,” Ngannou says of the experience.

The decision to emigrate to Europe

Ngannou held onto his childhood dream of becoming a boxing champion like his hero Mike Tyson. Unfortunately, there was no was no path to athletic stardom open in his native country. So he made the decision to migrate.

“You don’t just wake up one day and leave your country even without knowing where you’re going, knowing that you’re taking all the risk in the world; you might not come back alive,” Ngannou told NPR.

Crossing deserts, oceans, borders

Ngannou detailed the arduous travels he made from Cameroon to France, listing every country he travelled through in the 2000 mile trek to the Mediterranean sea.

Ngannou: “From Cameroon to Nigeria, then Nigeria, Niger, from Niger to Algeria, then from Algeria to Morocco.”

NPR: “From Morocco, he needed to somehow get into Spanish territory. Then, even if he wasn’t technically on the continent of Europe, he’d officially be on European land. Now there were only two ways to do that: The first was to go over multiple fences with police patrols and barbed wire. Ngannou attempted that but failed. So he tried option number two.”

Ngannou: “The other way was to put the raft, inflatable raft, the one that you usually use in your swimming pool, put it in the ocean and try to get somewhere that the land in Morocco is close to the land in Europe.”

Sounds impossible, even deadly. Ngannou tried it six times over the course of one year. Between those attempts. He lived in a Moroccan forest where he and other migrants competed with rats for scraps of spoiled food in the trash. 

‘What’s MMA?’

If that wasn’t enough, when he crossed the sea he was thrown in jail:

NPR: “Finally Ngannou and his inflatable raft made it to Spanish waters. There, he was picked up by a Red Cross boat. After two months in Spanish prison, he was given refugee status and freed. Ngannou made his way to Paris and joined a fighting gym; that’s where his coaches introduced him to this new thing called MMA. 

“I was like, What’s mma? He’s like, mixed martial arts. I’m like okay, cool, fancy, but what it is? So he has to explain to me like, yeah, it’s boxing and wrestling and this. I’m like, bro, leave me alone. What I want is like, straight boxing. “

– Francis Ngannou

Finding Fernand Lopez and the Factory

The NPR story doesn’t go into the details of his coaches and camp in Paris, but Bloody Elbow’s own Tim Bissell did an in-depth piece on Ngannou’s coach Fernand Lopez, also an immigrant from Cameroon to France. Here’s a little bit of Lopez’ tale:

“Their relationship began in 2013 when a dishevelled Ngannou poked his head into Lopez’s MMA Factory gym (then named CrossFight) off of Rue de Picpus in south central Paris.

“Ngannou had made the journey to France from Cameroon to pursue his dream of becoming a professional boxer. After making it to Europe, with no money and little more than the clothes on his back, Ngannou walked the streets of Paris asking strangers where to find a boxing gym.

“Though he didn’t find a place to live, Ngannou was able to find somewhere to train and spend most of his time. But the gym closed on weekends and holidays and, on those days, Ngannou would kill time at homeless centers. On one of those days, Ngannou decided to spend his time searching for a gym he could train at when his regular spot was closed.

“That was when he discovered MMA Factory, during one of Lopez’s rare days off. The trainer who was present was taken aback by Ngannou’s size and physique. He heard him out about wanting to train in boxing, but not having money to pay for classes. The trainer told Ngannou to come back the next day, to meet Lopez.”

Hero’s return to Cameroon

When Francis Ngannou returned to Cameroon after winning the UFC title it was a hero’s welcome.

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