Have the Saudis bought Francis Ngannou’s silence?

Francis Ngannou—an African migrant turned champion fighter—has partnered with a kingdom accused of mass murdering African migrants.

By: Karim Zidan | 4 weeks ago
Have the Saudis bought Francis Ngannou’s silence?
IMAGO | ZUMA WIRE by Louis Grasse

Francis Ngannou—an African migrant turned champion fighter—has partnered with a kingdom accused of mass murdering African migrants.

This is cross-posted from Karim Zidan’s Sports Politika Substack Newsletter. Please consider subscribing today.

Saudis happy to host Francis Ngannou vs Tyson Fury, migrants not so much

I saw people killed in a way I have never imagined. I saw 30 killed people on the spot. I pushed myself under a rock and slept there. I could feel people sleeping around me. I realized what I thought were people sleeping around me were actually dead bodies. I woke up and I was alone.

These are the words of Hamdiya, a 14-year-old Ethiopian girl who was among the asylum seekers who recently attempted to cross the border from Yemen to Saudi Arabia. Her group of 60 were repeatedly fired upon by Saudi border guards. Half the group perished. 

The harrowing incident is one of several mass killings uncovered by Human Rights Watch (HRW) in a report released last week. The human rights organization alleged that Saudi border guards have “killed at least hundreds of Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers who tried to cross the Yemen-Saudi border between March 2022 and June 2023.” The report also found that the border guards were using explosive weapons to kill migrants, including women and children. 

Human Rights Watch interviewed 42 people, including 38 Ethiopian migrants and asylum seekers who tried to cross the Yemen-Saudi border. Many described gruesome scenes of bodies “torn in half” and guards forcing survivors to rape other survivors. 

The organization concluded that Saudi border guards could be responsible for the deaths of “possibly thousands” of Ethiopian migrants. 

“It is really impossible to count the number,” one interviewee told Human Rights Watch. “It is beyond the imagination. People are going in different groups day to day. The dead bodies are there.”

The recent revelation of the systemic abuse and extermination of Ethiopian migrants take place in the midst of the kingdom’s unprecedented investments in the world of sports and entertainment—investments aimed to soften the country’s image and expand its global influence

Among the kingdom’s upcoming sports events is a heavyweight boxing exhibition between WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury and former UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou. The fight is set to take place on 28 October in Saudi Arabia’s capital city Riyadh. While the bout may not necessarily be the flashiest of the kingdom’s recent sports investments, it is of particular significance given that one of the competitors, Ngannou, is himself an African migrant. It is precisely this lived experience that makes his newfound association with Saudi Arabia difficult to swallow, especially in light of the Human Rights Watch report. 

Francis Ngannou has experienced migrant abuse first-hand

Born in Cameroon, Ngannou came from humble beginnings in a small village with a poor family. He began working in a rock quarry at age nine and continued to work various jobs for the next decade until he left in search of a better life. With the help of smugglers, he traveled through Niger and Algeria until he arrived in Morocco, where he began the treacherous journey of crossing the sea to Europe. He eventually made it to Spain a year after leaving Cameroon. He then made it to France, where he was homeless until a mixed martial arts gym in Paris took a chance on him.

Ngannou has been public about his difficult journey and has spoken in support of African migrants in the past. Last year, the former UFC heavyweight champion shared a disturbing set of videos on Instagram of African refugees who were injured or killed recently while trying to seek out a better life in Europe. The incident took place in Ceuta, Spain when 2000 migrants attempted to jump the fence, which resulted in clashes with the authorities. At least 23 migrants were killed

The post was accompanied by an emotional caption in which Ngannou appealed to his fans to understand the plight of refugees like him and to do better.

“People of the world, fans, friends, please understand why this is so hard for me to witness. I shared a piece of my story with @joerogan, and with what just happened recently to my people, I can’t stop thinking that just 9 years ago I could’ve been one of these people who tragically lost everything in an attempt to seek a better life for themselves and their families. I am familiar with this exact location,” Ngannou said.

A recent investigation by the rights group suggested that the deaths occurred as Moroccan and Spanish authorities lobbed smoke bombs and teargas at the migrants in an attempt to deter them from crossing the border, leading many to die of asphyxiation while others were trampled in the ensuing panic.

“You have to understand, had I not attempted this very thing myself, you wouldn’t know me,” Ngannou continued. “I wouldn’t have been able to become a World Champion. I just happened to be a lucky one. That’s all it was.”

Francis Ngannou’s post-UFC career and deal with the Saudis

Ngannou was stripped of his heavyweight belt after a contract dispute with UFC and exited as a free agent in January. Despite facing criticism for his decision to part ways with the organization, Ngannou signed a lucrative deal with the Professional Fighters League (PFL), where he would also serve as chairman and equity owner of the organization’s Africa division. 

Ngannou’s PFL deal also allowed him to seek out opportunities in boxing. This is how his partnership with Saudi Arabia came to be. The former UFC champ flew to Riyadh, where he met with Turki al-Sheikh, the chairman of the General Authority for Entertainment and a close confidant of Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman. An agreement was eventually reached to host the Fury vs. Ngannou clash in partnership with Riyadh Season, a winter entertainment festival aimed to boost tourism to the kingdom’s capital. 

Ngannou’s contract with the PFL allowed him the chance to explore various boxing prospects, which paved the way for his association with Saudi Arabia. Venturing to Riyadh, the former UFC champion met with Turki al-Sheikh, who chairs the General Authority for Entertainment and holds a influential position in Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler Mohammed bin Salman’s inner circle. An agreement was eventually reached to co-host the Fury vs. Ngannou showdown in collaboration with Riyadh Season—a seasonal entertainment fest designed to enhance tourism in the kingdom’s capital city.

Saudi Arabia uses sports to launder its reputation

According to sources with knowledge of the negotiations, the fight guarantees that both fighters will receive paydays in the eight-figure range. And while exact figures remain unclear, Ngannou’s representative, Marquel Martin, noted that it was “multiples” of what Ngannou made throughout his UFC career. 

“Let’s just say this: The bag is so big, he may actually just drop it on the way to the bank,” Martin said last month.

Martin did not responded to my request for comment regarding Human Right Watch’s harrowing report. 

As previously reported on Sports Politika, there are various examples of Saudi Arabia utilizing non-disparagement clauses to limit athletes from saying anything critical about the kingdom. Such clauses exist in the PGA Tour’s framework agreement with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF), as well as Lionel Messi’s tourism partnership with the kingdom. It is possible that Ngannou’s contract with the General Entertainment Authority includes similar restrictions. 

Although Ngannou’s recent achievements within MMA are unparalleled and could potentially shape the landscape of free agency in the sport for years to come, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that the former UFC champion has transitioned from a previous employer known for its troubling labor practices to align with a kingdom that is currently under extensive scrutiny for its human rights record.

As reports continue to emerge regarding Saudi Arabia’s systemic abuse of African migrants, Ngannou’s most recent Instagram post, which features a video of his younger self toiling in the sand mines, takes on a deeper, more somber meaning. 

The caption reads: “And now when I look back at how far I’ve come from those sand mines, I know I’m not lucky to have what I have. I’ve worked for it.” 

This is cross-posted from Karim Zidan’s Sports Politika Substack Newsletter. Please consider subscribing today.

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About the author
Karim Zidan
Karim Zidan

Karim Zidan is a investigative reporter and feature writer focusing on the intersection of sports and politics. He has written for BloodyElbow since 2014 and has served as an associate editor since 2016. He also writes for The New York Times and The Guardian. Karim has been invited to speak about his work at numerous universities, including Princeton, and was a panelist at the South by Southwest (SXSW) film festival and the Oslo Freedom Forum. He also participated in the United Nations counter-terrorism conference in 2021. His reporting on Ramzan Kadyrov’s involvement in MMA, much of which was done for Bloody Elbow, has led to numerous award nominations, and was the basis of an award-winning HBO Real Sports documentary.

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