A Conversation with Francis Ngannou, Heavyweight Champion of the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship)

A Conversation with Francis Ngannou, Heavyweight Champion of the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship)

Francis Ngannou is a remarkable individual. He is currently the heavyweight champion of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) and is ranked as having the hardest punch in the world.

Francis Ngannou was born in the village of Batié (Cameroon), and grew up with very little: no home, no formal education, and no support. What he lacked in support, he made up for with his enormous dreams. He eluded the demands of local gangs, began working in salt mines as a child, and set his sights on a life outside of the town that was determined to retain him. Francis began boxing training at 22, and at the age of 26 took an arduous journey to France to pursue his professional career. Upon reaching Europe, he was jailed for two months in Spain for illegally crossing the border. When he reached Paris, with no money, friends, or home, he became homeless. Francis met fighter Francis Carmot who introduced him to trainer Fernand Lopez and MMA Factory. Lopez gave Ngannou some MMA gear, allowed him to train and sleep at the gym, and with that his career began.

Today, alongside his fighting success, Francis operates a foundation in his name which extends his providence to his hometown.  Francis shared, “The purpose is not collecting things…I want to give an opportunity to children like me who dream of this sport.” When visiting Cameroon after his success, he witnessed the impression his own story made on many children there, saying “They saw I [have] a dream; they say, “I will be a champion in the MMA. I will do boxing like Francis…they are thinking that something is possible. Even when they are so poor, something is possible in life. It’s so hard, but it’s possible.”

In this interview, I speak to Francis Ngannou, heavyweight champion of the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship). We discuss the power of combat sports, the reality of pain, of resilience, of failure and success.

Q: Why are people attracted to combat sports? 

[Francis Ngannou]: Everyone has a little bit of warrior in them. We all grow up and have a little piece of us which wants to be a superhero, who goes and fights the bad guys. In real life, fighting is tough, you have to overcome your fears – nobody really wants to get into a fight! Escaping that fear is the reason so many people who get into combat sports. You will find a lot of combat athletes who tell you, ‘I was bullied and that’s why I went to the gym…’ – people want to escape their own cages, and so they surpass their limits in the cage.

Combat sports are violent, but they replicate the reality of life. Life isn’t easy, and you have to take hits over and over again. You can stay on the canvas as long as you keep fighting and keep getting back up. Whatever the result, if you can do that, you’ll still be a winner, you’ll be happy overcoming your obstacles, fears, and building courage. After you fight, no matter what happens, you’ll stand up.

Q: Does fighting change your relationship with pain?

[Francis Ngannou]: As a fighter, you still feel pain, you don’t become numb! Nobody goes into the fight to get hurt though… nobody goes into the fight to feel pain. The purpose of training is to avoid the pain as much as possible.

Over time, as you grow as a fighter, you do accept pain as being part of your sport. You cannot run from it and so you make peace with it. As a fighter you also realise that what is painful is not the pain itself, but the idea of being hurt. The idea of pain is often worse than the pain itself!

Fighting, the pain is physical. A lot of people out there, who have never fought in their lives, are dealing with mental pain- and that’s a real killer- causing depression, heart attacks… all from being in mental pain rather than physical. When you get hit, you feel it immediately and then it fades and you may have no consequence from it- I would rather have that, than mental pain.

The reason why I fight is that I’m fighting against the pain of seeing my family get sick and fighting against not being able to help them. That’s more painful than anything. To see my kids, get sick tomorrow and not being able to help them? That’s more painful than anything I would experience in a fight. Imagine, if you had to lose a hand to save your daughter’s life, most people would say yes in a heartbeat.

When I’m fighting, I’m just getting a different pain – I’m taking a few hits, going home and most of the time I’m ok. If there’s a small price to pay of some pain, that’s fine, I’ll take it. The rewards of what I do are bigger than the price.

Q: Where did you get your mental toughness?

[Francis Ngannou]: My past helped me a lot, my past was tough. When you’ve been in so much pain, so many times, you get familiar with it. Don’t get me wrong, I still hurt, I still feel pain, but I look back at my past and think, ‘…okay, this looks like my childhood’ and then I move on.

You build your strength from the challenges you have, and the challenges you overcome. If you overcame that past challenge, you will overcome this new one. You find your motivation from your past.

Q: How do you deal with success & failure? 

[Francis Ngannou]: If you fail many times in life, it can be frustrating, but, if you look differently at that, you can see that if you fail many times, you get up many times. If you didn’t get up after the first fall, you could never have fought. Failure just means you got knocked down. I don’t want to fail, nobody does, but I’m not afraid of failing because I know I have the ability to stand up, no matter what. I’ve learned this from my childhood, from my past. I’ve been through so many situations that I know- in most circumstances- I’ve been through worse- and I can deal with it and overcome. I aim to do my best, give my best, and know in my heart that I gave everything I could. If it doesn’t work out? That’s okay, that’s life, that’s the game.

Success on the other hand… even when I win, I know that I could have lost, and as much as I love this sport, it’s just a sport, it’s not who I am, it’s not my life. I have my life, my kids, my brother… I am a family man, and I enjoy that and know that even without the fighting and fame, I would still be something. I don’t need to be somebody or to be something to be happy. Success is great, but even without it, I’ll be fine. I don’t want my success to define me. I want people to see me without all that – success comes and goes, without it, I am still who I am.

Q: What do you hope your legacy will be?

[Francis Ngannou]: I hope people remember me as a man who lived a happy life, as a warrior, as someone who would never give up. That’s all that matters.

Nobody knows what will happen today, nobody knows how the day will end, we can’t even guarantee that, never mind the future. The stars are not in our control. All we can control in this life is our dedication, our self-belief, our determination. I can guarantee you, I will always have that, and that’s my legacy. That’s what I want to leave as a gift to my kids – the message that they should never give up, never have regrets, to give everything, never back down in front of obstacles, and to always keep going, no matter what.

Thought Economics

About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.