Reigning UFC Heavyweight Champion Francis Ngannou’s rise to the top has been more than improbable.
As for how he was able to ascend from a destitute childhood working in a sand quarry in his native Cameroon to the top of the Mixed Martial Arts world, however, his answer is simple.
“When you get to the point where you’re not afraid of losing, that’s when you become a winner,” he says.
Ngannou’s story is one of unrelenting determination in the face of almost unimaginable obstacles. In his Achievers Exclusive interview with Josh Ellis, he recalls the triumphs and tribulations of a life in pursuit of his dream of becoming a world-class fighter.
The key to his success, he says, was never losing sight of that goal. As a teenager, reflecting on schoolyard rivalries led him to realize that he was no less deserving than anyone else. A plan was put into action—one that would briefly lead to a precarious living situation on the streets of Paris. Eventually, though, he would be taken under the wing of mentors, who convinced him to take up MMA over boxing.
For Ngannou, that opportunity was all he needed.
“I’ve made it not because of what I have, but because of where I am in my mindset,” he says.
Here are five key takeaways from Francis Ngannou’s interview with SUCCESS.
1. His humble beginnings ignited a spark.
Because he lacked school supplies, moved around living with different family members, and had to work from a young age to support himself, Ngannou says he often had difficulties connecting with his peers.
He feels these early interactions stoked the flames of a desire to prove his value to others. He describes picturing, from a young age, a different future where all his needs were met.
“I decided, ‘I’m gonna prove them all wrong by my actions and by achieving something,’” Ngannou says.
An important part in his personal development was realizing that while he couldn’t control the hand he had been dealt in life, he could control how hard he worked to achieve his goals. Ultimately, his drive to succeed was molded by these experiences—and may have made all the difference.
“I now believe without that childhood, the life that I had, I wouldn’t be here,” he says. “Everything came together to bring me where I am.”
2. He leveraged great risks, to great reward.
Ngannou’s path to success was anything but neat. After leaving his native Cameroon for Europe, he was detained and jailed by immigration authorities in Spain. When he first got to Paris, he even found himself living on the street. As he describes it, the thing that kept him going was his internal drive to make a radical, lasting change in his life.
“You have some feelings sometimes that you can’t explain; you’re upset about your own life,” Ngannou says. “You have to do something, you have to take action; you have to dare in order to expect a change. … The dream is above everything in your life.”
3. He had some important help from mentors.
Fortunately, Ngannou didn’t have to do it all on his own. Through personal connections, he was able to gain access to a gym. It wasn’t until coming into contact with some powerful mentors—like trainer and coach Fernand Lopez—that he considered pursuing MMA over boxing, his original sport of choice.
After fighting in France, he eventually got his big break with the UFC in 2015. As a kid who had dreamed of visiting America, the experience of his first big bout in the U.S. served as an inflection point—he felt he had finally made it.
“I didn’t make it in the U.S. like I made it in France, you know, by the service door. I made it here by the main door,” Ngannou says.
However, he didn’t allow the taste of success to prevent him from focusing on his future—and striving for new goals.
“There is not a real finish line, it’s just one step after another,” he says. “Everything that I’ve done is good, but it doesn’t matter that much anymore, because I’ve done it already.”
4. He still wants to grow.
After a loss to heavyweight legend Stipe Miocic in 2018, he had to dig deep to resurrect his career. Things came full circle when he was able to capture his title this year—beating Miocic in the process.
“I felt I defeated all the obstacles that I had in my life,” he says on overcoming his UFC adversary.
Still, he feels like he has room to grow—both in and out of the octagon.
“If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the process, it’s that I’m capable of a lot,” Ngannou says.
5. He’s focused on giving back.
Through his foundation, Ngannou not only sends much-needed supplies to children in his home country, he also strives to create a community where they can pursue dreams of their own.
“The idea is just to make them feel worth it—to feel like somebody cares about them. And from there on, they can pick up their own dream, and believe in their dreams,” he says.
“Success is just a matter of time.”
Read the cover story: Francis Ngannou Is the Reigning UFC Heavyweight Champion, But That’s Not What Makes His Story Worth Telling
Photo © Randy Raehnrich