Francis Ngannou fights for the UFC heavyweight championship title this weekend at UFC 220 in Boston, MA. Leading up to this moment, the France-based Cameroonian, has beaten six other UFC heavyweights, stopping each with either punches or a submission.
Standing between the 31-year-old and a gold belt is Stipe Miocic, who has won his last five contests, stopping each with punches. In the build-up to the heavyweight clash both men have engaged on social media (and in press conferences).
When asked by Bloody Elbow if he enjoyed the verbal sparring with Miocic, Ngannou paused. Then stated, “I never talked to him. I just answer. I never talked to him.”
On whether Ngannou would engage with his opponent in a face-off, like he did with previous opponent Alistair Overeem, the title challenger was coy. “I don’t know,” he responded. “We’re going to see what’s going to happen. I’ll say what I feel.”
Ngannou’s path to UFC stardom has been unique. Ngannou left Batié, Cameroon - where he worked for a long time as a sand miner - for Paris, France; searching for a better life. In Europe, Ngannou suffered homelessness and isolation before being welcomed at the MMA Factory gym in 2013.
Ngannou said that beating Miocic on Saturday night would represent the closing of a chapter in his remarkable life.
“This is going to close the chapter of my childhood and teenage years,” he explained. “All that time I have been frustrated with my whole life, with a feeling that I was always the last one who never had a chance. So I want to close that. I want to leave that behind me.”
If Ngannou does defeat his American opponent on January 20th, he will become the first Cameroonian, African, and Frenchman to lift UFC gold. And the enormity of this potential isn’t lost on him.
“This journey now is not only mine,” said Ngannou. “It’s for all Cameroonians and for the whole of Africa and all of France, too.”
“In Africa, when I started the journey, I was by myself. No one believed me at that time, and today all of them believe in me and they almost rely on me. It’s very important, because I can bring hope to someone or help someone to be ambitious and tell them that everything is possible.”
“See where I’m from and see where I am today,” continued Ngannou. “This inspires a lot of people and gets a lot of people excited, so that they want to do something by themselves. In Africa, in many parts of the continent, people do not allow themselves to dream, because what they dream of; it’s unreal, but I’m just trying to show that everything is possible. That dream, you can allow yourself. You have a right. It doesn’t matter what was the beginning or how you began. What’s more important is where you arrive. As long as you prepare for your arrival and you have the right mind set, you can do it.”
With the hopes of nations and an entire continent on his shoulders, you could forgive Ngannou for feeling pressure in the lead-up to the biggest MMA fight of his life. However, the way he tells is, those expectations are only positive.
“That gives me motivation because I am not fighting just for me. I am fighting for all the people watching; trusting me, relying on me. They need to see me succeed to believe they can succeed. That gives me strength.”
Stipe Miocic vs. Francis Ngannou for the UFC heavyweight title goes down on January 20th at the TD Garden in Boston. The event is on pay-per-view, beginning at 10pm ET. UFC 220’s co-main event features a light heavyweight title fight between incumbent Daniel Cormier and challenger Volkan Oezdemir.