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Fernand Lopez and the Factory behind Francis Ngannou

Fernand Lopez dodged death in the Cameroon before establishing France’s top MMA gym and turning Francis Ngannou into a UFC superstar.

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Francis N’Gannou trains with Fernand Lopez at the MMA Factory in Paris, France on April 21st, 2017.
Photo credit should read FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images

Francis Ngannou’s talent, determination, and work ethic helped transform him from a child laborer in Cameroon to an internationally renowned combat sports star. He endured and conquered massive challenges along the way; back breaking manual labor, emigration to another country, a period of homelessness on the streets of Paris. It’s near impossible to doubt his ability and iron-will to succeed. ‘The Predator’ has taken the UFC by storm and positioned himself as one of MMA’s most exciting and intriguing characters.

And although he may have been capable of becoming the fighter he is today with no help other than his own, it didn’t work out that way. As so many fighters do, he had help along the way.

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

Though it didn’t happen instantly, or even very quickly, the bond that formed between these two men has been the backbone for an MMA career that, while still young, defies comparison. But to understand why Lopez, Ngannou, and the MMA Factory have had so much success working together; this story needs to go back to Africa. Back to Cameroon. Not to find a young Ngannou, but instead a young and wild Lopez.

FERNAND LOPEZ IS DEAD

Lopez was born in 1978 in a small village in Lekié, a department in Cameroon’s Central Province. He was raised close by, in Yaoundé, a vast sepia-toned capital that’s home to 2.5 million people.

The city was once a major hub for the rubber and ivory trade. Today it boasts a stable, but corrupt, economy; supported by civil infrastructure and overlapping industrial and agricultural complexes. Because of this intertwining urban diversity, Yaoundé celebrates a higher standard of living than many other corners of Cameroon and Central Africa.

And Lopez was a beneficiary of Yaoundé’s comforts. “I wouldn’t say we were rich,” he admits. “But I did have a very good life and I had a lot of love.”

His affectionate and accessible parents were both highly intelligent and well educated people. His mother was a high school teacher. His father, a college professor. And they expected a similar focus and desire for learning in their son.

As a child, Lopez was a well behaved and attentive student. But, like so many young lives, his studious resolve was tested by his peers. “When I was a kid I was very shy and I was bullied in the school,” he remembers.

In response to the persistent bullying, those close to him encouraged Lopez to enroll in sports and martial arts; to buoy his confidence and teach him how to defend himself from physical attacks.

Urban scene in Yaounde, Cameroon
Yaoundé, Cameroon was Lopez’s home for almost twenty years.
Photo by Thomas Imo/Photothek via Getty Images

“After that I became something that I don’t like to talk about,” he remarks, with a quiver in his throat. “I became something that I am ashamed of. I am ashamed of this part of my past, because of how brutal I was.”

Lopez’s first forays into martial arts were with taekwando and judo; where he achieved black belts. After that he took to freestyle wrestling, earning a spot on national teams.

Armed with an arsenal of punches, kicks, throws, and slams, a teenage Lopez was fully prepared to take revenge on his bullies, and those who bullied others. It’s this violent response that shames him to this day.

“I knew that I was a powerful guy, very powerful,” recalls Lopez. “In high school I was really taking over and if anyone in the school had any problems they would just come call me and say, ‘Oh this big guy is bullying me.’ ‘This guy took my cap.’ ‘There’s this guy who did this to me,’ and then I would go there like a superhero and beat the guy up.”

Lopez claims he was obsessed with the idea of being a superhero, someone who defended the weak from the strong. These ‘vigilante’ incidents often leaked out of the schoolyard, resulting in countless street fights around the city.

“And I’m ashamed of that because what I was doing was also bullying. I had been bullied before and then I was just making a reason just to say, ‘Well I’m defending people,’ but I was using brutality to make people pay for brutality and I’m not proud of that.”

Lopez says that, as his reputation grew among his cohorts, his parents were none the wiser. “I was very calm in front of my parents, very calm in front of adults. But when the night came, or when it was just us kids, I was really bad.”

Eventually Lopez found himself in a situation that exposed to his parents, and everyone else, exactly what kind of trouble he had been getting into. It was a situation, he says, that almost got him killed.

“There was a story on the radio, on television, in magazines, that I was dead,” claims Lopez in an ominous tone, as he lays out the tale of how one of his superhero missions culminated in a blood-soaked beating. A beating so bad, that it convinced eye-witnesses that the young man was dead.

When the teenage Lopez wasn’t street-fighting he was, more often than not, at either wrestling or rugby practice (a sport he also competed in at the national level). One day after rugby practice, Lopez’s girlfriend visited him at home. She was upset.

He asked her what was wrong and the girl cried that her little brother was being bullied by a boy named Joe.

“She said to me, ‘I don’t want you to fight, because I don’t like it when you fight, but please can you talk to this guy, because my little brother is getting bullied really bad.’”

Lopez heard her out and told her that he would try and ‘negotiate’ with Joe, to convince him to stop bullying her brother. Although, he wasn’t really interested in talking to the bully.

As he learned more about Joe, Lopez became more intent on fighting him. He heard Joe was a big guy, and tough too. “I was loving the challenge,” says Lopez, referring to the days leading up to the inevitable confrontation. They were days he spent in something not too dissimilar to a fight camp; training and strategizing for his opponent.

Lopez breaks the flow of his story, washes the taste of excitement from his mouth, and states, “When I’m thinking about that, it’s hard for me because I am embarrassed by the things that I am saying.”

In a more somber tone he continues, “I had the feeling that [fighting Joe] was something just. That this was justice for me. Joe was not a criminal, he was a kind of guy like me, I don’t think he was really a bad guy, not a gangster. But he was bullying weak people. For me, I loved to fight people who were bullying other people. I saw that I was making justice, but I was wrong.”

After a rugby match, Lopez decided it was time to seek out Joe. So he and some friends got in a taxi and headed to the Biyem-Assi, a nighbourhood on in west side Yaoundé.

Biyem-Assi was unincorporated land until the 1980s, when a population explosion brought in 300,000 citizens. On the night Lopez’s taxi snaked around the Rond point express and past the acacia tree studded markets, the streets were lively; with groups of men milling outside snack bars and beer halls, illuminated by moonlight, cigarette embers, and the occasional dim glow of a neon shop sign.

On foot, he and his friends found Joe. “I knew that right away I had to impose myself, physically. And I’m ashamed of that,” Lopez now admits.

The short, but thickly muscled, Lopez stepped to Joe with a cool demeanor; showing he was there to talk. The friends on either side fell away, giving the boys space to work out their issues.

Lopez took a breath, and asked, “Why did you do this to...”

Before he even finished the sentence, Lopez pounced and a brawl ensued. The well rounded martial artist, national level wrestler and rugby player, made short work of his large, but unrefined adversary. With Joe defeated, Lopez walked back to his friends.

He and his buddies headed back to the taxi ranks, chattering about what they’d witnessed, as if they were describing it to people who weren’t there. When they got to the taxis, Lopez felt a tap on the shoulder.

A messenger, seemingly from nowhere, was among them and he had a warning. “There’s a legion,” he whispered. Confused, he and his friends asked the stranger for more details.

“There’s like thirty or fifty guys coming to kill you guys,” continued the messenger. “They’re armed. They have machetes, knives, hammers. You have to run.”

His friends agreed and moved to get back into the cab, but Lopez stood, still gazing in the direction he had been warned about. “Yo!” His friends tried to snap him out of it and asked what he was waiting for.

“I want you guys to go back,” he said. “I’m going to face these guys.”

“Are you fucking out of your mind?” was the response.

“Look, this is how this thing will go. If we run now; we will run all day, all week, all year. So I need to face these guys now and know what is going on. Either they kill me or they respect me; because they will beat me up, but I will not give up until I am down. So I need to go there and face them.”

Lopez’s friends thought he was crazy. Today’s version of Fernand Lopez agrees.

He left his friends, despite their pleas, and strutted back to where he fought Joe. Along the way he was intercepted by Joe and his weapon-wielding entourage.

Feeling invulnerable, like the superhero he wanted to be, Lopez puffed out his chest and bellowed, “You think I’m afraid of you guys? I’m not afraid. So what?”

The closest man began to swing on him and the two began brawling as the rest of the gang enveloped around them. Lopez landed some punches, but ate plenty in return.

Then, he felt a punch in the back. But this punch didn’t come with a dull thudding pain. Instead it was sharp and lingering. He’d been stuck with a knife.

Punches and kicks then rained in from all sides.

Lopez fell. Hammer blows followed him, making dents where they landed. The blade of a machete was slid across his head. Blood poured. Lopez remembers feeling like he was dying.

Miraculously, he was able to crawl away from the pack, towards a residential area. And luckily for him, one of the homes there belonged to a police officer. The off-duty cop came onto the street and dispersed the gang. He then called in emergency services.

Unbeknownst to Lopez, as he was being rushed to hospital, the incident – distorted by eye-witness accounts – was hitting the airwaves. TV and radio stations ran with the story, that there had been a gang assault in Biyem-Assi and one person had died. A promising wrestler and rugby player named Fernand Lopez.

Lopez’s parents found their son alive in a hospital bed. He was badly beaten, but his injuries were not life-threatening. They took him home.

“And that’s the day I decided to stop everything violent,” he says. “Because I saw my dad crying of love.”

“At home my dad was begging me to promise that I would not fight anymore. And I was saying, ‘No dad this was justice because...’ and he was saying, ‘Shut up! You are not the one to make justice. We have laws. We have police. I want you to just swear to me that you’re done. I can’t take this no more. I can’t take seeing my son stabbed, seeing my son get killed.’ So I promised that I would not fight anymore. And that’s it.”

A NEW LIFE AND A BROKEN NECK

In 1997, about a year after his near-death-experience on the streets of Biyem-Assi, Lopez was living in the suburbs of Paris. The 19 year old had immigrated to France – through official channels – and was living in the Gonesse neighbourhood, close to family who had previously made the move.

He was working as an electrical engineer, programming elevators in high rises and at Euro Disney, and still playing rugby and wrestling. He would play rugby professionally in France, competing in the country’s second tier: Pro D2. During this time Lopez was also taking classes at the National Institute of Sport, Expertise, and Performance (INSEP).

Somewhere in the rough and tumble that comes with both rugby and wrestling, Lopez began suffering pain and numbness in his neck. He went to a doctor and received a frightening diagnosis. A cervical disc was cutting into his spinal cord. Whether rugby, wrestling, or a street fight in a Yaoundé back alley caused the initial injury, he can’t say.

“My doctor told me, ‘If you have any other shock on your neck you will be in a wheelchair all your life,’” says Lopez, as he remembers the awkward scene in the doctor’s office, in which he refused to believe he had to give up his beloved sports.

“You have to stop, you could kill yourself!”, continued the doctor, according to Lopez. But, upon seeing how much Lopez was affected by the news, the doctor then called around Paris, trying to find surgeons who might be able to correct the problem.

Lopez visited a number of specialists, including one who had worked with megastar footballers like Brazil’s Ronaldo. The consensus was that an operation to fix his neck was too complicated and, as a result, very dangerous.

“They said, ‘I will not take the chance. I will have to open your neck in order to replace your disc. I will need to clean up around your neck and if I cut the wrong thing, the result will be the same, you will be in a wheelchair.’”

Lopez says he refused to take no for an answer and eventually found a surgeon willing to take on the tricky procedure, providing Lopez signed documents stating he knew the risks involved and would not take legal action should something go wrong.

Fortunately for him, the surgery was a success. But, even as a success, it meant he was unable move his neck for nearly three years. His recovery time was extremely sedentary, and as his neck came back to life Lopez began itching to play sports again.

Knowing full well that rugby and wrestling were out of the question, he still wanted to do something physical and combative. When he discovered submission grappling, he thought it would be perfect for him, given the limitations he was now forced to live with.

“It was a sport where you could fight even when you were on your back,” says Lopez. “And if someone touched your neck and you feel pain, you can tap and they let go. So I was like, that’s the thing I have to do.”

For BJJ classes Lopez, now in his early twenties, joined Mathieu Nicourt’s Free Fight Academy, located in Paris’ Quartier Asiatique (Asian quarter). He trained in BJJ and started competing, while still studying for diplomas at INSEP.

As he became more proficient with Jiu Jitsu, and as his neck started feeling better, Lopez eased back into wrestling. His neck held up and he began competing in wrestling tournaments around town. He also dabbled in some boxing. It’s around this time, in the early 2000s, that Lopez decided to combine all the disciplines he had trained in and try mixed-martial-arts.

When he first discovered MMA, in his early years after moving to France, he was blown away. “I was like wow, because it was the same thing we were doing in the street in Cameroon. Something that was very bad then and now there’s guys being paid to do it.”

After a year of MMA training with Nicourt, Lopez took his first professional fight; using the name Lopez Owonyebe. The bout took place at Xtreme Gladiators 2, in Paris, on March 11th, 2006 (years before France would effectively outlaw MMA on its soil). At that event, Lopez submitted Cedric Deschamps via choke in the first round.

Also victorious on that card was future Bellator light heavyweight champion Christian M’Pumbu, and a 25 year old Francis Carmont.

In four years, Lopez would have seventeen professional fights, amassing a record of ten wins and seven losses. He fought for M1 and Shooto on cards across continental Europe. His last fight came in 2010, against Matteo Piran at the Abu Dhabi Fighting Championships. He won by TKO in the first round.

Though he did not make it to the UFC, Lopez was delighted with his MMA career; thanks mostly to what he had been through prior. “I was so happy, because I was the guy who was supposed to die,” he says. “I was ‘killed’. So even when I was losing, it was a victory for me. I was so happy to be alive and to be healthy.”

By 2010, Lopez was in his early thirties and essentially retired from MMA competition. But, over the course of his short-lived MMA career, he had started coaching alongside Nicourt at Free Fight Academy. When he hung up his own gloves he focused purely on coaching, putting INSEP qualifications in strength training, nutrition, and sports performance to good use.

Along with regularly coaching four MMA fighters, Lopez started acting as a talent scout for the gym. It was a role he relished and proved to be pretty good at, bringing in talented fighters who other gyms hadn’t given much of a chance.

After a few years, however, he decided to leave Nicourt’s gym. A big reason behind the move was a difficult situation involving a fighter he had been working very closely with. The fighter, who Lopez says was like a son to him, decided he didn’t want Lopez in his corner anymore, instead favoring another trainer at the gym.

Distraught, Lopez decided he needed a fresh start and a new camp. However, he had no desire to join someone else’s business. Instead he wanted to start his own.

THE FACTORY THAT FOUND NGANNOU

In 2013 Lopez and his business partner, a police officer, opened CrossFight in the 12th arrondissement of Paris. Soon after, he renamed the gym ‘MMA Factory.’

When he started the gym, he was the only coach and he had just two students. But it didn’t take long for him to attract quality fighters. One of the first was Karl Amoussou, who had a long career in M-1, Strikeforce, and Bellator. In 2012 Amoussou won Bellator’s welterweight tournament, setting up a title fight with Ben Askren, which he then lost via TKO. Amoussou left American Top Team in Florida to be a part of Lopez’s growing gym. Christian M’Pumbu joined, too.

From that point on, MMA Factory swelled its membership to over 600 students and its coaching staff to 18 members. “So you can see why it is a factory,” jokes Lopez. “There are so many people coming to do work. It’s a factory for me.”

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Lopez and Ngannou train at MMA Factory on April 21, 2017.
Photo credit should read FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images

When asked whether the growth of the gym, and its student base, has been difficult, Lopez scoffs. “When I decide to do something, I go full on,” he enforces. “And I’m so passionate about my gym, about my training, about my students, that I will give all my life to them.”

Also hindering his possibilities of being overwhelmed by the expansion of his MMA Factory is the fact that, from the outset, Lopez has had designs on creating something big.

“What the UFC did with the Performance Institute, that’s what I was trying to do back then,” he explains. “But even better than that, because at the UFC’s institute, you have the conditioning, you have the recovery, you have the wrestling, and you have boxing coaches holding the pads, but you don’t have coaches for MMA.”

Along with wanting to create an elite sports performance facility, with specialized MMA trainers, Lopez also wants to attract the best coaching talent he can. This includes hiring the “national trainers” in both boxing and Muay Thai.

Lopez sees his role at MMA Factory as the coach fighters come to after they have excelled in traditional combat sports/martial arts training. Then, he says, he teaches them how to be MMA fighters. The fighters who Lopez works with in this capacity will more than likely sign up to be his clients under the management arm of MMA Factory as well.

“Every guy under contract at the MMA Factory as a professional fighter, I will not teach them how to throw a punch,” he explains. “That’s not my calling, my ability is to give them the opportunity to learn these techniques by working with the best coaches that we have.”

“I’m focusing on how to put everything together,” Lopez continues. “I’m focusing on the strategy and making them the best mixed martial artists possible. So I’m not showing them how to punch, I’m there to teach them how to win a fight.”

Lopez claims that MMA Factory is now the biggest (and best) gym in France. However, as a keen observer of media gym rankings, Lopez has higher hopes than dominating the local scene.

“I see us in the top twenty, top twenty-five in the world rankings,” enthuses Lopez. “In Europe we’re third after SBG [Ireland] and Allstars. But, when my guys fight the guys from SBG, we beat them four times out of four. SBG are only ahead of us because they have a guy who has two belts. You will see, soon MMA Factory will be number one.”

Though he believes fighters on the European scene deserve a lot of credit, and the gyms that produce them as well, he knows that the worldwide acclaim of a gym is based largely on exports who compete in the most watched promotion on the planet: the UFC.

His gym has had a number of UFC fighters train there over the years, including Taylor Lapilus and Mickael Lebout. But the UFC talent best poised to skyrocket MMA Factory up the rankings is a man who was born in the mountains five hours north of Lopez’s former home of Yaoundè.

It was in 2013, soon after Lopez had opened his gym, but after already attracting fighters like Ammassou and M’pumbu, that Francis Ngannou came knocking.

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.

“So I went there the next day and I saw this huge guy at the counter,” recalls Lopez. “And I talked to him. And he was kind of surprised to see me because he recognized my accent. He was surprised because my name is Lopez. He thought I was Puerto Rican or Cuban, but I was an African guy from Cameroon.”

The conversation, paired with their shared heritage, convinced both men to start working together; at no cost to Ngannou. Lopez even gave his newest student a bag of gear, including gloves and new clothes. He also offered him a spot to sleep in the gym, if Ngannou needed it.

The gear Lopez handed over, however, was for MMA, not boxing.

“I told him that some guy told me to try MMA, but I don’t really like it,” says Ngannou when thinking back to that first meeting with Lopez. “Then Fernand told me that this guy was right, ‘You look like you are here for MMA. And now you have a gym to do full-time MMA if you want it.’ So I said fine.”

Almost as soon as Ngannou began training at the Factory, Lopez knew he had something special. Lopez remembers a French TV station visiting the gym for a story – one that had nothing to do with Ngannou – while his newest recruit was working out in the background. Lopez says he had a huge smile on his face, that prompted the crew to ask, “what’s up?”

“I said, ‘This guy,’ and I pointed to Francis. ‘He keeps training and in two years he will be world champion.’”

Ngannou did keep training. And Lopez witnessed the young man from Batié, who only wanted to box, evolve from a novice MMA student – one who was well handled by M’Pumbu in the cage, on the mat, and in the ring – into a prospect that was correcting his mistakes almost instantly. Ngannou was soon matching veterans like M’Pumbu and Amoussou in the gym. Then he began exceeding them. Lopez felt the progression personally.

UFC Fight Night: Holm v Shevchenko
Lopez and Ngannou pose backstage after Ngannou’s win over Bojan Mihajlović in Chicago, IL on July 23, 2016.
Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

“When I was training with him in the gym, at first I was pushing the pace,” says Lopez. “I was taking him down in wrestling. Even in boxing, I was putting him in very hard situations, but quickly, like in less than six weeks, it became impossible to train with him. He was just adapting very fast.”

Lopez compares Ngannou’s progression to training montages seen in movies. It was astonishing. “He would take the information and process everything so quickly, that’s the thing that most impressed me.”

Ngannou and Lopez’s relationship as student and coach took off immediately, producing a string of wins in MMA that saw him enter the UFC in 2015. But, the personal relationship between the two men, as friends and confidantes, took a lot more time and effort to form.

“For me it took time to be become friendly with him because I was unsure of myself,” reveals Ngannou. “At that time I had nowhere to live. I was a lonely guy who just wanted somewhere to train. I didn’t feel like I had... it’s hard to explain. When you are in a bad situation, you can underestimate yourself. You can look at yourself and feel like you are not a good friend for some people and I didn’t want people to be disappointed. And I didn’t want to be disappointed either, because most the time being with people back then, I just remembered that my situation was not good. So that’s something that I avoided.”

Eventually Ngannou did warm up Lopez and the two became more than just student and teacher. Lopez points to a trip he and Ngannou took to Bahrain in 2015 (two years after their initial meeting) as the possible ice-breaker in their relationship.

In Bahrain Ngannou competed at an IMMAF show, defeating Brazilian William Baldutti via submission, due to strikes.

“We spent almost everyday together and he was telling me a lot of things,” remembers Lopez. “I was amazed by his journey to France and I was also was telling him about a lot of things in my life.”

Once that bond had formed, Lopez says he began working more with Ngannou on his mentality and attitude to fighting (as well as how to appreciate a good suit). Months after the Bahrain trip, Ngannou was signed to the UFC.

“I am so proud of him,” says Lopez about his student, client, and countryman. But, although he has a tremendous amount of praise for Ngannou, Lopez knows he has to give his fighter more than that.

UFC Fight Night: Shevchenko v Pena
Lopez peers over Ngannou’s shoulder ahead of Ngannou’s fight with Alistair Overeem in Denver, CO on January 28th, 2017.
Photo by Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

“Everyone says to him you are so handsome, you are so beautiful, you are great, you are the scariest man on the planet,” say Lopez. “Everyone is very kind, very polite. And I’m the only one who can tell him, ‘Well I don’t like this,’ or, ‘You should do this.’ I have to be the bad guy at some point and he will say, ‘Ok, give me a break, because everyone is saying how good I am and you are the only one who is still saying I have to do this.’

“But that’s my role as a trainer. There are a lot of people around him who can always tell him how good he is, but he needs someone close to him who can always speak the truth to him.”

Lopez believes his truth-telling has been essential in teaching Ngannou how to win fights as well as navigate the new world of celebrity the heavyweight has earned for himself within the MMA bubble and perhaps beyond.

However, the teaching in their relationship goes both ways. “He’s the one that teaches me how to be humble,” claims Lopez. “And with him, I learned to be patient. He taught me to be patient and to believe.”

Ngannou’s infectious humility and patience may have helped maintain Lopez as the calm and peace-loving man he says he became after his violent swaggering childhood ebbed away. A good trade-off considering all he and his Factory have done for one of the UFC’s top heavyweights.

Undoubtedly, in turn, Ngannou’s success in the Octagon has also greatly benefited Lopez and MMA Factory. The gym that once offered Ngannou sanctuary is now better known than ever and is primed for the next young man or woman who needs a place to go, and a person to believe in them, in order to earn the object of their dreams.


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