Francis Ngannou will 'keep dreaming' as he tests his boxing mettle against Anthony Joshua

Former UFC champion takes on British heavyweight in Saudi Arabia on Friday

Anthony Joshua and Francis Ngannou face off in Riyadh

Anthony Joshua and Francis Ngannou face off in Riyadh
Powered by automated translation

Francis Ngannou sat in the makeshift gym at the resort where he resides temporarily in Riyadh, as he prepares for a second professional boxing bout that could send shock waves through the sport, and remarked on a truly incredible journey to stardom.

“Life always works out pretty well when you believe,” Ngannou told The National and a small collection of other publications present in the Saudi Arabian capital.

“Most of the time you will get [made] unstable by the storm, and then maybe that can create a doubt in your mind.

“But if you stay still, you will find out that life is always good.”

It may be good now, great in fact, but for sure it was not always that way. By now, Ngannou’s life story is well-documented and destined for Hollywood, but it is worth repeating.

Aged 10, he laboured in a sand quarry in his native Cameroon; at 26 and seeking a better life, Ngannou set off for Paris, thwarted in a year-long first attempt by way of Morocco and then, in the second, jailed for entering Europe illegally.

On his release, Ngannou lived homeless on the streets of the French capital, destitute and alone. It was only when Didier Carmont, a boxing coach and brother of pro mixed martial artist Francis Carmont, offered refuge and an introduction to MMA that Ngannou began his almost inexplicable rise to the sport’s pinnacle.

By the time he departed the UFC early last year, caught in a contractual dispute and again determined to enhance his quality of life, Ngannou had captured its heavyweight championship.

He was unsatisfied with the deal put forward by the world’s lead mixed martial arts promotion, subsequently stripped of the belt, and released to become a free agent. His resolve was yet another bold move in an existence brimming full with them.

However, within 10 months, Ngannou was standing face-to-face in a Riyadh ring with Tyson Fury, the unbeaten WBC heavyweight champion. Astonishingly, and although he boxed nominally in his early 20s, it represented his pro debut.

Paid a sum that far outstripped his UFC earnings, Ngannou then defied all expectations. In the third round, he caught Fury with a clubbing left and sent the man whom many consider the greatest heavyweight of this generation sprawling on the canvas.

Fury recovered, somewhat, to eke out a victory by split decision, averting one of the sport’s most startling upsets. But, irrespective of the loss, however narrow, Ngannou had again pushed back the boundaries of the believable.

No doubt, he caught off guard and, thus, confused Fury. Yet he showed enough through those 10 rounds – the effective jab, the competent crosses and left hooks, the footwork aided by a training camp with Mike Tyson – that he must be taken seriously.

Of course, Friday’s fight with Anthony Joshua in Riyadh again presents Ngannou as a massive underdog; Joshua is a two-time world champion seemingly with his bite back.

Ngannou, 37, remains an enigma – his backstory only bolsters that viewpoint – but the element of surprise should, to an extent, be gone. If the suggestion is that Fury did not give Ngannou his full focus, then Joshua most certainly will.

Ngannou, though, has spent a life and a career confounding convention. Behind him in that makeshift gym at his Riyadh residence, lays the empty boxing ring where Fury suffered the severe gash above his eye that, in turn, postponed last month's undisputed world heavyweight title showdown with Oleksandr Usyk.

With that bout, set for the same Kingdom Arena in which Ngannou meets Joshua, moved to May, Ngannou finds himself at the centre of the boxing world this week.

Asked who he thought would eventually prevail between Fury and Usyk, and perhaps provide the ultimate conclusion to his own wildly unimaginable tale, Ngannou said: “I would go more for Tyson Fury. I pick Tyson Fury. And to be honest, I want him to win. I want the rematch to be for undisputed.”

Ngannou added with a smile: “Always aiming high”.

His life has been characterised by reaching far beyond perceived limits. With his impact on combat sports already secure, his legacy might yet not be defined. It could be across the next few manic months in a boxing landscape that skews increasingly towards Saudi Arabia.

“What I hope to be remembered as is as a great athlete,” Ngannou said, before maybe casting back the mind to those formative years in Cameroon. “Also, as a person who stands up for himself and does everything that he has to do, that never backs down, never gives up.

“Yeah, a dreamer. Because dreams are free. I’m allowed to dream, and I keep dreaming. And I don’t give my dream up.”

Updated: March 07, 2024, 6:29 AM