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How Francis Ngannou made it from the sand mines of Cameroon to an MMA championship

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

The baddest man on the planet - in his prime, boxer Mike Tyson held that title and for good reason. Since his retirement, heavyweight fighters have all vied to claim the name for themselves. The man who currently holds it grew up idolizing Tyson, and that's mixed martial arts superstar Francis Ngannou.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: ...With Ngannou. Down goes The Reem. Francis Ngannou has arrived.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Whoa.

MARTÍNEZ: Ngannou stands at 6-foot-4 and weighs in at more than 250 pounds of pretty much pure muscle. He holds a record for the world's strongest punch. One strike from him is the equivalent of getting hit full speed by a small car. So it's hard to picture him as a child living in a small village in Cameroon, known mostly for its sand mines. When I spoke with him recently, he told me about how he had shoveled sand into trucks all day to support his family when he was around 9 years old.

FRANCIS NGANNOU: We had no choice. We need to survive. So it was like a survival job.

MARTÍNEZ: Ngannou had dreams to be a heavyweight champion, just like his hero Mike Tyson. But he couldn't slug his way to belts and trophies in Cameroon. So at the age of 26, he left everything behind to chase that dream in Europe. And as you might imagine, that choice was crushingly hard to make.

NGANNOU: You don't just wake up one day and leave your country, even without know where you're going, knowing that you're taking all the risk in the world, you might not come back alive.

MARTÍNEZ: The risks included crossing the Sahara Desert, sometimes in the back of a smuggler's truck and many times by foot. Ngannou remembers every country he passed through as he traveled more than 2,000 miles.

NGANNOU: From Cameroon to Nigeria, then Nigeria, Niger, from Niger to Algeria, then from Algeria to Morocco.

MARTÍNEZ: From Morocco, he needed to somehow get into Spanish territory. Then, even if he wasn't technically on the continent of Europe, he'd officially be on European land. Now, there were only two ways to do that. The first was to go over multiple fences with police patrols and barbed wire. Ngannou attempted that but failed. So he tried option No. 2.

NGANNOU: The other way was to put a raft - inflatable raft, the one that you usually use in your swimming pool - put it in the ocean and try to get somewhere that the land in Morocco is close to the land in Europe.

MARTÍNEZ: Sounds impossible, even deadly. Ngannou tried it six times over the course of one year. Between those attempts, he lived in a Moroccan forest where he and other migrants competed with rats for scraps of spoiled food in the trash.

NGANNOU: You get in this desperate situation, and you have to hold on in something. There is not a way back. You don't know if you're going to make it. There's only one thing going on in your life, and it's your dream. And even though we were in the forest and couldn't do anything, I could find a refuge in the idea of, I have a bright future in boxing.

MARTÍNEZ: So even in those conditions, Ngannou still had to work.

NGANNOU: I was doing push-ups and abs in the forest like crazy. Even now that I'm in all the best condition workout, I can do, like, all the push-up that I was doing out there because I have one thing in my mind. It was boxing - one thing.

MARTÍNEZ: Finally, Ngannou and his inflatable raft made it to Spanish waters. There, he was picked up by a Red Cross boat. After two months in Spanish prison, he was given refugee status and freed. Ngannou made his way to Paris and joined a fighting gym. That's where his coaches introduced him to this new thing called MMA.

NGANNOU: And I was like, what's MMA?

MARTÍNEZ: (Laughter).

NGANNOU: And he's like, mixed martial art. I'm like, OK, cool, fancy. Like, what it is? So he have to explain to me, like, yes, boxing and wrestling and this. I'm like, bro, leave me alone. All what I want is, like, straight boxing.

MARTÍNEZ: But he gave mixed martial arts a chance, and the success came. Two years after starting the sport, Ngannou earned a contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, the UFC, the biggest mixed martial arts promotion in the world. And then, almost nine years after he first left Cameroon, Ngannou fought for the heavyweight championship belt.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: ...His big opening. Oh, stunned him.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Oh, knockdown for Ngannou.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: He stunned him. Stipe back to his feet. Eats another upper cut.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Nice counter right from Miocic...

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Ooh, out cold.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: ...Who is now down and out.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: Oh, my God.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Out cold.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #1: Francis Ngannou can finally call himself the greatest heavyweight in the world.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: Oh, my goodness. Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #2: Wow. Wow.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER #3: You go into the fire with Ngannou...

MARTÍNEZ: When you held that belt, when you became the heavyweight champion of the UFC, I mean, how did you reflect on your journey? Did you think, OK, this is it? I've made it. My dream, even though it's changed, is exactly what I wanted it to be.

NGANNOU: I remember that night, March 27, when I held that belt. I had a flashback of my life. I was in the arena. I wasn't seeing anything else, just like I was in the movie theater and just see my life playing in front of me. And I feel so emotional. I'm like, man, I get my revenge on life. Doesn't matter how much he beat me down, I get here. I have dealt with my past. I have done it.

MARTÍNEZ: Ngannou had reached heights most fighters could only dream about, but his relationship with the UFC was verging on a nightmare. You see, the UFC has been plagued with accusations that they don't pay their fighters enough. And Ngannou told me he had to live frugally and even borrow money between fights. The UFC also would not let him follow his first passion - boxing. So in what shocked the mixed martial arts world, Ngannou completed his UFC contract and left. Last month, he joined the PFL, a smaller league. But they gave him an equity stake and allowed him to pursue boxing. They also made him chairman of PFL Africa, an initiative to expand MMA in the continent. Ngannou says that excites him the most.

NGANNOU: It's not going to be for me, but at least he will help some people just like me that had a dream from not have to go to all those risks of have to always go to the Western country, is to bring it home something that belongs to us.

MARTÍNEZ: Ngannou's decision to leave the UFC at his peak was unprecedented. The biggest fights with the best fighters are there, and critics attacked Ngannou for running from those fights. But Ngannou is not bothered.

NGANNOU: One thing that I have learned in life, I go for what matter for me, what I care for. Is the same way that I get here. So why would I change? At this point, professional-wise, I have done what could be done. I don't want to make my life like a chase of fame. I want to do what matter for me, and that has been the goal since Day 1.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARDIO WORKOUT CREW'S "WAKA WAKA (THIS TIME FOR AFRICA) (MADE FAMOUS BY SHAKIRA)")

MARTÍNEZ: That's Francis Ngannou, former UFC heavyweight champion and current baddest man on the planet.

(SOUNDBITE OF CARDIO WORKOUT CREW'S "WAKA WAKA (THIS TIME FOR AFRICA) (MADE FAMOUS BY SHAKIRA)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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