By Declan Taylor
THE first time Francis Ngannou got paid for his part in organised violence he received 100 €20 notes in a brown envelope. He walked home that night and stuffed it under his mattress for safe keeping.
That was nearly a decade ago now and the 37-year-old has since established himself as one of the greatest heavyweights in MMA history paving the way for an unprecedented boxing match with the world’s No.1 heavyweight Tyson Fury.
The pair meet here in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Saturday night in Ngannou’s boxing debut which will take place in a purpose built arena that took just 60 days to erect. Before September, the site on which it stands was just sand and rock.
Given what he has overcome to get here, Ngannou is not at all fazed by this travelling circus. It has been suggested that he will pocket an eight-figure sum for Saturday’s main event. As Fury put it this week: ‘the bloke has already won’.
When Ngannou sat down with a handful of British reporters on Thursday night, before Fury’s father John offered both him and his trainer Mike Tyson out on stage, he spoke quietly about his journey to this point. Despite making his name in mixed martial arts, he insists boxing was always his target.
“It was about the opportunity,” says Ngannou. “I was never excited about MMA, regardless of how motivated the people around me were.
“I was not excited about becoming an MMA champion for two years, in August 2015, when I was in the bedroom when I received the call saying I had a UFC contract.
“But I wasn’t excited about it, for that moment I looked at it as a good opportunity. It was a combat sport and an opportunity to become a world champion, it was always my dream to become an elite pro fighter and this was it, it might not be boxing but this was it.
“That was the moment I really started to train as an MMA fighter, before it was just fun. But I knew that if I was going to expose myself I had better look good.”
So has he ever officially boxed?
“I had a couple of amateur fights in Cameroon,” he says. “Not when I was a kid, I started boxing when I was 22 years old. I won those fights, but fights are never easy when you start at 22 and you have to fight three or six months later. It’s not easy, you have all the stress, everything is hard.”
However Ngannou’s real introduction to combat came in November 2013, 10 years ago next month.
“That was three months after I started to train,” he recalls. “It was in a gymnasium in Paris, I was fighting this guy, the only reason I was fighting him was because I trusted my boxing. Having been in the gym for three months I didn’t know much about MMA, I didn’t even know the rules, it was just fun and a passion.
“I ended up winning by submission but to this day, a lot of jiu-jitsu and grappling specialists have tried to find a name for that technique but there wasn’t one. The guy just wanted to go to the floor and I grabbed his arm and twisted it and pulled his hand.
“I didn’t get paid. It was a tournament and I didn’t get paid. I fought two fights but I didn’t get paid.”
Although he won that night, Ngannou says it was defeat in the same tournament which kept him in the sport and ultimately precluded him from embarking on a boxing career for the next decade.
“At that time I didn’t intend to do MMA,” he adds. “When they proposed the fight I was doing MMA just for the experience but my goal was still boxing.
“The problem was, and the reason I stayed in MMA, was I lost the final. It was supposed to be the last fight for me and then I would move on to boxing and not even go to the MMA gym anymore, but I lost. But my ego felt like I was quitting if I leave on the loss so I decided to leave on a positive note.”
Despite his burgeoning reputation as a mixed martial artist within the Paris fight community, boxing was still the first love for a man who grew up idolising Mike Tyson, the man Saturday’s opponent was named after.
But those were tough days for the Cameroonian, working illegal cash-in-hand jobs on the door at nightclubs and supplementing that income by pummeling people at the weekends.
“You can love MMA but you can’t change the fact you loved boxing for 20 years before discovering what MMA is,” he adds. “It’s not something you can change, I love boxing but MMA gave me more opportunities.
“After that tournament I won 2000 euros but I left on a good note and I was going to go to boxing. A friend told me the gym Carlos Takam was at and I went there that same month, April 2014, and started training there, sparring with Carlos Takam.
“That was my goal but from time to time they would call me. I was getting noticed, they would say, “Who the f*** is that guy, that animal?” Very quickly people were very impressed with how I was fighting. The promoter would say there was a fight for 300 euros and I wasn’t in the best position to turn that down.
“Any competition, I was in, anything to keep me active, I would take. I didn’t have a job, I was training full time and I wanted something to do. I would train boxing and if they needed me for sparring, I would spar. I was also training at an MMA gym and I had a whole dream in front of me.
“For the most part those MMA fights were cancelled at the last minute because people didn’t want to deal with me anymore. They said I was brutal and violent. Sometimes I would be in the locker room warming up and they would cancel the fight.”
Given the riches on offer, there was never any chance of either man pulling out of Saturday’s fight and risking what are career-high purses for the pair of them. It has been a long and winding road to boxing for Ngannou but he now has the chance to pull off what would be the biggest shock in the sport’s long history. He has been given a ‘puncher’s chance’ by Fury but the stark reality is he has much less than that.
“I have climbed a lot of mountains in my life,” says the former sand quarry worker and prison inmate.
“I’ve been training for over three months. I feel more comfortable. At the beginning it was very tough, not to mention I haven’t fought for a long time. It was not only coming back to a training camp but for a different discipline so it was very tough at the beginning.
“But it got more comfortable and as long as it was, you wish you had two or four more weeks but you remember you have that in every camp. There is never enough until you decide it’s enough and you go.
“The people who I fought in MMA to become champion had been doing combat sports since they were kids so I’m not afraid of mountains.
“There is not a way to know if I can climb or not unless I try. I won’t stay back and decide I can’t climb.
“I will go to the mountain and find out I can’t climb.”
On Saturday the world will find out whether Ngannou can reach the summit. Whatever happens, he’s going to need a bigger mattress.