The arrival of the new year is hardly the only countdown on the horizon.
Next month, Francis Ngannou steps back into the Octagon against Ciryl Gane to headline UFC 270. This will be the first time in the cage for Ngannou since slaying Stipe Miocic last March, forcefully taking his place as UFC heavyweight champion.
More than nine months will have passed between fights by the time Ngannou returns to fight, and life in the cage was not static during his absence. Since Ngannou last fought, Gane extended his undefeated streak in a convincing win against Alexander Volkov in June, then claimed the interim heavyweight title with a shellacking against Derrick Lewis not even two months later.
With both men possessing championship heavyweight belts, this meeting pitting Ngannou (16-3) against Gane (10-0) is a title unification bout. But that is not the manner in which Ngannou views the situation.
“I don’t recognize [Gane’s] belt,” Ngannou said. “I’m the undisputed heavyweight champion. [Gane’s belt] isn’t legitimate, it is a replacement. The presence of the champion makes the interim title invalid. And I’m here.”
Well-versed in distributing physical punishment, Ngannou is an expert on the subject of pain. Four years ago, the 6’4”, 263-pound monster of a mixed martial artist set the record for the hardest punch officially documented. He has also been on the receiving end of plenty of strife and anguish.
As a boy in Cameroon, Ngannou fought off advances to join gangs and instead poured sweat while working sand mines. Nearly a decade-and-a-half later, in pursuit of new opportunities, he was jailed for two months in Morocco after illegally entering Europe.
“To me, pain is not physical,” Ngannou said. “It is mental. The hardest struggle was to keep my dream alive. That was a constant struggle in my mind. That’s why pain hurts so much. Pain is seeing your dream slip away.”
Ngannou refused to allow himself to lose hope of his dream. He eventually landed in France, where he was homeless in Paris until fate intervened. That is when he was introduced to Fernand Lopez, his future coach. Lopez, who now trains Gane, worked extensively with Ngannou at MMA Factory, the largest mixed martial arts facility in France. That is where Ngannou set sail on a new journey to MMA greatness.
“Everyone has their own struggles,” said Ngannou. “But what could I do with those struggles? No one was going to hand me anything. I needed to work my ass off to get what I wanted. I wanted to change my life. I just needed to keep that hope alive that I could do it.”
Ngannou now stands alone as king of the UFC heavyweight division. Gane also carries a title, yet one with the interim label. The undisputed championship for Ngannou has represented an ongoing battle to show the world, particularly youth back in his home of Cameroon, that hope and a fighting spirit belong in every person’s journey.
“I’m not here by mistake,” Ngannou said. “From the beginning, even when this started as a dream, I knew I needed to put in the work to end my suffering. That is why I am here.
“I wanted an opportunity to change my life, so I put in the work. And I am still putting in the work to accomplish my next goal.”
Watch UFC with fuboTV: Start with a 7-day free trial!
Fight week for UFC 269 has officially commenced, with Charles Oliveira defending the lightweight title against Dustin Poirier this Saturday. But that bout will take place with the upcoming UFC 270 main event looming, a meeting of two bona fide super heavyweights and the return of the most dominant force in the division.
“I want to be the one, the only one, on top of the division,” Ngannou said. “That means I have to take everyone else out.”
Running roughshod through a division is a noble goal in MMA, though it can only be accomplished one fight at a time. A successful first title defense, as well as putting the first dent on Gane, will serve as a giant step in the right direction for Ngannou.
“I have what it takes to shut up everyone in the division,” Ngannou said. “I’m going to make a statement on January 22.”
Sports Illustrated may receive compensation for some links to products and services on this website.