When Francis Ngannou was 10 years old, he used to tell the people of Batie, his small village in Cameroon, that his dream was to one day become a professional heavyweight boxer – like his idol, “Iron” Mike Tyson.
It was, as people told him, a ridiculous thought. Batie, with a population of just thousands, had no boxing gym. Ngannou didn’t have a television.
But he fell in love with Tyson, without even seeing him throw a punch. Tyson was a global icon at the time, in the mid-90s, stories of his ferocity and power traveled to the corners of Central Africa. But those stories were all 10-year-old Ngannou knew.
“I knew him by name,” Ngannou told ESPN. “I had never seen him in my life.”
Fortunately, Ngannou never lacked the ability to dream. He could close his eyes and see this towering knockout artist putting another man to sleep and driving away with a truck full of money. He asked his brothers to start calling him “American Boy” because he really wanted to box in the USA. His mother forbade them from using that nickname because she didn’t like it and was also very skeptical about his dream of boxing professionally.
On Saturday, Ngannou, 37, will face Tyson Fury (33-0-1, 24 KOs) in the boxing ring in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in the non-title fight he wanted. His life story is so hard to believe that Hollywood might turn down the script. He immigrated to Paris from Cameroon at age 20, on a harrowing 14-month journey through Nigeria, Morocco and Spain. He became World Heavyweight Champion UFC just eight years after his first training session and then left the UFC as heavyweight champion in 2022 to pursue a deal that would allow him to fulfill his childhood dream of boxing professionally.
Now in his boxing debut, he faces Fury, the world heavyweight boxing champion, and if all that wasn’t enough, how did yet another impossibility become reality? Ngannou’s mentor that led to this was none other than Mike Tyson himself. Tyson joined Ngannou’s team in late July to help oversee his training.
That was the moment, Ngannou says, when it all felt very real to him – when Tyson joined his corner. It’s one thing to take a chance and walk away from an offer that UFC president Dana White said would have made Ngannou the highest-paid heavyweight in the company’s history. And it’s one thing to see the bet pay off and sign a contract to face Fury in the ring. But it’s another to see your childhood hero appear next to you and believe that you can do it.
“Everyone was like, ‘No, [essa luta] it can’t happen because he’s not a boxer,’” Ngannou said. “And even if you focus and believe, you know there’s a chance it won’t happen. But then, a month later, you’re in the gym training for a fight that’s definitely going to happen. there. Everything is real then, right? So it was a great moment.”
Ngannou says he doesn’t remember the exact period in which he saw Tyson’s video, but believes it was around the age of 20, as he was already heading north from Cameroon. At an Internet cafe, he watched an online clip of Tyson fighting for the first time. It was as he had imagined; better, even. Tyson was scary, powerful – everything the stories made him out to be. But he was also a very skilled boxer, which was what Ngannou aspired to be.
“It was cool to watch,” Ngannou said. “And it was exciting because when you start boxing, everything is fundamental: raise your hand, move like this, sideways, vertically, forwards, backwards. But then you see these professionals, and they fight differently. and it doesn’t seem fundamental. But if you look at Mike Tyson, it’s just a fight against fundamentals as a heavyweight.”
The first time Ngannou met Tyson was in November 2019, at Tyson’s podcast studio in Los Angeles. Ngannou’s manager, Marquel Martin, was able to sign Ngannou as a guest on Tyson’s “Hotboxin'” podcast.
“Everyone is going to know your name,” Tyson told Ngannou during the interview. “You are the future. You are special.”
Most of the 90-minute conversation that day revolved around the story of Ngannou and his success in the UFC. But towards the end, the topic of a boxing match against Fury came up.
At that time, there was virtually no reason to think the fight would happen. Ngannou was signed to the UFC and working toward another heavyweight title shot. Fury was in the midst of a lucrative rivalry with Deontay Wilder. They were separate entities in different sports. They could be in the same universe – two bad men (heavyweight champions are often called “the baddest men on the planet”), heavyweights – but they were on different planets in terms of engineering any event that might involve both of them.
When Ngannou said it was his dream to make it happen, however, Tyson’s response was, “Reality is in your mouth. It’s everything you say it is.”
The two left on friendly terms but did not maintain regular contact. Ngannou won his UFC championship in March 2021 and defended it once in January 2022. He exhausted his UFC contract later that year and turned down multiple offers from the company to stay. The main reason he didn’t re-sign was boxing, and the UFC, despite having played a major role in the fight for Conor McGregor against Floyd Mayweather, was not in that plan. In May, he signed with the MMA promotion PFL, with the guarantee that he could box in the contract.
Slowly, the Fury fight began to take place. The jokes on social media began. Ngannou and Fury stood side by side after Fury’s knockout of Dillian Whyte and made the pairing seem more like a reality.
As soon as Ngannou was contractually free to pursue a fight against Fury, Saudi Arabia’s financial interest gave him life. At that time, event organizers in Saudi Arabia asked Ngannou’s team if there was interest in involving Mike Tyson. Wouldn’t it be amazing, they said, if Tyson joined Ngannou’s team in some capacity?
“They asked, ‘Who will coach Francis?'” Martin told ESPN. “At this point, it was still three months away. I had a list of potential trainers. I talked to Teddy Atlas a little bit. They said, ‘Would you be interested in Tyson?’ And we were like, ‘Absolutely, of course.’
“From what I understand, when talking to Tyson in 2019, he didn’t like training because he can’t do it every day. academy. But we told the event organizers, ‘Yes, we will welcome him with open arms,’ with the understanding that he would not be an ordinary coach. And you don’t need Tyson every day. One day with him is worth several camps.”
Tyson, 57, was at home when he received the inquiring phone call. Despite what one might think, he hasn’t answered many calls of this nature over the years. It’s more or less known in boxing that Tyson is out of the game in that kind of capacity. But when he got the call about Ngannou, his mind went back to the conversation from four years ago on the podcast. He has always been impressed with Ngannou’s story and perseverance.
“I said, ‘Let’s go,'” Tyson said. “It’s his story. They’re going to make a movie out of it. [A maneira como ele me admirava quando criança]that’s how I felt about Roberto Duran, Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard.”
The two have worked together several times since that conversation in July, forming a bond that was only a wild dream for Ngannou not long ago.
Considering everything Ngannou has been through to get to this point in his life, it’s no surprise he’s slow to trust others.
Ngannou has a reputation, even among his own group, for being a bit stubborn. He does things his way. Once he builds a level of trust with someone, his barriers come down a little, but he is the ultimate boss of his career and his life.
Martin has known Ngannou for years and advised him through the failed negotiations with the UFC and the successful negotiations of this boxing event and the PFL. In all that time, Martin has only seen Ngannou trust someone immediately once, and that person was Tyson. It helped that Tyson was Ngannou’s hero, of course, but they also share similar philosophies in boxing and in life.
The look of the two working together is great, but it remains to be seen what effect that work will actually have when Ngannou has the WBC heavyweight champion in front of him on Saturday. Fury described Ngannou’s chances in the fight the same way many would: he’s a big, strong guy with a chance of knocking him out. He’s at a complete disadvantage on Saturday, but at least he has the greatest equalizer in combat sports, which is power.
“It’s always dangerous, all these big heavyweights,” Fury said. “Like I said, you never underestimate anyone. They all have the same chance. Everyone who faces me has the same chance of winning, and that’s a knockout artist’s chance. The only way to beat Tyson Fury is to knock him out, and This proved very difficult to do.”
Ngannou said he doesn’t expect to learn or match all the skills Fury has acquired in the sport in a matter of months. He hopes to rely on the work he has done and his instinct, which he trusts a lot. He also knows that everyone has a weakness and anyone can lose. Tyson is a living example of this. The biggest upset in boxing history came at his expense against 42-1 underdog Buster Douglas in 1990. The outcome of a fight is never predetermined.
It would be easy for anyone to say that the outcome of the fight doesn’t matter. The fact that this is happening, with Ngannou poised to take home the biggest prize of his career, is a massive victory. Six years ago, McGregor lost to Mayweather in Las Vegas – and appeared on Forbes’ list of highest-paid athletes at number 24, with an estimated earnings of $34 million. It’s hard to call anything about this a “loss.”
The same applies to Ngannou, but also no. When asked if there was any way he could actually “lose” on Saturday, he said it goes back to that 10-year-old boy from Cameroon who idolized Tyson and told everyone he would box professionally one day. He’s already been a UFC champion, but technically this will be the first time he proves that kid right. What a moment, with Tyson by his side.
On Saturday that dream of becoming a professional boxer will come true. So what will be the last thing Tyson says to Ngannou before entering the ring?
“I’m going to tell him, ‘Congratulations,'” Tyson said. “And that.”
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