Francis Ngannou may be UFC champ worth millions, but he says ‘you never feel’ like you’ve made it


UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou is likely a millionaire as the result of his octagon career so far. But no matter how much money he’s made, there’s a part of him that will always feel poor.

“You never feel [like you’ve made it],” Ngannou told David Greene on the “In the Moment” podcast. “I cannot walk out there, cross a pen, without picking it [up]. Instantly. Because I grew up – a pen for me was gold.

“I’ll pick [up] a pen all day long, like…I’m not poor any more. [But] 50 years after, if I saw a pen, instantly I’ll pick it up. “

Growing up in Batie, a village in Cameroon, Nigeria, Ngannou regularly went without a writing utensil. The money he made working at the local sand mine wasn’t always enough to cover the supplies he needed for school. Sometimes it wasn’t enough to pay for lunch.

Rather than suffer the embarrassment of being without, Ngannou often walked out of class, angry at his circumstances and vowing to show everyone.

“Life threw me a lot of punches at the moment that I couldn’t counter,” he said. “Life put me down and made people doubt me, look at me sometimes like I’m a piece of s***. People [who] want to remember me like that – that’s not happening. I’m too proud to accept those type of things.

“I was so embarrassed all the time, I was like the subject of shame, and nobody’s really excited to be friends with that kid – the kid that didn’t have a pen. The kid that was thrown out of the class in the middle of the class because he didn’t have a pen. … Hard and lonely – that’s what it is.”

Ngannou said when he thinks back to those times in his life, he can’t believe it’s real. But he believes those times were exactly what he needed to better his life through combat sports, leaving his native Cameroon for Europe, trying five times to cross the Strait of Gibraltar in an inflatable raft before making it on the sixth, living in a parking garage while training at the MMA Factory in Paris.

When he won the UFC heavyweight title in March 2021, violently taking the belt from Stipe Miocic at UFC 260, he said it was “kind of like my own revenge on my life, from my childhood.

“Because I always think I will be high enough to anybody who doubted me to see, ‘Oh, that guy wasn’t bad.’”

Ngannou, who remains in limbo after fighting out his contract at UFC 270 and rehabbing a serious knee injury, started a foundation to give back to kids who, like him, didn’t have what they needed. The UFC heavyweight champ hopes a gym in his hometown will support the dreams of those who want to better their lives through his path. (Not exactly the same direction, of course. Ngannou doesn’t think anyone should take the dangerous route he took to leave Africa.)

In his adopted hometown of Las Vegas, Ngannou said he collects used shoes and clothing from his neighbors to load into containers to ship home.

“They are very confused, like, ‘Is it [for] a homeless [person] or something?’”he said. “I’m like, ‘No, don’t worry bro, just give it.’ They don’t understand.”

Ngannou’s new dream is to box the heavyweight champion of the world, Tyson Fury, and get a better contract that will undoubtedly put more distance between him and poverty. He is long past the point where he has proven he is someone of value to the world.

Meanwhile, the pens are stacking up.

“Now, I have boxes in my house,” he said.