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The remarkable rise of Francis Ngannou: From homelessness to UFC stardom to Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua

We chart the incredible rise of Francis Ngannou as the former UFC champion prepares to face Anthony Joshua in just his second professional boxing match; watch the fight live from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on Sky Sports Box Office on Friday March 8.

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Watch this epic arcade-style blockbuster fight promo ahead of Anthony Joshua vs Francis Ngannou on March 8.

The world didn't give Francis Ngannou a chance. Now the world is queuing up to give him a chance. Now maybe, just maybe, it can be his world.

His globe-trotting has evolved from a story of escape to exhilarate, Ngannou's brave quest for purpose becoming a million-dollar spectacle of generational might.

The choice between turning left for the tranquil river or right for the dangerous rapids had been unavailable to him; a treacherous path is all that presented itself, the border-crossing hazards of which were out-lasted by a man who would overcome poverty, homelessness and a life-threatening route to new beginnings to build a case as one of the biggest and baddest fighting machines on the planet. When trouble hit, he hit back harder, such is the way of Francis Ngannou.

By the weekend's close the former UFC heavyweight champion will have fought boxing's reigning WBC heavyweight champion Tyson Fury and former unified heavyweight champion Anthony Joshua in the space of five months, marking his first two professional bouts in the ring. Quite the resume.

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Francis Ngannou discusses how he has prepared to face Anthony Joshua on March 8.

He continues to bet on himself, and triumph. Ngannou left Cameroon and Africa to take on a daunting trail in search of opportunity in Europe, and prevailed through his eventual discovery of supreme combat prowess in Paris; he walked away from dominance in the UFC in search of heightened reward and the challenges that loomed in boxing, and has, one might say, prevailed by way of headline encounters with the sport's marquee names.

Fury claimed a split decision victory when the pair met in Saudi Arabia last October, the lasting image, though, being the undefeated Gypsy King skewed horizontally on the canvas as Ngannou stood over him to admire the shock left hand that had just floored the champ. Subsequent debate over whether Fury had deserved to win in the face of a discourse-altering performance from Ngannou was, itself, a win for the MMA-convert and yet another strand to his staggering tale.

It was enough to earn him an extended stay between the ropes, and another handsome pay day, and another all-eyes-on-us stage within the opulence of Riyadh, which is teetering towards a monopoly on heavyweight extravaganzas. Next up it is a rejuvenated AJ, and a heavy-hitting collision with further potential to shudder the world's heavyweight narratives. Ngannou has become a coveted, lucrative disruptor as the global attraction against whom a convincing win now holds far more weight for Joshua than it might have this time last year.

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Anthony Joshua is looking forward to getting back into training and not worrying about future opponents after facing Francis Ngannou on March 8.

Ngannou's story began as a child in the village of Batie in Cameroon, hopping around the houses of relatives and aspiring to create his own path away from his father's reputation as a ruthless street fighter. He spent time living with his grandmother in a packed household, and found himself unable to afford food or equipment for school as well as working in a sand mine for £1.50 a day from the age of 10, the toll of which would help carve his dwarfing fighter's physique.

Amid it all he garnered an obsession for America and the prospect of a life in America by way of rare opportunities to watch US shows and music videos on the television. He would become known around the village as 'Francisco', and then 'San Francisco'. Ngannou believed he could make it there; others turned their nose up at a pipe dream.

Ngannou trained in a local gym with dreams of emulating his idol Mike Tyson, who some thousands of miles away was on the road to becoming world heavyweight champion as one of the fiercest fighters boxing had witnessed; the pair have since worked together as trainer and fighter in something of an impossible full circle union.

Come 2012, a 25-year-old Ngannou made the decision to embark on a journey to Europe in a bid to secure a better future for him and his family. A 3,000-mile trek from Cameroon to Morocco began.

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Johnny Nelson says Anthony Joshua has to be smart in his fight against Francis Ngannou as he has already seen the Cameroonian in action against Tyson Fury.

Ngannou hitch-hiked, trudged through forests and mountains and travelled across the Sahara desert in a pick-up truck with 25 others amid visa trouble while moving from Niger to Algeria. He would find shelter in the woods and look through bins for scraps of food, with rats his main competition. Upon reaching Morocco he swerved detection in a bid to keep his journey in tact, the next stage of which was plotting a way to Spain.

Ngannou, not knowing how to swim, attempted to cross the Mediterranean in an inflatable dingy better-suited to a leisure pool, being halted three times by the Moroccan coast guard and each time being dropped off possession-less in the Western Sahara. He had secured a fake passport that allowed him to pose as a Senegalese international, before three more attempts to cross were also thwarted.

His next effort entailed meticulous planning and research as he sought to perfect the weather and timing to his seventh round with the Med. Finally, his break came.

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Anthony Joshua refuses to give fight prediction | 'I'm ready for whatever he brings!'

Leading a group of others searching for similar salvation, Ngannou rowed gently into the night before reaching a point in the Strait of Gibraltar where the Red Cross would be on hand to take him and his followers onwards to safety. From there he was transported to Spain, where another delay awaited as he was forced to spend two months in an immigration-detention centre. He had been in worse conditions during his 14-month mission. This was just the latest bump in the road.

Finally, it was onto Paris. A lonely Ngannou endured another stint of living on the streets, but would still boast the towering stature garnered through years of working in the sand mines as he wandered into a local gym seeking a place to channel his world champion ambitions. He was greeted by coach Didier Carmont, who helped Ngannou find a place to live as well as allowing him to train for free and, crucially, turning him to Mixed Martial Arts. Ngannou wanted to be a boxing champion, but in MMA he found a natural home.

As the gym closed for the summer, Ngannou eventually came across Fernand Lopez and the MMA Factory. Cue the beginning of his journey towards UFC heavyweight glory.

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Francis Ngannou shows off his punching power, scoring 999 on a boxing machine ahead of his heavyweight clash with Anthony Joshua live on Sky Sports Box Office.

He would go 5-1 to start his MMA career while primarily competing in the French promotion '100 per cent Fight', before knocking out Luis Henrique in the second round of his UFC debut in December 2015 and winning six straight fights to set up a title shot against Stipe Miocic.

A unanimous decision loss to the MMA great was followed by another to Derrick Lewis, prompting a six-fight win streak in retaliation that would include a knockout revenge victory over Miocic to become heavyweight champion of the world in 2021 and a commanding unanimous decision win over Ciryl Gane the next year. The unlikely but ever so likely champion who had found his calling as a Cameroonian sporting icon, his ascent as which has enabled him to launch a Foundation in aid of offering young people educational resources and a safe space to train back home.

He had conquered the United States, as he always believed he would. Born in Batie, crowned in Las Vegas. Owner of the hardest recorded punch in history, and the quintessential rags-to-riches face of combat theatre, whose cinematic credentials even landed him a cameo in the ninth edition of the Fast and Furious movie franchise. Ngannou was the sovereign of his own future, from guiding others to freedom across the Mediterranean to making the decision to walk away from the UFC when his terms over a new deal were not met.

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Francis Ngannou has already given Anthony Joshua a chilling prediction of his strategy for March 8th.

Ngannou wanted to go back to where it all began. He wanted to box like the kid from Batie. Suddenly he was fighting one of the greatest heavyweights of his generation: Fury saw a bumper purse, an easily-billed battle of crossover brawn and another branch to his rollercoaster legacy; Ngannou saw opportunity.

One thumping left hook and 10 solid rounds later and he had lifted eyebrows around the boxing world. As a result, Friday's clash with Joshua resembles some kind of normality. It isn't normal. Nothing about the Ngannou story is normal. And yet, his frequent encounters with the abnormal considered, victory might yet be normal.

Ngannou wasn't supposed to be here. The plan didn't account for it. But one of sport's great underdog epics returns to centre stage this weekend, armed with fists of fury and plans for narrative-ripping carnage in mind.

Anthony Joshua's heavyweight showdown with Francis Ngannou takes place on Friday March 8, live on Sky Sports Box Office with the main event expected around 11pm. Book Joshua v Ngannou now!

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