UFC heavyweight contender Francis Ngannou knows there were many skeptics when his assault on the division was interrupted by two consecutive losses in 2018.
He’s been dealing with it his entire life.
“That wasn’t the first time people doubted me” the 32-year-old said Thursday. “They’ve always doubted me. They doubted me when I was in Cameroon. Then when I (moved to France and) said I would be a world-class fighter, nobody believed in that. Even my mom doubted me. She said, ‘Hey, kid, I’ll always love you and support you, but come down to reality.’ ”
Ngannou, who grew up in abject poverty in Africa before languishing in homelessness in Paris only to pursue boxing and eventually turn to MMA, stopped his first six UFC opponents, four in the first round. But he lost in his first title fight against Stipe Miocic, followed by a decision loss to Derrick Lewis in which he appeared hesitant to engage.
“It was a hard time,” said Ngannou, who now lives in Las Vegas. “Sometimes you have to debate with yourself how to handle things, but I never really doubted myself. It was hard. It was tough, but I knew I could do it.”
The positive thinking worked. Ngannou responded with two more first-round knockout wins, including a 26-second stoppage of former champion Cain Velasquez in February.
Now he’s preparing for a No. 1 contender bout against former champ Junior dos Santos in the main event of UFC on ESPN 3 on June 29 in Minneapolis with more enthusiasm.
“You have the taste of winning back,” he said. “You feel a little different. You feel way more comfortable when you’re thinking about your next fight.”
Ngannou was to fight dos Santos in 2017, but it was called off when USADA flagged dos Santos for a violation of the anti-doping policy. It’s a matchup Ngannou has wanted since he first learned of the UFC while training to be a boxer in France six years ago.
“At that time, I was going on YouTube and watching (UFC heavyweight fights),” he said. “The top guys were Junior, Cain Velasquez, Brock Lesnar, Alistair Overeem. That was like the four guys at the top at the time, and I thought if I ever end up fighting these guys, that means I’m great, too.”
Ngannou has wins over Overeem and Velasquez. Lesnar is retired. He gets his chance against dos Santos next week.
“I got two of them,” he said. “I’m still chasing.”
Lineker off Saturday card
John Lineker has pulled out of his bantamweight bout against Rob Font on Saturday’s UFC Fight Night 154 main card because of an injury suffered while sparring Thursday.
The organization could not find a replacement for Font for the ESPN Plus card in Greenville, South Carolina.
Chan Sung Jung, the “Korean Zombie,” will face Renato Moicano in the featherweight main event on a card that streams live at 4 p.m.
The six-fight preliminary card will air on ESPN2 at 1 p.m.
Cejudo out after surgery
Henry Cejudo, the UFC flyweight and bantamweight champion, underwent surgery Wednesday to repair a torn rotator cuff in his left shoulder and won’t be able to train for at least five months.
He said he suffered the injury in the first round of his fight against Marlon Moraes for the 135-pound title June 8 in Chicago, which Cejudo won by third-round knockout.
“I have never had an injury that requires intrusive surgery,” the Olympic gold medalist wrote on Instagram. “Everything in life happens for a reason. This will make me better.”
Saturday: Bellator 223 (DAZN), London
Saturday: UFC Fight Night 153 (ESPN Plus), Greenville, S.C.
June 29: UFC on ESPN3 (ESPN), Minneapolis
July 6: UFC 239 (ESPN/ESPN Plus PPV), T-Mobile Arena
July 12: Bellator 224 (Paramount), Thackerville, Okla.
July 13: UFC Fight Night 154 (ESPN Plus), Sacramento, Calif.