Inside the School Training Kids to Be MMA Champions

In rural Cameroon, children are put to work at an incredibly young age. UFC champion Francis Ngannou hopes to give them a better future.

A version of this article originally appeared on VICE France.

Batié is a village in the French-speaking part of Cameroon, 300 kilometres to the west of the capital Yaoundé. It recently gained notoriety in the Central African country, thanks to the most famous of its 20,000 residents – mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter and reigning UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou.

In 2019, Ngannou returned to his village to set up the Francis Ngannou Foundation, an NGO aimed at training the town’s children in combat sports and offering them the kind of opportunities he wishes he had had growing up. 

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Thanks to his international success, MMA has grown quite a bit in popularity all over the country, with clubs and tournaments popping up in Yaoundé and the coastal city of Douala. Unsurprisingly, the young people who train at the Batié gym want to follow in the champion’s formidable footsteps.

The gym and the foundation’s daily operations are managed by Sam Michael Crook, a British black belt in jiu-jitsu. When he arrived in Batié, Crook was only supposed to stay for a year, but after six months of training the town’s children, he decided to settle in Cameroon for good.

All of Crook’s work is voluntary – he invests his own money in the academy and uses his martial arts connections to secure gym equipment. He says he’s now motivated by the idea of ​​turning them into future champions – both in sport and in life – by supporting them as best he can.

The Francis Ngannou Foundation is housed in a former coffee factory.

Cameroon is rich in resources, including oil and gas, minerals, high-value timber, coffee, cotton, cocoa and more. But the average Cameroonian only makes €3.40 a day, making the country among the poorest in the world. Families in rural areas of Cameroon are usually headed by a patriarch who takes multiple wives and has many children. The kids are expected to support the family’s income from a young age.

The children waiting for Sam's instructions.

In fact, child labour is not prohibited in the country. Recently, there have been attempts to eradicate this brutal form of exploitation, but the issue is more nuanced than it suggests. Based on examples of countries who have outlawed child labour in the past – like Bangladesh – some activists believe an outright ban would only push children towards even more dangerous activities, including child prostitution. Instead, they say efforts should focus on making child labour safer and helping kids stay in school, even if they need to work.

Children wash off in the river after working in the local sand mine.

In Batié, most children do go to school, but they have to travel several kilometres to get there, on foot or by motorbike, and there’s always the chance the teacher simply won’t show up without a warning. On the other hand, the foundation’s physical presence in the village is a constant in their lives, providing them with stability and security and a place to hang out, gain skills and confidence and stay out of trouble.

Franck, 16, has just obtained a blue belt in jiu-jitsu (level two out of eight in the sport) after a year of practice. The first to reach the goal at the foundation, Franck has only missed one training session in two years. “I train seven days a week, three or four hours a day,” he says. “Sometimes, I come here straight from school to train with Sam before the group lessons.”

A true leader at heart, Franck already leads jiu-jitsu classes despite his young age. “When Master Sam is not here, I supervise the others and share with them what little I know,” he says. His assertiveness extends beyond the four walls of the foundation to his home, where he acts as a father figure to the younger cousins he lives with. His aunt makes every effort to ensure he’ll have as much time to train as possible and become a champion – some day. Sometimes this gets in the way of the work that needs to be done in the family fields, but it’s a sacrifice they are willing to make.

Franck at home.

Kelvin, also 16, came with his family from the part of Cameroon where English is spoken, a village to the west of Batié, near the border with Nigeria. He and his five brothers and four sisters moved here because of the Ambazonia civil war, an ongoing conflict between the country’s official government and separatist forces who want to make English-speaking Cameroon independent. The village hosts many other refugees from those areas, thanks to its proximity to the border with English-speaking Cameroon.

Crook considers Kelvin to be a promising and technically-minded fighter. He was the second student after Franck to get his blue belt. Like Franck, he also has an intense work life, dividing his time between agricultural work and sessions in the gym. “I get up at 5.30AM to take care of the house before doing anything else,” he said. “We pray and then go and work in the fields until it gets too hot. We come home to eat, then we train at the foundation with Sam.”

Kelvin, 16, one of the most promising students at the foundation.

Another promising fighter, 18-year-old Tale is one of Francis Ngannou's cousins. He is the foundation's third blue belt in jiu-jitsu. He lives with his father’s four wives and many siblings and has also taken on a fatherly role since his dad is not home very often. To support his family, he works in the fields and at a local sand mine.  

Tale has quite the entrepreneurial spirit – he once bought two male and two female pigs to breed them and sell the offspring while keeping some for the family. It's good business, he says. Tale also has a motorbike – quite the rarity in this village – which he maintains as best he can. 

One day, if he manages to save up some money, he hopes to study mechanics and open up a shop. But right now, his priority is jiu-jitsu. “Here in Cameroon, even if you have degrees, you won’t find a job. You have to do what comes your way,” he said. “Sooner or later I will be an MMA champion, I am confident of that.”

At Tale's house in the early morning with Franck, Kelvin and Sam.

We accompanied Francis Ngannou's three cousins ​​– Tale, Duprince, eight, and Djibril, 12 – to the sand mine where they usually work. Every day, they get up around 4.30AM to clean the house and take care of their tasks – Duprince harvests eggs, Djibril takes care of the goat and pigs. Their routine is busy – School at 8AM until the early afternoon, then working at the mine or in the fields and then training with Crook for a couple of hours from four or 5PM onwards. 

Desmond, 28, is one of the foundation's oldest students.

One of the foundation’s oldest students, Desmond, 28, already has five MMA fights under his belt. But fighting conditions around here can be precarious due to a lack of funding for the sport. At one of his recent fights, the ropes surrounding the ring were completely slack, so the competitors nearly fell off. Another time, he had to compete on a carpet on the ground: no cage, no ring.  

An online funding page was set up to send him to England to train in better facilities and fight as part of a recognised organisation. Almost all the children we spoke to want to leave Cameroon, because they feel they have no opportunities in the country. The foundation’s goal is to make that possible for the village’s rising stars. Desmond, they hope, will be the first.

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Scroll down to see more photos:

Desmond during his fight in Douala, which he won by KO.

A jiu-jitsu class at the Francis Ngannou Foundation. The students are waiting for Sam's instructions.

Kelvin and his friend Wisdom.

Wisdom and Kelvin in their room.

Sparring between two children at the gym.

Tale, Djibril and Duprince, Francis Ngannou's three little cousins, work in the sand mine every week, including holidays.

Tagged:

MMA, Cameroon, jiu jitsu, Photo Essay, Martial Arts, VICE International, vice france

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