Inside the School Training Kids to Become MMA Champions
A version of this article originally appeared on VICE France.
Batié is a village in the French-speaking part of Cameroon, 300 kilometers west of the capital Yaoundé. It has recently gained notoriety in the central African country, thanks to the most famous of its 20,000 inhabitants – mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter and reigning UFC heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou.
In 2019, Ngannou returned to his village to establish the Francis Ngannou Foundation, an NGO aimed at training the town’s children in combat sports and providing them with the kind of opportunities he wished he had growing up.
Thanks to its international success, MMA has grown in popularity across the country, with clubs and tournaments springing up in Yaoundé and the coastal city of Douala. Unsurprisingly, the young people who train at the Batié gymnasium want to follow in the footsteps of the formidable champion.
The foundation’s gymnasium and day-to-day operations are managed by Sam Michael Crook, a British black belt in jiu-jitsu. Arrived in Batié, Crook was only to stay there for a year, but after six months of training for the children of the city, he decided to settle permanently in Cameroon.
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 is now motivated by the idea of making them future champions – both in sport and in life – by supporting them as best he can.
Cameroon is rich in resources, including oil and gas, minerals, high-value timber, coffee, cotton, cocoa and more. But the average Cameroonian earns just €3.40 a day, putting the country among the poorest in the world. Families in rural areas of Cameroon are generally headed by a patriarch who takes several wives and has many children. Children are expected to support family income from an early age.
In fact, child labor is not prohibited in the country. Recently, attempts have been made to eradicate this brutal form of exploitation, but the issue is more nuanced than it suggests. Based on examples of countries that have banned child labor in the past – such as Bangladesh – some campaigners believe an outright ban would only push children into even more dangerous activities, including prostitution. children. Instead, they say efforts should be aimed at making child labor safer and helping children stay in school, even if they need to work.
In Batié, most children go to school, but they have to travel several kilometers to get there, on foot or by motorbike, and there is always a risk that the teacher will not show up without 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 relax, build 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. First to reach the goal at the foundation, Franck has missed just 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 group lessons.”
A true leader at heart, Franck already leads jiu-jitsu classes despite his young age. “When Master Sam isn’t around, I supervise others and share with them what little I know,” he says. His confidence extends beyond the four walls of the foundation to his home, where he acts as a father figure to the young cousins he lives with. His aunt is doing everything to ensure he has as much time as possible to train and become a champion – one day. Sometimes this gets in the way of the work that needs to be done in the family fields, but it is a sacrifice they are willing to make.
Kelvin, also 16, came with his family from the English-speaking part of Cameroon, a village 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 Anglophone Cameroon independent. The village hosts many other refugees from these regions, thanks to its proximity to the border with English-speaking Cameroon.
Crook sees Kelvin as a promising, technically-minded fighter. He was the second student after Franck to obtain his blue belt. Like Franck, he also has an intense professional life, dividing his time between agricultural work and gym sessions. “I get up at 5:30 a.m. to take care of the house before I do anything else,” he said. “We pray and then we go to work in the fields until it gets too hot. We go home to eat, then we train at the foundation with Sam.”
Another promising fighter, Tale, 18, 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 father is not home very often. To support his family, he works in the fields and in a local sand mine.
Tale is quite entrepreneurial – he has already bought two male and two female pigs to breed and sell the offspring while keeping some for the family. It’s a good deal, he said. Tale also has a motorbike – quite rare in this village – which he maintains as best he can.
One day, if he manages to save some money, he hopes to study mechanics and open a shop. But right now his priority is jiu-jitsu. “Here in Cameroon, even if you have diplomas, you will not find a job. You have to do what happens to you,” he said. “Sooner or later, I will be an MMA champion, I am convinced of that.”
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 4:30 am to clean the house and go about their business – Duprince harvests the eggs, Djibril takes care of the goat and the pigs. Their routine is busy – School at 8 am until early afternoon, then work in the mine or in the fields, then training with Crook for a few hours starting at 4 or 5 pm.
One of the foundation’s oldest students, Desmond, 28, already has five MMA fights under his belt. But fighting conditions here can be precarious due to a lack of funding for the sport. In one of his recent fights, the ropes surrounding the ring were completely loose, so the contestants nearly fell. Another time he had to compete on a mat on the floor: no cage, no ring.
An online fundraising page was created to send him to England to train in better facilities and fight in a recognized organization. Almost all the children we spoke to want to leave Cameroon because they feel they have no opportunities in the country. The aim of the foundation is to make this possible for the rising stars of the village. Desmond, they hope, will be the first.
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