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Three Things to Know About the Making of ESPN Cover Story: Francis Ngannou

Writer Tim Keown on UFC Heavyweight Champion Ngannou's saga: "He began working in a sand mine at nine years old - I found myself captivated by his story."

The latest ESPN Cover Story featuring UFC star Francis Ngannou debuted today across the network’s platforms. Ahead of his title defense versus Ciryl Gane at UFC 270 (Saturday, 10 p.m. ET, ESPN+PPV), Ngannou spoke with ESPN senior writer Tim Keown for this month’s edition about his lifelong journey to becoming the Heavyweight Champion.

Keown took Front Row inside the remarkable story with three things to know about making the multi-platform piece.

Francis Ngannou
(Peter Yang for ESPN)

1. On what it means to share Ngannou’s story:
I confess to being a casual fan of the UFC, but the fighters’ stories are often filled with wild turns that exceed fiction, and Ngannou’s story is the most remarkable – by far. It might sound corny, but I felt honored, and a little bit intimidated when I sat down to document this man’s life. The journey he traveled from Cameroon to Europe – crossing the Strait of Gibraltar on his seventh try – is not a sports story. It’s a human story and one that speaks to the enduring drive to create a better life amid the world’s inequality.

2. On remarkable moments in the interview:
While researching Ngannou’s life and career before meeting with him, I knew he could be reticent to tell his story. There are a lot of scars in his past, and he retains a certain vulnerability that gets lost in his reputation as the UFC’s most powerful fighter. We met on a Sunday afternoon at his home in Las Vegas, and as he began to describe his childhood in Cameroon – one tidbit: He began working in a sand mine at nine years old – I found myself captivated by his story. Four hours later, I felt like I had been given something precious.

Working in a Cameroonian sand mine is among the toughest jobs in the world. As he narrated a video of workers chopping pieces of soil down a hill, I joked about environmental protections. ‘To protect the land is a rich country problem,’ he said. ‘When you’re hungry, and you don’t have anything to eat, the first thing you protect is yourself.’

3. On working on ESPN’s Cover Story versus other projects:
Cover Story is unique because it demands so much of the subject: time for interviews and a photoshoot, but also a level of commitment to tell the story casually (for the written piece) and more formally (for television). It’s a testament to the work of producer Danny Arruda and Stacey Pressman (director, talent production) that Ngannou looked at me after we had finished a one-hour television interview and said, ‘We’re done already? But I have so much more to say.’

Cover Story Senior Editor Ericka Goodman-Hughey's Take:
Karen Frank, ESPN Director, Photography: “Peter did a quick scout around the location and happened upon the pallet yard [near a Las Vegas photo studio].
He spoke to the owner who was excited about having us shoot there.” (Peter Yang for ESPN)
“Ngannou’s story is awe-inspiring. It almost felt impossible to contain it in the Cover Story format. However, Keown wrote a profile that masterfully recalled the UFC Heavyweight Champ’s remarkable journey. My job was to trust Tim’s writing process, advocate for his approach, and ensure that Ngannou’s story was one that insightfully explored his miraculous rise to the top. ”

For more on this story, visit ESPN PressRoom.

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