Anthony Joshua spent time in prison and Francis Ngannou was homeless in Paris, but years later they will fight in £55m super-fight… how two KO artists from humble beginnings came to clash in Saudi Arabia

Anthony Joshua and Francis Ngannou will go head-to-head in a money-spinning £55million heavyweight bout this Friday with plenty riding on the evening for both men.

Joshua is looking to continue re-climbing the division rankings and secure his fourth win in a row following back-to-back losses to Oleksandr Usyk, while Ngannou is again looking to impress as he makes the jump from the cage to the ring.

Having lost in controversial fashion to Tyson Fury in his debut, Ngannou will once again aim to prove that he belongs when he takes on Joshua in Riyadh, with AJ, one of the world’s best, a pretty big target.

It could be argued that the fight is signifying, in some ways, the pinnacle of combat sport. But it wasn’t a simple journey for either man to get there, with both enduring many hurdles in their climbs to stardom.

As the pair put together their final preparations ahead of their highly-anticipated bout, Mail Sport takes a long at the lives of the two men, and how they made it to where they are today.

Anthony Joshua (left) and Francis Ngannou (right) will go head-to-head in a money-spinning heavyweight bout this weekend

Anthony Joshua (left) and Francis Ngannou (right) will go head-to-head in a money-spinning heavyweight bout this weekend

Joshua is looking to continue climbing the rankings and secure his fourth victory in a row

Joshua is looking to continue climbing the rankings and secure his fourth victory in a row

Ngannou, meanwhile, will look to carry on shocking the world having come close to upsetting Tyson Fury last year

Ngannou, meanwhile, will look to carry on shocking the world having come close to upsetting Tyson Fury last year

Anthony Joshua & Francis Ngannou face off ahead of March clash

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Sporting starts

Joshua’s sporting talent was always there, and it initially looked like football would be his path of choice before he became a bricklayer.

‘I remember him turning up for about three training sessions under (coach) Richard Smith at the time,’ a former team-mate shared in 2022. ‘He was taller than everyone else, but skinny.

‘He was really athletic and quick, definitely rapid. Skill wise, he wasn’t amazing, but he was decent. He could go at people.’

Joshua has a rosier-tinted view of his achievements on the pitch, referring to himself as a ’41 goals a season’ striker in his playing days, and remains a committed football fan and player with friends.

By the time Joshua turned 18 in 2007, however, even semi-professional football was off the cards and the fighter was working as a bricklayer while he saw out college.

Joshua always looked like he would pursue a career in football before taking up boxing in his late teens

By the time he had turned 18, however, a career in football was out of the question and the heavyweight was working as a bricklayer

Nagnnou was willing to sacrifice it all to become a boxer. He left his country of birth and family to do just that, ending up homeless with no money.

Despite wanting to be a boxer, Nagnnou trained at the MMA Factory and made his debut in the sport in 2013 just three months after starting training. In early 2014 he had won his first heavyweight tournament, joining the UFC in 2015.

It was there he ran riot, securing six straight victories before losing his heavyweight championship opportunity against Stipe Miocic in 2018.

Re-climbing the division, however, he knocked out the very same man in 2021 to win the belt, defending it against Ciryl Gane and finding himself on top of the sport.

When his contract expired in January 2023, he was stripped of his title after the two parties failed to reach an agreement on a new deal, and he turned to boxing.

Ngannou had chased a career in boxing before taking up MMA and signing with the UFC

He became UFC heavyweight champion at the second time of asking before calling it quits with the company

He became UFC heavyweight champion at the second time of asking before calling it quits with the company

Outside the ring struggles

Joshua became a household name aged 22 when, at London 2012, he won one of Great Britain’s gold medals at the Olympics.

Just a few years before that, though, he had experienced various run-ins with the police. Aged 20, having taken up boxing in his late teens, AJ found himself on remand in Reading prison.

He has been vague about the specifics of why, dubbing it ‘fighting and other crazy stuff’, but the sentence could have been significant and he was facing up to 15 years in jail.

Joshua rose to success after winning boxing gold at the 2012 Olympics in his home city of London

Joshua rose to success after winning boxing gold at the 2012 Olympics in his home city of London

He was let go with the caveat of having to wear an electronic ankle monitor and was handed a chance at boxing success, only to have been pulled over for speeding while donning a Team GB tracksuit in 2011.

A search of his kitbag found eight ounces of cannabis, and he was charged with possession with intent to supply, again finding his career hanging by a thread.

A guilty plea led to a 12-month community order and 100 hours of unpaid work to go with a suspension by the Olympic committee just months out from the home games.

Joshua later attributed the boxing ban and arrest to his success at London 2012, success that launched him to stardom, money, and becoming one of the most well-known household names in the country.

It was his former trainer, Rob McCracken, who got the youngster reinstated in time to compete. The situation ‘forced me to grow up and respect my responsibilities’, Joshua said after his 2012 success.

He was arrested and charged with possession with the intent to supply when pulled over wearing his Team GB tracksuit

He was arrested and charged with possession with the intent to supply when pulled over wearing his Team GB tracksuit

Anthony Joshua admits to being in a GB tracksuit when stopped for drugs

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Nagnnou, meanwhile, faced adversity that wasn’t self-inflicted in quite the same way.

His parents divorced when he was just six years old and he held firm to reject the advances of local gangs to offer him support, starting work at the age of 12 in a sand quarry to support his family.

Chasing his boxing dream, he moved to France from Cameroon as a young adult having taken up boxing as a 22-year-old.

Arriving in Paris at the age of 26, Ngannou was homeless, sleeping rough as he chased his dream and maintained faith that he could achieve it, describing the ordeal as ‘an opportunity’.

That came after he spent two months in a Spanish prison for illegally crossing the border.

He slept in a car park for two months with just a sleeping bag, volunteering at a homeless shelter chopping vegetables, and the foundation director of the shelter, Khater Yenbou, introduced him to his friend Didier Carmont, and it was only up from there.

Ngannou, meanwhile, found himself homeless having arrived in France from Cameroon at the age of 26

Ngannou, meanwhile, found himself homeless having arrived in France from Cameroon at the age of 26

He spent two months in a Spanish prison having been arrested for illegally crossing the border

He spent two months in a Spanish prison having been arrested for illegally crossing the border

Success in boxing

And so we come full circle. Two extremely different stories, different journeys, but two men who will meet in the middle of a boxing ring this weekend.

For Joshua, it was the usual method. Win the Olympics. Turn pro, rise up the ranks. He secured expected wins before a statement victory against Wladimir Klitschko at Wembley in 2017.

He was then at the top of the tree, and, with Tyson Fury not competing and Oleksandr Usyk yet to join the heavyweight division, the man with a target on his back.

Joshua turned pro immediately after his 2012 success and rose through the ranks quickly

Joshua turned pro immediately after his 2012 success and rose through the ranks quickly

He unified the WBA, IBF, IBO, and WBO belts following victory over Joseph Parker in 2018

He unified the WBA, IBF, IBO, and WBO belts following victory over Joseph Parker in 2018

Frank Warren discusses the pressure on Joshua and Wilder

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Victories against Carlos Takam, Joseph Parker and Alexander Povetkin followed. It was Andy Ruiz Jr up next in New York, which is when Joshua’s career was turned upside down when he was stopped in round seven.

A rematch victory put him back on track and a mega fight against Usyk saw the Ukrainian win via unanimous decision. The rematch was the biggest fight of Joshua’s career – he again lost.

Since then, Joshua has portrayed somewhat of a different character. Less jokey, more focused. Victories against Jermaine Franklin, Robert Helenius and Otto Wallin have followed.

It remains unclear what the goal is. An all-British mega fight against Fury will be a hope until either man retires. Deontay Wilder remains an option despite his loss to Parker. Maybe even a third match against Usyk.

Ngannou came close to upsetting Tyson Fury on boxing debut having returned to the sport from MMA

Ngannou came close to upsetting Tyson Fury on boxing debut having returned to the sport from MMA

There is plenty riding on Friday's bout for both men in regards to the heavyweight division

There is plenty riding on Friday’s bout for both men in regards to the heavyweight division

First though he must get past Ngannou. An MMA juggernaut who came arguably the closest anyone has to beating Fury on debut.

Ngannou’s professional boxing career came late. He’s 37 and only joined the Professional Fighters League in 2023.

He will return to MMA. But he’s also a boxer now. He’s facing some of the biggest names, and could well upset one of the sport’s best on Friday.

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