4 UFC Fighters Who Made it Against All Odds
UFC, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
UFC fighters are some of the toughest and most inspiring men and women in the world. Not only are they highly skilled professional athletes who have one of the riskiest and most dangerous jobs out there, but many of them have lived truly inspiring lives riddled with obstacles and difficulties which they have overcome time and again to prove that they are true fighters inside as well as outside the octagon.
In this post, we will take a look at four fighters whose lives have served as an inspiration to me personally. Needless to say, I will have no choice but to leave out so many other great fighters who too have led inspiring lives to get to where they are now in life, for if I try to include them all, the list will never end and neither will this post.
So let us begin!
Charles Oliveira is a Brazilian professional mixed martial artist and Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner, who would go on to become the UFC Lightweight Champion as well as hold multiple UFC records such as the most finishes and most submission wins in UFC history.
However, his path to UFC greatness was not an easy one at all. In fact, it was the exact opposite.
Oliveira was born on 17th October 1989 into a poor family in the favela (a type of slum in Brazil) of Vicente de Carvalho in Guaruja, Sao Paulo, Brazil.
Like most kids in Brazil, Oliveira grew up playing football and dreamed of becoming a professional player one day. But when he was 7 years old, circumstances took a drastic turn for the worst. He became seriously ill and began experiencing regular pains in his body, making it difficult for him to even walk. On some occasions, he was unable to even move his legs.
The doctors diagnosed him with rheumatic fever and heart murmur, which affected his ankle severely and caused him much pain. He was told by the doctors that there was a possibility of him being confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life and would never be able to walk again.
But neither Oliveira nor his family accepted the doctor’s verdict. Oliveira decided that he would rather die than stop doing the things he liked.
He was soon introduced to Brazilian jiu-jitsu by a neighbor named Paulo, at the age of 12. Since his family was poor, the gym’s coach trained him for free as part of a social program.
Oliveira’s family would at times support him by selling discarded cardboard and street snacks to allow him to continue training. Two years after he was introduced to jiu-jitsu by Paulo, Paulo was killed in a shootout. Oliveira was only 14 years old.
Oliveira began his career in 2007, aged 18, in Brazil, and went on to compile a record of 12-0. The following year, he made his professional debut at the Predator Fight Championship promotion, which was a one-night tournament. He ended up winning all three fights and won the tournament.
In December 2008, he defeated Mehdi Baghdad at the Kawai Arena promotion and beat Daniel Fernandes and Eliene Silva at the Korea Fight promotion.
Due to his victories in such a dominant fashion, the hype around Oliveira kept on increasing. He was named the 3rd best Brazilian prospect to watch in 2010 by Sherdog.
In late 2009 and early 2010, Oliveira fought and won six fights in various events when he received a call-up from the UFC, making his debut against Darren Elkins in 2010.
Much like his early life, Oliveira’s run in the UFC would be full of ups and downs. But he always came back better and wiser and stronger until he finally won the UFC Lightweight Championship in 2021, around ten years after his debut in the UFC.
Rose Namajunas is an American mixed martial artist of Lithuanian descent, who competes in the women’s strawweight division of the UFC.
But before Namajunas became a two-time UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion and the No. 1 ranked fighter in her division, she had lived a life that was tough and unjust.
Namajunas was born on 29th June 1992 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin to immigrant parents who had moved to the US in 1991 from Lithuania. Her father suffered from schizophrenia and left the family when she was very young. In 2008, when she was 16 years old, her father died of pneumonia.
Namajunas grew up in a rough and tough neighborhood in Milwaukee, often witnessing violence from an early age. She was often left alone as her brother was rarely at home and her mother worked long hours to provide for the family. She also became a victim of child sexual abuse, something which she would speak up on later in life.
At the mere age of 5, she began training in taekwondo, earning her junior black belt by the age of 9. She would then go on to train in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Even though she was the smallest girl in her neighborhood, she acted tougher than the others, thereby earning the nickname Thug Rose.
While studying at Milwaukee High School of the Arts, Namajunas also began training in MMA, kickboxing, and wrestling.
In 2010, aged 18, she began competing in MMA as an amateur, compiling a record of 4-0. Three years later, she made her professional MMA debut in January 2013 at Invicta Fighting Championship, for which she earned the Submission of the Night bonus. In April 2013, she fought her second professional bout, which again earned her the Submission of the Night bonus.
In December 2013, Namajunas got her big break when she was signed by the UFC to compete in Season 20 of The Ultimate Fighter, which would decide the first-ever UFC Strawweight Champion. Unfortunately, she would go on to lose in the finals to Carla Esparza.
But despite her loss, the competition was a turning point in her career. She was awarded two bonuses, one for Fight of the Season and the other for Performance of the Season.
In 2017, Namajunas became the UFC Women’s Strawweight Champion.
Francis Ngannou is a Cameroonian mixed martial artist who is the former UFC Heavyweight Champion. He was born on 5th September 1986 in the small village of Batie, Cameroon.
His parents divorced when he was just 6 years old and he was sent to stay with his aunt. Born into poverty like most of the people in his village, Ngannou began working in a sand quarry at the mere age of 10 to supplement his family’s income.
Due to a lack of money, Ngannou received very little formal education when he was young. He was often thrown out of class for not having books or for not being able to pay the school fees. Such treatment often left him isolated from his peers who did not wish to be friends with him. He would later describe his childhood as lonely and sad.
But this very childhood would instill in him an intense desire to make something out of himself and prove everybody wrong, giving him a strong sense of purpose.
Ashamed of his father’s negative street-fighting reputation, Ngannou refused the offers of gangs in his village to join them. Instead, he wished to do something positive with his life and dreamed of becoming a boxer.
Naturally, no one in his family or his village supported or encouraged him. Everyone thought it to be a foolish idea as no one from Cameroon had ever made it as a successful boxer. Being as poor as he was, how would he do it then? they asked him.
Instead, his family wanted him to get a normal job that would ensure regular and decent earnings. But Ngannou had a dream and he wished to act on it, instead of living a life he despised. He would rather try and fail than not try at all, he decided.
He took up menial jobs and saved enough money to go to the city and begin training in boxing at the age of 22. His family was completely against it but he went ahead anyway.
A year later, Ngannou was forced to stop training due to an illness. For the next three years, he continued to do various odd jobs to survive but he did not train. Finally, at the age of 26, fed up with the life he was living and with the dream of becoming a boxer still alive within him, Ngannou decided to leave Cameroon and travel to Europe illegally to achieve his dream. He knew well that staying in Cameroon would not help him achieve his dream due to the lack of opportunities.
Ngannou’s journey from Cameroon to Paris, France, has been told on several occasions by the man himself. It has become the stuff of legend now, more exciting and dangerous than any fictional movie script could ever conjure up.
The hardships he had to endure during his long and arduous journey, and the life-threatening situations he was forced to overcome, are truly surreal. The journey took him a total of 14 months, wherein he traveled through Cameroon, Nigeria, Niger, the Sahara desert (the largest hot desert in the world), Algeria, and Morocco, to finally arrive in Spain illegally on an undependable boat on his seventh attempt.
In Morocco, he was forced to live in the forest to hide from the police, and he ate whatever he could find from garbage bins and drank dirty water that sometimes had dead animals in it to survive. He tried in vain to climb over the infamous barbed-wired Melilla border fence to get to Melilla, a Spanish city in North Africa. The attempt left him with cuts all over his body, for which he was taken to the hospital and then released into the desert. He then began trying to cross the sea from Morocco to Spain in a cheap boat used by refugees and failed six times in the attempt, each time being thrown into the desert again from where he had to find his way back again.
On his seventh attempt, Ngannou finally made it into Spain with the help of the Red Cross and was immediately thrown in jail for two months for having crossed the border illegally. Upon being released, he made his way to Paris, where he had no friends, no money, and no place to stay.
He was homeless and slept in parking lots when he came across the MMA Factory, a mixed martial arts gym run by Fernand Lopez. Although Ngannou had come to Europe with the hope of becoming a boxer, Lopez soon recognized his potential in MMA and convinced him to try it out, allowing him to train at the gym for free.
In November 2013, he began his MMA career in France, compiling a record of 5-1. Two years later, in December 2015, Ngannou made his UFC debut against Brazilian Luis Henrique.
Ngannou would go on to become the UFC Heavyweight Champion in March 2021 and an inspiration to millions in his home country of Cameroon.
No other fighter has had such a quick and dramatic ascend to UFC superstardom as Conor McGregor has. Not only did he become the first-ever double champion in UFC history by winning the featherweight and lightweight championships, but he has also managed to become one of the highest-paid athletes in the world.
Looking at McGregor’s life now, one would hardly suspect that his life was not always like this. But the truth, as in most cases, is quite the opposite.
McGregor was born on 14th July 1988 in Crumlin, Dublin, Ireland. Like most kids in Ireland, he grew up playing football. But being from a particularly rough and dangerous neighborhood, he began boxing at the age of 12 to defend himself against bullies.
In 2006, McGregor, aged 18, began a plumbing apprenticeship at his father’s insistence. He had to wake up around 5:30 every morning and travel for almost two hours to reach the plumbing site, where he would spend fifteen hours working and being ordered around.
Needless to say, he was not passionate about plumbing and he hated his time there. He quickly realized that it was not the life he desired for himself.
Around this time, McGregor also found his passion in life when he discovered MMA. He soon began training in MMA along with his friend and future UFC fighter Tom Egan. MMA quickly became his sole obsession.
In February of 2007, McGregor made his MMA debut in an amateur fight for the Ring of Truth promotion in Dublin and won the fight via TKO in the first round itself.
Almost a year and a half into his plumbing apprenticeship, McGregor decided to quit plumbing for good and pursue a career in MMA against the wishes of his family. He would later reveal how he sometimes got into physical fights with his father, who wanted him to go back to the plumbing job or take up some other normal job. But McGregor did not budge. He continued to train in MMA, never returning to plumbing again.
But in spite of his decision to focus solely on MMA, things did not happen as quickly as he had expected. There was no overnight superstardom or success here. McGregor’s climb, at first, was slow and gradual, and difficult. He had to persevere and have patience. During this time of struggle, he was forced to live on welfare.
In early 2008, McGregor, aged 20, began training under John Kavanagh at the Straight Blast Gym, making his professional MMA debut in March as a lightweight. He would win his first and second bouts as a lightweight but would lose in his featherweight debut.
In 2011 and 2012, he went on an eight-fight winning streak, during which he became the first European professional mixed martial artist to win both the CWFC Featherweight and Lightweight Championship.
However, he still did not receive a call-up from the UFC, which was his ultimate goal. He would later reveal that during this period he even briefly contemplated giving up on fighting after hearing about a serious life-threatening injury suffered by a fellow MMA fighter.
But, in 2013, he received the big opportunity he had been dreaming about for years. In February 2013, while UFC President Dana White was in Dublin to receive a gold medal of Honorary Patronage from Trinity College, he was besieged by requests from Irish fans to sign McGregor to UFC.
White was intrigued by the hype and buzz surrounding McGregor and decided to meet him. A few days later, White offered McGregor a contract and signed him to the UFC. And the rest, as they say, is history.