Francis Ngannou’s body shot challenge a show of the UFC heavyweight champion’s strength and character

    Francis Ngannou cuts an imposing swath, what with his 250 pounds exquisitely carved out across the sinews and musculature of the UFC heavyweight champion’s 6-foot-4 body.

    The work he has put in with his hands putting out the lights of 75% of his opponents certainly adds some gravitas to his stature.

    But the sight of a shirtless Ngannou sipping from a tea cup perhaps paints a more commanding portrait. There was a high sky over Dubai that day, and Ngannou calmly stood inside a promotional octagon in jeans and no shirt, holding a tea cup that looked more like a pinkie ring in his monstrous hands. He sipped from the cup. Then, some dude hauled off and cracked him in the stomach repeatedly. Ngannou sipped from his cup as if nothing happened.

    This is, of course, a pre-arranged attempt of an attack on the abdominal muscles of the champion. One that he agreed to, and certainly not the first or last time such things have happened. This is Ngannou’s body shot challenge, with quite a few videos of it on social media (totaling more than 7.5 million views on Instagram) and quite a few more on the phones of those in Ngannou’s gyms and inner circle.

    “We’ve all hit him with the best we could and he’s looked like he’s eating a sandwich when we’re doing it,” said Eric Nicksick, Ngannou’s trainer at Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas.

    It’s something of a regular occurrence at the gym as Ngannou works to strengthen his already mighty core muscles. Not during a training camp, though.

    Of course, these folks punching Ngannou may not possess the same power of undefeated interim heavyweight champion Ciryl Gane, who will attempt to unify the title against Ngannou at UFC 270 in Anaheim on Saturday night.

    But it does speak to the core strength — both physical and mental — of Ngannou.

    “When they said the challenge, it’s you overcoming something,” Ngannou said. “It’s challenging yourself. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt or you don’t feel it. But how much can you take? That’s what challenge means.”

    The body shot challenge developed in the gym and through social media. Ngannou isn’t the first person to document himself taking uncontested gut punches. But it’s something that, when the time and mood are right, breeds camaraderie in the gym. Both Nicksick and Ngannou used the word “fun” to describe it.

    “I love when guys like to compete and bring people together,” Nicksick said. “The phones come out, everybody kind of gets in a circle and, you know, it’s a lot of fun to be honest with you.”

    The roots of these body blasts run deeper than that for Ngannou, who grew up in Cameroon before moving to France as an adult. He said he used to do things like this as a kid.

    “I kind of like used to get my brothers, my little brothers, to punch me in the stomach, in the chest,” Ngannou said. “Because I like to show my pecs, like, how strong I am.”

    There’s certainly a mental toughness to it at any age, in particular as an adult and professional MMA fighter.

    “He’s trying to show that he can weather the storm when it comes to the body work and everything else,” Nicksick said. “But, it shows a playfulness to him, like a light-hearted playfulness. He’s an ominous, big figure as it is, by nature. He looks scary. But really deep down, he’s a very playful guy, fun guy. He likes getting the team together and doing fun things. And that’s maybe some way of him showing like, you know, ‘Hey, I’m fun. Here, he beat me up a little bit’. And how often do you get to hit Francis Ngannou and not get hit back.”

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