The No. 6 Light Heavyweight UFC fighter in the world begins his warm-up next to a 60-year-old man and two girls.
In the same training facility he’s used since he left the claustrophobic confines of a muggy one-car garage, he trains next to doctors, students and accountants, most of whom have as much fighting experience as Gandhi.
He starts by running around the mat with the rest of the class, a towering presence among the people in the gym who are not 6-3, 205 pounds. Other than that, the former Tennessee football player seems oddly like everyone else in the room.
Until you see him a throw a punch.
Former Vols defensive line coach Dan Brooks recruited Ovince Saint Preux to Tennessee. A high school wrestler, Saint Preux racked up a 26-1 record in Florida’s Class 1A to go along with his success as a football player and track star at Immokalee High School in Immokalee, Florida.
Phillip Fulmer made the trek down to the bottom of the state to watch his potential new player in a match while he was recruiting him. Saint Preux went first and was paired against the guy who finished third in the Florida Class 5A championship the year before. Saint Preux pinned him in 22 seconds. That was all Fulmer needed to see.
After arriving in Knoxville in 2001, Saint Preux spent four years as a reserve linebacker and defensive end during a prosperous 39-13 stretch of Tennessee football. He was a part of two SEC East championship teams and witnessed the Vols’ six overtime win over Alabama in 2003 firsthand.
But upon graduation, when the days of being forced to work out, diet and take extreme care of his body were over, Saint Preux feared he would put on weight and become a caricature of the post-football fat guy we see in movies and TV. He decided to get into mixed martial arts as a way to stay in shape and keep from putting on the pounds like some of his ex-player friends. The son of Haitian immigrants, Saint Preux was immersed in the martial arts culture at an early age and figured it would be the perfect way to combine his love for the sport with something that would positively benefit his health.
“When I was younger, I was always wanted to take martial arts. Growing up in a Haitian household, the only thing I used to watch pretty much was wrestling,” Saint Preux said. “My uncle was a big fan of Hulk Hogan. At the same time, growing up I used to watch all the karate movies: Van Dam, Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris. I used to watch all, I mean all, the karate movies.”
Those shots of Bruce Lee scissor kicking his opponents in the face or Chuck Norris dismantling an enemy with a single punch stuck with Saint Preux, who made the switch to martial arts with friends Eric Turner and Joey Zonar, who still train him to this day at Knoxville Martial Arts Academy.
The trio started out in a miserably hot one-car garage where Turner lived, sacrificing the comfort of AC in the summer and heat in the winter for extreme workout sessions that seemed to be interminable.
“There were some days when I didn’t want to be there. If it was 95 degrees outside, it was 105 degrees in the garage,” Saint Preux said. “They had a heater and I used to stand in one little corner by the heater (in the winter) because I hate being cold.”
They were all still learning the intricacies of MMA, so the workouts focused more on intensity than skill development. But with the three of them constantly training together, they quickly realized Saint Preux’s knockout power and athleticism gave him what it takes to fight competitively. That’s when Turner, in his own words, “creatively encouraged” his friend to strap on the gloves for real.
Saint Preux put it a bit differently.
“He tricked me,” Saint Preux said with a smile. “I told him I really didn’t want to fight but he was like, you should fight.”
Turner put on some boxing gloves and hit Saint Preux in the arm a couple times. That’s all the punishment you’ll have to take, he said, successfully convincing his buddy to enter an amateur fight. It wasn’t until the night of the bout that Saint Preux realized the discrepancy between the cushion of boxing mitts and the four-ounce gloves used in MMA.
“It didn’t kind of catch up with me until I got to the fight,” he said. “I remember when they locked the cage, I put my gloves on and I’m looking at my hand. I said, ‘these are four ounces. He hit me with 18 ounces.’ I’m thinking to myself, it’s too late now.”
He won the fight using an ambush of aggression that subdued his opponent, and went on to win all of his amateur fights to bring an undefeated record into his professional MMA debut against Rodney Wallace, which he lost by decision.
Saint Preux compiled a 3-4 record to start his professional career, mainly because he and his camp were continually learning as they went along. At the time, they didn’t realize the strategy behind picking opponents and scheduled their budding star for anything they could find.
“When we first started, it was just like you fight this guy and I was like all right. I didn’t care,” he said. “You don’t want to necessarily do that. You want to end up being more cautious about who you fight because the training level could be completely different.”
They quickly realized the subtleties in booking and, as Saint Preux improved, so did his record. His breakout came in 2010, a year in which he went undefeated in six matches. He hired his current nutritionist, Nate Hoffmeister, who immediately and emphatically helped his body morph into its current chiseled and well-kept form.
Knoxville’s rising MMA star fought Chris Hawk in Strikeforce: Nashville, ending the fight in 47 seconds with a technical knockout. His record shot up to 11-4 while he pummeled opponents with knockout after knockout and unbelievable power, which he readily showcased to anyone who matched up with him. He stunned his idol and martial arts legend, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, by knocking him out in just 34 seconds last November. Saint Preux’s UFC record is now an impressive 6-1 and 18-6 overall despite scheduling above his skill level early in his career.
The bond he and his trainers forged in that sweaty one-car garage lasted through the move into the new spacious gym off Sevier Heights Road, too. They’ve traveled with him across the globe. When he cuts weight, so do they, even if it means eating just one teaspoon of honey in the morning and again at night.
It’s why he still trains with them, among the normal classmates of Knoxville Martial Arts Academy, where he sticks out like the broken arm of Ryan Jimmo, whose limb he snapped with a brutal kick in a fight in Vancouver last June.
Saint Preux is now preparing for his next huge fight, when he’s scheduled to take on Glover Texiera as the headliner for UFC Fight Night 73 in Nashville August 8. The match is a homecoming party of sorts for Knoxville’s most famous fighter, even though he’s never really left Tennessee.
“I don’t care if I had been headlining the main event in Vegas. I wanted Nashville,” he said. “I don’t know the next time UFC will come to Nashville. The last time they came was in 2012. Just being able to be on the card, it’s like a homecoming for me.”
As he straps on his gloves, Saint Preux looks like a cartoon character among the much smaller and less fit bodies that surround him on the mat of the gym. He goes through warm-ups just like everyone else, without any special treatment from Zonar or Turner as they bark instruction to the rest of the class. It’s the ultimate showcase in humility, yet Saint Preux just brushes it off as if it's something he’s always been known to do.
The No. 6 Light Heavyweight UFC fighter in the world finishes his warm-up in a crowd of classmates, but there’s just something different about him.
It’s not the height discrepancy, or the obvious talent gap, or his fluid motion, thunderous punches or athletic movements.
No, it's not any of those things.
It’s the look in his eyes.