"I have that notion in my mind that I already won the fight – all I’ve got to do is go in there and fill in the blanks." - Ovince Saint Preux
Old habits die hard. Sometimes that can be a bad thing, but not in the case of UFC light heavyweight contender Ovince Saint Preux. For the former University of Tennessee football player, years on the gridiron taught him many things, one of which he thinks of every time he sets foot in the Octagon.
“My coaches told me ‘Do your assignment, then go be a football player,’” he said. “If I’m playing outside linebacker and I know I have C gap or the B gap, I’m gonna fill that gap in and make sure nothing happens. Then when you get through doing your job, you’ll be a football player. I’m a fighter by nature. I’m gonna go out there and fight, but at the same time I’m gonna make sure I put all my tools together and stick to the game plan. Then, once I stick to the game plan, then I can go ahead and be that relaxed fighter that I am in the gym, the one that cracks up all the time. When you stick to your game plan and implement it, you can do whatever you want because the other guy won’t know what to do.”
It’s working. Winner of 13 of his last 14 bouts and five in a row, Saint Preux is one of those rare fighters who you can see getting better with each fight. Remember, this is a guy who started out with a 3-4 pro MMA record. That means he’s 13-1 since, with the only loss coming via decision to Gegard Mousasi back in 2011. After that loss, OSP finished off his Strikeforce career with a knockout of TJ Cook, and then won four straight in the UFC, three of those victories coming before the final bell.
But don’t say it’s all raw talent.
“It’s crazy because a lot of people are saying I’m going off of raw talent,” the 31-year-old said. “I’ve got a lot of tools and I’m still learning and growing, but I wouldn’t say I’m going off of raw talent. I have that and it’s helped me out, but I’m not going off that because I wouldn’t be beating the guys that I’m beating right now.”
He’s right. Raw talent can get you through a few fights, put you on the “must see” list, and put you in some big fights. But in the UFC, there’s always someone more talented or more experienced. Then what?
Saint Preux has figured out the answer to that question, and just as in football, it requires a lot of studying beyond what happens on game day or fight night. So when you talk to Saint Preux about fighting, you’re talking to a student of the game, one who breaks down each of his previous bouts down to the smallest detail. And it’s scary how accurate he’s been with his game plans and their execution. That’s not the scariest part though; what’s really frightening is that he doesn’t think he’s really hit his stride yet.
> Saint Preux Goes Back to University of Tennessee
“A lot of times when you see me during a fight, it’s frustrating,” he said. “I don’t get into my comfort zone until I get into the second round. My nervousness is just now going away.”
That’s a good thing, because Saint Preux is closing in on the biggest fight of his career this Saturday against Ryan Bader. It’s a five-round main event in Bangor, Maine, and while he didn’t even know the UFC was heading to New England at first, once he found out, he was happy to pack his bags and head north.
“I remember when I got the call,” he said. “After the Vancouver fight (against Ryan Jimmo in June), I flew in that Sunday and Monday I found out about the fight. They told me that I was fighting in Maine. I said ‘Maine? I never heard of the UFC being in Maine.’ Then they said ‘Oh, by the way, it’s the main event.’ Oh, it’s the main event? Maine is a great location – I love Maine.”
OSP laughs, and if the jitters of being in his first UFC main event are creeping in, he’s hiding them well. Maybe after spending the Saturdays of his college years playing in front of thousands, this is just another night in the office. And despite all the perks that go along with that headlining spot, he’s focused on business and Bader, citing chapter and verse about his future foe.
“Bader is 10-4 in the UFC and an Ultimate Fighter champ,” OSP said. “He’s also been a contender for the 205 belt, he’s a veteran within the UFC and he’s been around for a while. The only guys that he lost to are Jon Jones, Tito (Ortiz), Lyoto Machida, and Glover Teixeira, so I know I have my hands full, but I’m excited. He’s probably sitting back saying that I’m out of my league and I don’t know what I’m getting into, but at one point in time, he was out of his league and he didn’t know what he was getting into. That’s what they were saying to him. He’s just going to have a hard time with me.”
If that hard time leads to a win for Saint Preux, life will change considerably for the Knoxville product, something he’s aware of and embracing. And unlike most of his peers, he does acknowledge that there is a life after Saturday night worth talking about.
“I’m human,” he said. “You’ve always got to think about the future. I’m not looking past Bader by any means, but at the same time, I am looking at the possibility of everything. I have that notion in my mind that I already won the fight – all I’ve got to do is go in there and fill in the blanks.”
In Saint Preux’s mind, those blanks could include fights with the likes of Anthony Johnson or Jimi Manuwa, two 205-pound standouts without immediate plans. But for now, it’s Bader and a chance to smash his way into the public’s consciousness.
“I’m still like a little speck on the radar,” he laughs. “But after this fight, a lot of things could end up changing.”
That speck on the radar may just become a hurricane. And that’s not just outside the Octagon, but inside it as well. And all Saint Preux needs to do to trigger it is hear the right word from his corner.
“At any given time, we’ve got a code word for me to go and put my own rhythm in, and usually when that happens, that’s when a lot of wonderful things start happening.”