“There are but two powers in the world, the sword and the mind. In the long run the sword is always beaten by the mind”
The above isn’t a quote from Benoît Saint Denis, but from one of his heroes: Napoleon Bonaparte. Why he holds the military leader and politician—and arguably France’s most famous son— in such regard seems like an appropriate place to start in understanding the UFC lightweight.
“You know, now it's the USA's time, because you are you are the leader of the world today. But yeah, Napoleon forged a lot of what we have in France. Like 30% of the way the French are living now still have something to do with him. He created so much stuff. He was the ruler for the period in which France was the most prolific and the biggest country in the world. Now it's the USA, obviously, but I like the guy because again, it's a kind of a genius that you only see every 100 years or something like that."
The historical legacy of the country and its warriors is heavy in the air of fight week for the UFC Paris event this Saturday, particularly for the mixed martial artists like Saint Denis who call France home.
“It's great to have it here because MMA got legalized not a long time ago in France. We were waiting for that opportunity to fight on home soil so the fans can have what they have been waiting so long for. We have been waiting and it has been a battle with the French state to get it done.
“France is a great and very patriotic country. Though if something has not come to France, it's not kind of accepted. With the UFC coming in here, everybody was like, 'Okay, yeah, it's a real sport and a great job and we will enjoy the journey.' I'm very happy because I think the UFC is the biggest organization we have on planet Earth.”
At age 26, “God of War” has already made some noise in that organization after just two fights, and just two and half years after making his pro debut. A veteran of the French Special Forces, Saint Denis charted an aggressive path that led right to his ultimate goal.
"I think it just means that I'm a very determined guy. When I stopped the French Special Forces to become a fighter, in my mind I was going to go to the UFC in less than two years. It took me two and a half years because of COVID. I fought six fights in 11 months the first year. Then with COVID, the machine had to stop because we had a lot less fights than we wanted. But I managed to still fight."
Signed to the UFC last October, he suffered the only loss of his 9-1-1 career in his debut to Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos.
“A lot of people are mentioning this fight. I'm proud of this fight, but I made a lot of rookie mistakes."
Top of mind was that he was fighting up 15 pounds at welterweight, something new for him. He also mentions some strategic errors following the first round.
"But it was a good entry for me because it's very difficult to enter the UFC as a lightweight; the lightweight roster is full of talent...there are so many talented lightweights around the world. So I was able and happy to enter the welterweight [division] and know I'm going to put the lightweight division on notice like I did the last time in Vegas."
Last time in Vegas was his second-round submission of Niklas Stolze in June, back at his natural 155-pound weight. Back home in Paris for UFC Fight Night: Gane vs Tuivasa, he’ll look to keep that campaign rolling and make the hometown fans proud.
“I think the UFC did a good job because I was supposed to have a banger with Christos Giagos, who is a great fighter, but unfortunately got injured. They find a replacement in the person of Gabriel Miranda, who is a great grappler. I think it's going to go very soon to business--as soon as the cage will close--because we are both pressure fighters, and I think it will be a great show, a fight that will not go the distance."
“I think the answer to that question is quite simple: it's a little bit of both. A tough opponent makes you tougher, though, of course, the quality of the opponent is the most important thing. And nobody goes in the UFC without any fight-time experience. So, quality is definitely the most important thing.”
And what part of his military background translated into him becoming that quality opponent?
"I think just discipline. Because in in mixed martial arts, you have so much to study and to learn and to practice. You have no time to lose. I'm very disciplined and I put my time as good as I can on the right stuff to work on so I can be better and better and become a very good fighter. I think that mentality I had from my family, from my education and, of course, my time in the French Special Forces, which allowed me to forge it to be a guy that you will never see fade or lose a fight because of the mental part."
The mental part. It’s here that we’ll point out a certain gravitas Saint Denis has when he speaks to you, a certain confidence that, although difficult to put into words, sets him apart from many of his peers.
"I'm not in the sport for money. I was not in the French Special Forces for money. It's all about patience, though I want to climb the ranking as fast as possible. They gave me a very tough opponent for my first fight at welterweight. If I do great, I want a very tough part of the lightweight cake for my next fight. All my mind is on Gabriel Miranda for now. But I know what I want."