Former linebacker St. Preux set for UFC debut

Former Strikeforce fighter Ovince St. Preux makes his UFC debut Saturday against Gian Villante. (Josh Hedges/Forza LLC)

By Brendan F. Quinn

Knoxville News Sentinel

Ovince St. Preux proved his point in August.

The former Tennessee linebacker-turned-mixed martial arts fighter claims SEC football and MMA share one common thread.

“In both sports you can wake up at any given time and say, ‘What happened?’ which probably means you just got knocked out,” St. Preux said from his training grounds tucked in the low-lit basement of Old Sevier Heights Baptist Church in South Knoxville.

St. Preux’s last fight came in August. If you blinked you missed the conclusion. He landed a dynamite stick to TJ Cook’s exposed jaw with 4 minutes, 44 seconds remaining in the third and final round. Cook was unconscious before an inert fall brought him on the canvas. The referee waved doctors into the caged octagon, checking if Cook’s head was still, in fact, attached.

That’s how a fighter gains a rep. And that’s what St. Preux has been working toward since 2008. The next big step comes Saturday. The Florida native and Knoxville resident will make his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut at UFC159 in Newark, N.J.

“Dream come true,” he called it.

St. Preux spent the 2002 through 2004 seasons as a backup linebacker under UT coach Phillip Fulmer. The Vols won the SEC East and the Cotton Bowl in his final season wearing orange. He traveled to Chattanooga in 2005, using his final year of eligibility with the Mocs in hopes of playing time. A return to Knoxville soon after allowed him to finish his sociology degree.

The end of college brought questions. St. Preux saw former teammates carrying around an extra 20, 30 pounds. He stumbled into kick boxing, intent only on keeping his six-pack. The hobby turned into a job.

Early in the grind, St. Preux, asked trainer Eric Turner how far he could go in mixed martial arts — a violent but tactical combination of kick boxing, wrestling and jujitsu. Turner, who works with the Knoxville Martial Arts Academy, told him he could be UFC champion.

“That was all I needed to hear,” said St. Preux, 30. “Ever since then, my goal has been to strive, strive, strive to be the best.”

At 6-foot-3, St. Preux walks around at about 230 pounds and fights as a light heavyweight, checking in at 205 for fight night. The drop seems dramatic, but it’s commonplace in his world.

The professional career began five years ago. St. Preux fought under a contract with California-based MMA organization Strikeforce, compiling a 12-5 record, including nine wins in his last 10 bouts. Last year, UFC owner Dana White bought Strikeforce.

An uncertain future came into view.

St. Preux watched as the top fighters from Strikeforce were offered deals with UFC.

Finally his name was called.

That’s why Saturday is St. Preux’s opening bell. The matchup against Gian Villante (10-3), another former college football player (Hofstra) and Strikeforce alum, will be televised on FX.

St. Preux is “pretty sure” he’s guaranteed a second fight in the UFC, but his is a fickle sport. Contracts come and go. The better the fight, the better the bout; the better bout, the better the contract; the better the contract, the better the endorsements; the better the endorsements, the better the bank account.

One bad showing can derail all that.

“I have to capitalize on (Saturday),” he said, later conceding, “All fighters are walking the line. If you’re not performing to their expectations, you’re going to get cut.”

So the nerves will be pulled taut Saturday. When he wore No. 57 for the Vols, St. Preux fell back on sharing Saturday nerves with his teammates. No such luxury exists in the UFC octagon.

“You’re in there by yourself,” St. Preux said. “You get hit, everybody is going to let you know you got hit.”

(c)2013 the Knoxville News-Sentinel (Knoxville, Tenn.)

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