After Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight Ovince Saint Preux’s last win in February, his head coach, Eric Turner, said the Knoxville-based fighter would challenge anyone—including Godzilla—if that is what the UFC desired. And he wasn’t kidding.
Within the span of three hours on Saturday, April 2, Saint Preux went from training to stay in shape for a potential summer fight to training to challenge Jon Jones, arguably the greatest mixed martial artist of all-time—the Godzilla of the fight game—for the UFC’s interim light heavyweight title.
It was an unexpected opportunity for the local fighter and Turner, who owns and operates Knoxville Martial Arts Academy in South Knoxville. Current champion Daniel Cormier pulled out of the original April 23 title fight with Jones due to a leg injury. With Saint Preux ranked sixth in the division, many expected the call to go to second-ranked Anthony Johnson. KMAA assistant coach and Saint Preux’s manager, Joey Zonar, tried his luck with UFC matchmaker Joe Silva anyway, texting him on Saturday afternoon after a training session to see if the company had already made a decision on an opponent.
“Joey got a text back that said, ‘No,’” Turner says. “And immediately another text that said, ‘Do you want it?’”
UFC President Dana White called minutes later to confirm the UFC wanted Saint Preux in the main event as Johnson recently underwent dental surgery and could not fight. Turner, Zonar, and Saint Preux were immediately on board despite the short three weeks’ notice (training camps traditionally range from six to 10 weeks). However, they were hoping for a pay raise considering the circumstances. Recently, a lightweight fighter, Nate Diaz, was called on 11-days’ notice to challenge one of the sport’s great celebrities, Conor McGregor, and was able to negotiate a considerable pay increase, from $20,000 to show, plus $20,000 to win, to a flat $500,000.
“Dana said, ‘This is the deal: He’ll fight for the interim title, since Jones never lost his title in the cage, but it’ll be for his regular numbers, and there may be a bonus on the other side,’” Turner says. “You know, I’ve been wanting to fight Jon Jones for six years, so I said, ‘Okay, let’s make it happen,’ and Dana sent a contract, we signed it, and sent it back. Within three hours, Vince was signed up to fight for a world title.”
Saint Preux (19-7) will face Jones (21-1), whose only loss came in a disqualification against Matt Hamill in 2009 for using illegal elbow strikes, in the main event of UFC 197 in Las Vegas. The former University of Tennessee football linebacker is one of only three fighters to train in Knoxville and compete in the UFC (the others are Scott Holtzman out of Shield Systems MMA and Saint Preux’s former training partner and longtime Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach Rafaello Oliveira), and becomes the first East Tennessee fighter to challenge for a UFC title.
Saint Preux will have no easy task in front of him against Jones, who was light heavyweight champion from 2011 to 2015 and successfully defended his belt eight times before the company stripped him of the title following legal issues stemming from a hit-and-run last April.
“If Anderson Silva isn’t the greatest mixed martial artist of all time, then it’s Jon Jones,” Turner says. “Jon Jones is the perfect storm of a great athlete with great coaching and a good work ethic.”
Saint Preux, who has never challenged for a title in his professional career, opened as a 7-1 underdog against Jones after the official Saturday announcement from White on ESPN—the third most-lopsided betting line of Jones’ 22-fight career.
Neither Turner nor Saint Preux feel unsettled by the weight of the task in front of them, however. They’ve been here before.
In November 2014, prior to hopping on a plane to Brazil for a fight against Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante, the UFC called to say the fight was cancelled and Saint Preux would instead face former UFC light heavyweight champion and Brazilian native Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in the main event after the latter’s original opponent pulled out. On just one-week’s notice, Saint Preux knocked out Rua in 34 seconds and was awarded Performance of the Night.
“Obviously, you want more time to prepare, but that’s why we always say: Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready,” Turner says. “After his last fight against Feijao, Vince took a week off and then got right back in the gym. He’s already at level 6 or 7 and now we just need to crank him back up to 10.”
Like Jones’ own coach, Greg Jackson, called the “Philosopher King of MMA” by Sports Illustrated in 2012, Turner is methodical and cerebral about fighting (he studied philosophy at UT before becoming a full-time MMA trainer). He is confident that Saint Preux has the right tools to beat Jones and that he can construct the exact gameplan to witness his undoing.
“Fighting is a lot like warfare,” Turner says. “There’s conventional warfare: armies attack armies, airplanes attack airplanes, boats attack boats. That’s generally the way most people approach fighting: my boxing beats yours boxing, my jiu-jitsu beats your jiu-jitsu, my wrestling beats your wrestling. And that’s what makes Jon Jones so special. He’s asymmetrical. He’s very outside the box.”
In Turner’s mind, Saint Preux is just as unpredictable. While he has recently been pigeonholed as a power puncher, Turner says he has held back a lot of his fighter’s skills in the Octagon, in wait for the chance to display them in an eventual fight against Jones. The time has finally come.
“This is the reason why Vince started training: to be the best in the world,” Turner says. “This is the end result of all the hard work.
“A really smart guy once said if you put yourself in a good situation, good things will happen. And here we are: This is our Rocky situation. We’re going to shock the world.”
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