On the front lawn of the old Sevier Heights Baptist Church recreation building, nestled off a side road near a Marathon gas station in South Knoxville, is a small black sign for Knoxville Martial Arts Academy. Through the front doors, tagged with pages advertising fights and a KMAA class schedule, a foyer-like room with booths and tables resembling those of a TV-show diner fuses into a basketball court used on the last weekend of every month by an independent church that ministers to the homeless.
The stairwell just before the basketball court leads down to the gym where Ovince Saint Preux, the first Knoxville fighter to compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and a dozen professional and amateur fighters train five to six days a week, surrounded by motivational quotes pasted on walls and in picture frames. One sign, a 9-foot tall banner with a superimposed picture of Saint Preux staring blankly forward, hovers over the entrance to the gym: “UFC Superstar Ovince Saint Preux trains at KMAA. Why don’t you?”
“Sometimes I forget about that sign,” Saint Preux says with a laugh. “I’ll be walking around the gym and one or two of the new guys are staring and I’m like, do I know you? And they look at me like I’m crazy.”
Saint Preux, 18-6 as a professional, with a 6-1 UFC record, doesn’t like to think of himself as famous. In fact, the No. 6-ranked light heavyweight fighter in the world, who meets No. 5-ranked Glover Teixeira in Nashville on Aug. 8, chuckles at the word “fame” when it’s used to refer to him.
Still, the upcoming match against Teixeira will be the third time in his last four fights that the 32-year-old Saint Preux headlines a UFC card. His first main event, a decision loss to Ryan Bader in August 2014, took top-level mixed martial arts to Maine for the first time. Now, Saint Preux, whose camp had initially tried to set a fight with UFC legend and Memphis native Quinton “Rampage” Jackson for what they thought could serve as the Battle of Tennessee, will highlight the company’s third-ever visit to the state, and the first since 2012.
“We have a scorecard on each market that takes into account basic demographic information, research on the UFC fan base, and other key criteria, and Nashville is ranked high,” says Peter Dropick, senior vice president of event development and operations for the UFC. “And OSP being from Knoxville was certainly taken into consideration, because it’s always good when we have a popular local fighter.”
Saint Preux has not fought in his adoptive home state since defeating Abongo Humphrey for Strikeforce in 2011, and earlier this year there was a small risk he might not fight in Tennessee again.
The Tennessee Athletic Commission, established in 2008 to regulate boxing and MMA in the state, was due to disband on July 1, after years of leaking money. According to a report released and verified by the commission, debts totaled $122,000 for 2013 and 2014 combined, and the TAC had not turned a profit since 2011.
Executive director Jeff Mullen, a respected longtime MMA judge, told WBIR in February that the TAC was established to bring bigger promotions like UFC to the state. But with the company only hosting two events in six years, and the second-largest promotion at the moment, Bellator MMA, still not visiting the state, the money wasn’t coming in.
“I was there in the beginning to get the sport regulated,” says Marc Ratner, vice president of regulatory affairs for the UFC. “I went to the state House in the capital and we lobbied to get it approved, so I was very concerned when I heard the news. We knew the UFC would be coming back either to Nashville or Memphis in 2015, we just didn’t know when until this happened.”
Fortunately for Tennessee’s combat sports fans, on May 4 Gov. Bill Haslam signed new legislation to extend the commission until 2017. Sixteen days later, the Saint Preux vs. Teixeira fight was announced for the Bridgestone Arena.
For Saint Preux, the timing was perfect.
“Right now, people keep telling me I’m living the dream,” Saint Preux says. “And to be quite honest, I am.”
Ovince Saint Preux was born on April 8, 1983, in the Little Haiti section of Miami. At the age of 7, his parents moved him and his siblings—five brothers and one sister—to Immokalee, a largely Hispanic agricultural community two hours west, where 40 percent of the population lives below the poverty line.
“My dad always told me, ‘Never forget where you come from,’” Saint Preux says.
Even on one of the few occasions he isn’t wearing one of his 30 differently colored Miami Marlins baseball caps, it’s obvious Saint Preux takes the message to heart. He represents Immokalee with every opportunity, making sure the town where his family still lives is mentioned by the UFC when he’s announced. He is just as passionate about his Haitian roots, carrying the country’s flag with him on walkouts to the cage. For his last UFC fight, against Patrick Cummins, Saint Preux partnered with Athletes Brand and the nonprofit Harvest 107 to sell a limited-edition T-shirt that raised $47,000 toward building a microfarm for the Zanfay Lakay home for street kids.
Saint Preux’s mother, who remains nervous about watching her 6-foot-3, 200-pound son fight for a living, worked in a packing house when her son was younger; at the age of 68, she is still employed as a hotel housekeeper. His father did construction and field work until he was 65.
With his earnings from the Cummins fight, which he won via first-round knockout, Saint Preux paid his parents’ mortgage.
“We didn’t have much growing up, but my parents hid it really well,” Saint Preux says. “I didn’t realize we didn’t have anything until I got to college.”
A top football prospect coming out of high school, Saint Preux was recruited by University of Tennessee coach Philip Fulmer and played 17 games at defensive end and linebacker for the Volunteers before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology in 2004. He was the first person in his family to finish college, and as a Vol for Life still has access to UT’s athletics facilities, which are regularly featured in pre-fight promo UFC films on Saint Preux.
“Playing football at UT and the attention helped me get ready for the transition to fighting in the UFC, and that may be why I’m more laid back and relaxed,” Saint Preux says. “I’m one of the easiest guys to get along with. I realize this is just my job.”
Justin Fisher, an MMA fighter from Rockwood with a 7-2 pro record who is the second-most experienced fighter at KMAA behind Saint Preux, attests to Saint Preux’s chillness. But he admits he didn’t know what to think of his teammate when they first met back in 2009.
“I remember watching him come up in recruiting with my dad,” Fisher says. “If you love UT football, you know everyone, and we knew about Vince. I was a little starstruck at first.”
Fisher had already been training in MMA at another gym, but his coaches suggested he go to KMAA, where Saint Preux has trained since before his first amateur fight in 2007.
Although Fisher competes at middleweight (185 pounds) and gives up almost 4 inches of height to Saint Preux, the two were often matched together in training. In order to make up for the size difference, Fisher, a gregarious guy and tricky stand-up fighter who also works as an elementary school physical education teacher in Kingston, “put the hands on Vince” early and often.
“I was one of the only ones who was big enough to reach him, and when I started hitting him—he doesn’t like to get hit, especially in training,” Fisher says. “And then he told [assistant coach Joey Zonar] he was going to start going harder. I threw a one-two combo and he shot in and took me down. From that day, it’s been a little bit less fun going with Vince.”
Fisher and Saint Preux are now close friends. They run together outside the gym and call each other to chat for 20 or 30 minutes after their fights are announced. Saint Preux has even gotten Fisher into the athletics facilities at UT, where he sits in the cold tub and watches his friend interact nonchalantly with football players past and present.
“He’s just so relaxed about everything, from UT to the UFC,” Fisher says. “I tell him, ‘You realize this isn’t normal, right?’”
KMAA assistant coach Joey Zonar, who is also Saint Preux’s manager, says that a fighter never listens the first time they step into a cage; he’s overtaken by the lights, the fans, and the knowledge that there is a human pit bull standing 10 feet across from him with every intention of knocking his head clean off his neck.
“But Vince has had elite-level coaching his entire life, and he listens very, very well,” Zonar says. “He knows the game plan and he executes. The Cummins knockout, the [Mauricio “Shogun” Rua] knockout, those weren’t flukes.”
Saint Preux, the first pro fighter KMAA produced, walked into the gym, then housed in the garage of head coach and founder Eric Turner’s old home, less than a mile from where the current facility sits, six months before his first fight. He was with Omega Psi Phi fraternity brother Chris Wright, who would also become a professional fighter. After an unsuccessful attempt to make it to the NFL once his college football career ended, Saint Preux planned to practice MMA as a way to stay fit. He was only eased into fighting after Turner punched him in the arm with a 16-ounce boxing glove.
“See, that doesn’t hurt, does it?” Turner said.
“I used creative problem solving to get him over his fear of getting hurt,” says Turner, recalling the duped look Saint Preux gave him from the cage during his first amateur fight in Bristol, staring at the 4-ounce gloves he was wearing. He rendered his overwhelmed opponent unconscious within minutes.
“What I said was essentially right—using Newton’s second law, force equals mass times acceleration,” Turner says. “The actual amount of force he felt was the same as with smaller MMA gloves. It’s all about perspective.”
Even though a study analyzing incidences of brain trauma in the UFC published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine in 2014 found that MMA fighters are more prone to concussion-like injuries than boxers, hockey, and football players, Saint Preux says he has never felt hurt in the cage. And he believes that if he continues to trust and listen to Turner, he’ll steer clear of any serious, long-term damage.
Turner is recognizably smart and philosophical in his approach to fighting. In the span of 30 minutes, the only MMA coach Saint Preux has ever had quotes Winston Churchill, Immanuel Kant, and the Bible, enunciating with emphasis to make sure no word is misconstrued. Before Saint Preux, Turner’s first student was Zonar, who was a high schooler studying karate when he met the father figure of the gym almost 15 years ago.
“He’d come in and teach an MMA class at night and kick everybody’s butt,” Zonar recalls. “And, I was like, screw karate, I’m doing whatever this guy’s doing.”
Zonar fought for the first time as an amateur in 2003 and retired after 10 fights, eventually brought into KMAA as Turner’s right-hand man. He remembers Wright catching up to him on the track at UT and asking if he was the kid who gave a speech on MMA in his freshman year English class. Zonar said yes, and Wright asked if he and his fraternity brother could train with him later that week.
“Chris comes and he brings this huge guy, thinking it was going to be a kickboxing class,” Zonar recalls. “I was probably 165 pounds, and Vince weighed around 230. The way we used to train was for toughness. Eric would tie Vince and me up with bungee chords and we’d just punch each other all day. In the beginning, Vince didn’t know anything. He was really easy to hit. Then he started learning technique.”
With Turner focused on training Saint Preux and getting him to perfect the martial-arts system he created (called wazakishindo, or “the way of technique, energy, and attitude”), Zonar was responsible for booking the fights.
Zonar says his approach to booking was to “call and harass promoters until they answered, then take whatever fight” they had available, meaning Saint Preux fought for the second time as a pro against an 11-fight veteran. He was 0-2 to start his career, but evened up his record at home in Knoxville, winning via knockout and submission when Xtreme Fighting Championships hosted two televised events in town in 2009.
In his sixth professional fight, Saint Preux suffered what remains the only knockout or technical knockout loss of his career to Virgil Zwicker, a Kumeyaay Native American brawler from Southern California who is 14-5-1 and now one of Saint Preux’s good friends.
“I was undefeated at the time, and I took the fight on two weeks’ notice,” Zwicker recalls. “Then Vince replaced the guy I was supposed to fight about five days before we got to Puerto Rico, so we didn’t know anything about each other.”
Zwicker says he won the first round comfortably. But a different beast came out to meet him in the second round, and after getting taken down and mounted, he was beat up worse than he had ever been in his career. Somehow, though, he jostled back to his feet and hit Saint Preux with a big uppercut that forced a stoppage from the referee.
“I had vertigo for three months after the fight,” Zwicker says. “My face was swollen about a month and my wife and kids were crying.
“I was so humbled to have won that I reached out to him and we bonded right away. Fighting another man like that brings out a camaraderie most people cannot understand.”
Zonar and Saint Preux have flown out to train with Zwicker at Team Quest, home of former Pride and Strikeforce champion Dan Henderson, and regularly bring the Californian to Knoxville.
Eventually, Zonar booked better fights and Saint Preux went on a tear, knocking out Chris Hawk at a Strikeforce event in Nashville, then signing with the company after two more wins in 2010. In three years, Saint Preux went 6-1 under the Strikeforce banner, and when the UFC bought the company, his was one of the contracts that was transferred over.
“Even though we bicker like brothers all the time, he’s my friend and I’m glad he’s so successful,” Zonar says. “He works hard and he listens. And it’s pretty sweet that you have this small local gym in Tennessee that produces one of the top guys in the world—that’s awesome.”
Only after his first fight in the UFC, a technical decision win over Gian Villante, did Saint Preux feel secure enough to finally quit his job as a youth counselor at the Florence Crittenton Agency.
With MMA still a relatively new sport, most pro fighters don’t make enough to sustain themselves financially until they sign with a major promotion. At Valor Fights 23, an event put on by Tennessee’s second-biggest MMA promotion and the most popular one in East Tennessee, where Saint Preux is on hand to help Turner and Zonar warm up the five KMAA fighters on the card, pay ranges from $200 to $800 for debuting professionals, depending on a range of factors from fan base to fight difficulty and whether they win or not. Fighters also make a 20-40 percent commission on ticket sales.
“I had just been working an overnight shift by the end, and I thought I’d wind up working with youth for the rest of my life,” says Saint Preux, who went from making $400 in his 2008 pro debut to cashing a $50,000 Performance of the Night bonus check for his knockout of one-time light heavyweight champion Shogun last November.
Jay Miller worked with Saint Preux for a year at the agency. He says the UFC fighter was like a father to kids dealing with drug and alcohol abuse issues, talking to them on their level and sharing stories from his own life growing up in Immokalee to show them their circumstances don’t dictate their futures. Outside of his ability to pull them out of bad moments, Miller says Saint Preux was also handy to have around when situations got heated.
“You have kids 14 to 17 years old who have a history of violence and don’t really respect people my size,” says Miller, who stands 5-foot-9 and weighs 175 pounds. “Vince walks in and the room goes quiet. If one of kids was causing trouble, we’d all be like, ‘Hey, you get out of line and you’re gonna have to talk to Mr. Vince.’”
It’s easy to forget how physically intimidating Saint Preux can be, even after watching him break arms in the cage with kicks from his long, tree-trunk legs. (Two times in his career, Saint Preux has broken his opponents’ arms to win via injury.) In conversation, he is soft-spoken, funny, and shifts from humbly shy when talking about himself to animated and precise when it comes to fighting. In the gym, Vince is “very good with training partners and tends not to kill them—the opposite of what he does in fights,” as Turner puts it.
Another Knoxville fighter and one of Saint Preux’s close friends will also appear on the UFC Nashville card. Lightweight Scott Holtzman, a former Ice Bears hockey player and Central High School and UT graduate, makes his debut for the promotion against Anthony Christodoulou.
“I’ve sparred a bit with Vince, but it’s fairly light,” Holtzman says. “Remember, he’s got like 60 pounds on me, so he’s got to be nice.”
Unlike Saint Preux, Holtzman holds his training camps outside of Knoxville, at the MMA Lab in Glendale, Ariz., home of former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson. But he started his career training at Shield Systems, a gym located in one of KMAA’s former locations, next to Cotton Eyed Joe’s near Turkey Creek. When in town, the man known as Hot Sauce trains there under Ben Harrison and works boxing with Saint Preux at Eppolito Boxing Gym. The two also share the same strength and conditioning coach, Nate Hoffmeister, who Turner credits with “building the machine Vince now drives.”
“Fighting is the oldest sport on Earth,” Holtzman says. “If you had four different sports on each street corner—soccer, baseball, football, whatever—I believe the majority of the crowd is going to walk over and watch the fight. Believe me, I’m showing up to put on a show, and I know Vince is, too.”
Before losing his last two fights against former champion Jon Jones and contender Phil Davis, Glover Teixeira was on a 20-fight win streak and fresh off a three-minute TKO of Ryan Bader, the only man to defeat Saint Preux in his UFC career.
But Saint Preux’s coaches have a plan, and from the second they got the phone call from UFC matchmaker Joe Silva, Turner and Zonar assured their fighter that he has the skills to put on a showcase, as long as he listens.
“I might get my ass whooped in a kickboxing or wrestling match, but this is mixed martial arts,” Saint Preux says. “I’ve got a coach that incorporates it all. Glover is a beast, but he knows if he’s not careful I’ll knock him out.”
If Saint Preux wins on Aug. 8, there is already speculation from MMA journalists that he could be the next opponent for current light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier.
“A lot of fighters want that fast track to the title, but I’m getting better, feeling good, regardless,” Saint Preux says. “The title? I’m not really too worried about it.”
Turner, Zonar, and Hoffmeister work him hard in the gym. Turner has instituted a strict no-travel policy to ensure that Saint Preux stays focused. Even though he’s started to enjoy some of the money he’s earned since breaking out as a UFC fighter, Saint Preux still rents his house and drives a beat-up 2003 Honda Accord around town. He put dark tints on his newer GMC Yukon Denali to avoid bringing attention to himself.
On the mats at KMAA, he works with Fisher and a handful of other fighters, smiling between drills and cracking jokes when someone makes a mistake. At the end of the session, Saint Preux takes off his shirt and sits off to the side, his body a hulking mass of muscle bearing tattoos of the flag and country of Haiti and brands from his fraternity. He says the markings represent some of the most important things to him.
Above his left hip, just under his rib cage, there is another large tattoo of the wazakishindo symbol, KMAA’s logo.
“When I first walked in here, I didn’t know anything,” Saint Preux says. “I played football for five years. Now I’ve been doing martial arts for seven years. It’s changed my life. It’s humbled me inside and outside. This is the first gym I ever trained at, and anything I achieve in this sport is for this gym, not me.”
Brian Canever is the content manager for the University of Tennessee’s Center for Sport, Peace & Society. A native of New Jersey, he relocated to Knoxville in 2011. Canever explores the people behind the sports we love, and writes primarily about soccer, tennis, and combat sports.
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