Just under two minutes into his UFC comeback fight, Ovince Saint Preux threw a powerful leg kick to the left thigh of his opponent, dangerous Brazilian Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante, a man who had knocked out his opponent in 11 of his 12 professional wins as a fighter.
The same kick was thrown and landed by the former Tennessee football linebacker hundreds of times in the gym leading up to the fight, his first since losing to former light heavyweight title challenger Glover Teixeira in the main event at UFC Nashville last August. But this time sections of the crowd gasped audibly through the television screen as Saint Preux landed awkwardly on his right foot.
“My ankle immediately felt jacked up,” said Saint Preux, speaking at Knoxville Martial Arts Academy after his first training session since UFC Fight Night 82 on Feb. 6 in Las Vegas.
“I thought to myself, ‘Oh crap. What am I gonna do?’ But I knew I just had to keep on moving and eventually the adrenaline would kick in and the pain would stop. I bit down on my mouthpiece for a minute or two and just told myself to stay cool, calm and collected.”
Feijao tried to chop down Saint Preux with his own kicks, taking advantage of the injury in a fight few commentators expected to last the full three rounds. With a minute left in the round, though, Saint Preux hit the Brazilian with a handful of big punches and got the fight to ground where he was able to recover. Ultimately, the Haitian-American dominated the rest of fight en route to a unanimous decision victory. His coaches carried him out to the locker room and put him on crutches as a precaution, but since having tests done the week after the fight the injury was diagnosed as only a mild ankle sprain.
Currently the number six-ranked light heavyweight mixed martial artist in the world, Saint Preux has trained in Knoxville since graduating from UT with a degree in sociology in 2004. He is still coached by KMAA owner Eric Turner, with whom he debuted as a professional fighter in 2008.
After Saint Preux’s disappointing loss to number four-ranked Teixeira on Aug. 8 in front a largely hometown crowd, Turner meticulously studied video of what went wrong and what needed to improve. With a win, Saint Preux could have been next in line for a title shot—the first Knoxville-trained fighter to fight for a belt in the UFC. The loss instead forced Turner to make changes he has applied throughout the gym for the other professional amateur fighters.
“Vince was the catalyst for me rethinking the way I looked at martial arts for the last 20 years,” Turner said. “It is incredibly rare for a gym to completely change its style. And the whole new system is hard to learn. It’s all about angles, lines, controlling distance. But Vince is now on board and he’s having success with it.”
With nine knockouts in his 19 professional wins, Saint Preux throws his strength and power into every punch and kick. Many predicted he would knock out Feijao, a former light heavyweight champion for the Strikeforce promotion Saint Preux fought under from 2010-2012. But Turner wanted him to shift from being so predictable and to instead emphasize the “process” of working toward a win more than the “outcome.”
Saint Preux, who admitted to some initial confusion at the new game plan, clarified it this way:
“My old style was like having a high-speed chase. I’m running after somebody the whole fight and I’m trying to hit them. And you see in a high-speed chase when somebody’s chasing and hits them from behind nothing really happens. Now I’m looking for that head-on collision. Where I’m like a semi-truck and they’re like a little Pinto car running into my punches.”
Turner implemented a new element to the their training in August. Now the two men spend an hour-and-a-half every Monday on mental preparation: self-confidence, creative visualizations, positive thinking and energy management. When they arrived in Las Vegas a few days before the fight, Turner also had Saint Preux watch the movie The 13th Warrior, a 1999 action film starring Antonio Banderas. In the film, there is a famous fight scene where one man seems to be losing, but in the final move of the fight turns the tables and slays his opponent with calm precision.
“It was all a trick, and the trick is the point,” Turner said. “It makes you question everything that he’s doing and you now have this fear of the unknown. This is what we’re doing with Vince.
“We’re tricking people into thinking that he’s not just a smashing machine. Because before he was a crazy striker with no discipline. Before that he was a wrestler with crazy submissions. Now they have no idea.”
Saint Preux expects to fight three more times for the UFC in 2016, with the final fight a shot at whoever is champion by year’s end. Already there is talk of facing the most recent title challenger, number three-ranked Alexander Gustafsson of Sweden. But neither fighter nor coach is worried about the opponent—they’ll be there to answer with an affirmative yes when the UFC matchmakers phone.
“The UFC has never called and said we want you to fight this person and we say no,” Turner said. “If they call and want us to fight Godzilla, I’ll say, ‘Okay, where’s the fight and what’s the weight class?’ We want to fight anybody at all.”
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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