Inside the Octagon

By Alex Cate
Photography by Wade Payne
Video by Erica Jenkins

Almost unnoticed, Ovince Saint Preux quietly enters the basement of what used to be the gymnasium of a church. Now filled with punching bags, red wrestling mats and a regulation fighting octagon, the low-lit 11,000-square-foot room is the home of the Knoxville Martial Arts Academy.

On this cold night in early January, Saint Preux (Knoxville ’04), bundled in sweatpants, a hooded sweatshirt and Tennessee Volunteers toboggan, mingles with some of the younger students who are finishing up a mixed martial arts class before preparing for his night of training. Joey Zonar, Knoxville Martial Arts Academy co-owner, makes his way over to Saint Preux—known as “Vince” around the gym—to check in with him and give a quick update on the status of another fight.

Saint Preux, 30, played football for the Vols from 2001 to 2003 as a defensive end and linebacker.  After transferring to UT Chattanooga for one football season, he came back to Knoxville and finished his sociology degree in 2004. Now Saint Preux trains in a different sport, mixed martial arts (MMA). He has worked his way up to the premier MMA league, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). His professional record improved to 15-5 after beating Nikita Krylov on March 15. Saint Preux has become one of the hottest up-and-coming fighters in the UFC.

Building a Fighter

Space heaters attached to several cross beams above the wrestling mats keep students sweating and heat the large basement. As Saint Preux begins to get ready for a Jiu Jitsu class, it’s obvious he isn’t an average participant. At 6-foot-3 and weighing nearly 220 pounds, he resembles a gladiator as he straps on his knee pads, wraps his hands and puts on the open-finger gloves that are unique to the UFC.

He removes his sweats to train shirtless and barefoot, the same way he fights. It becomes clear why he was signed by the UFC to be one of 35 light heavyweights who battle each other inside an encaged Octagon, similar to a boxing ring but without the avenues of escape. Preparing for months, these athletes are like the new-age brawling boxers who perform in the biggest venues across the world and on TV pay-per-view.

In the UFC, fighters can employ any form of martial art—kickboxing, Jiu Jitsu, Muay Thai or Judo—to take down an opponent. Like boxing, fights can end in three ways. Some will end in a knockout, while others could end in injury or scoring from judges. One of the main differences is the ability to win by submission or when an opponent forfeits while in a painful or compromising position.

Knoxville Martial Arts Academy
Ovince Saint Preux talks with manager Joey Zonar (Knoxville ’07), left, and trainers Eric Turner (Knoxville ’06, ’09) and Nate Hoffmeister at the Knoxville Martial Arts Academy training center.

Muscles bulging from head to toe, Saint Preux says he’s in the best shape of his life, courtesy of strength coach Nate Hoffmeister—a totally different kind of conditioning than when he strapped on shoulder pads as a football player. Instead of short bursts of strain like in football, now he’s trained to go harder and push himself further for longer times.

“I like pushing myself to the limit, and the thing about mixed martial arts is it allows me to do that,” he says. “In mixed martial arts, you can’t slack up or you might find yourself waking up asking, ‘What happened?’”

Ovince St. Preux training

A Team Is Born

Years before, in what he thought was going to be a kickboxing class, Saint Preux was introduced to some of the basics of MMA. Looking for a way to keep from slipping into the unhealthy trap that affects many former athletes, Saint Preux was introduced to MMA by fraternity brother Chris Wright. Wright contacted Zonar, who he met as a student at UT Knoxville and knew was involved with MMA. When Wright started taking classes with Zonar (Knoxville ’07) and Eric Turner (Knoxville ’06, ’09), now the head trainer of the academy, Saint Preux tagged along. The kickboxing class he went to ended up being a fight club, as he described it. They’ve been a team ever since.

“I never initially wanted to fight. I just wanted to do things where I was training,” Saint Preux says. “It was pushing me, and it made me feel good.”

Turner convinced Saint Preux to fight as an amateur in 2008. He went undefeated, 10-0.  After two losses to start his professional career, he felt like quitting. He sat down with Turner and talked about whether he should keep going. “I asked him how far did he think I could make it, and he said I could be the UFC champ,” says Saint Preux. “That’s all I needed to hear.”

Road to Knoxville

Born into a Haitian-American household in Miami, Saint Preux has pride in where he came from. When he enters the arena for each fight, he wears the Haitian flag over his shoulders to remind him of home, where he still speaks Haitian Creole. His parents, Markinise and Mercilia, moved the family to Immokalee, Fla., when he was young to provide a safer environment. The middle of seven children, he starred at Immokalee High School in both football and wrestling.

“I grew up in a Haitian household, but I lived in the United States, so I got to experience the best of both worlds,” says Saint Preux. “That was definitely a blessing.”

Ovince Saint Preux, Tennessee Vol
Once a Tennessee linebacker, Saint Preux now stays in shape by competing in mixed martial arts.

His performance on the gridiron caught the eye of then-Vols head football coach Phillip Fulmer and defensive coordinator John Chavis. In his first three years in Knoxville, he played sparingly, mainly serving as a backup linebacker after switching from defensive end. After a couple of unsuccessful attempts at playing football professionally, Saint Preux began working as a counselor to kids with drug and alcohol problems. Even in the beginnings of his UFC career, he still finds time to work part time at the Florence Crittenton Agency in Knoxville, helping mentor youth through life counseling.

“What I’ve seen from him is he’s able to turn his workout as a UFC fighter into a form of discipline and control for youth,” says Renski Davis-Buckley, one of Saint Preux’s co-workers. “When he brings them in with a little conversation about his UFC fighting, he’s able to use that in turn to take his moment to change their behavior.”

Saint Preux has always known that he wanted to help people. With his athletic background, he finds it easier to connect with some of the kids. A lot of what he does is helping them develop life skills, particularly how to deal with anger. As a professional fighter, his words resonate with youth.  The perception is that UFC fighters are angry and aggressive. Instead, Zonar says, most treat it like a job, knowing how to keep their emotions balanced. Saint Preux tries to teach the same principles to his youth groups.

Rising in the UFC

His first UFC fight was in April 2013, when he defeated Gian Villante after an eye poke caused the referee to stop the fight.  Although unorthodox, it was still a win in his debut fight, something that you can’t take for granted in his profession.

Fight Terms

Mixed Martial Arts: A sport including all different types of martial arts and hand-to-hand combat, mixed martial arts (MMA) uses a variety of techniques. Safety is always the most important aspect of any MMA event.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: A combination of traditional Japanese Jiu-Jitsu and Judo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu focuses on grappling and wrestling techniques. It has become widely adopted as one of the cornerstones to mixed martial arts and centers on submitting the opponent or maintaining physical leverage through body positioning.

Boxing: For decades, boxing has been one of America’s predominant sports and fighting styles. Boxing typically revolves around striking the opponent and focuses on quick footwork and punches. The techniques of boxing are important to the striking portion of mixed martial arts.

In August 2013, he took on Cody Donovan at the TD Garden in Boston, Mass. With much to prove, Saint Preux entered the arena, draped in the Haitian flag and surrounded by his team of Zonar, Turner and Hoffmeister. Rick Ross’ Hold Me Back blared over the loud speakers, totally entrancing him in his walk toward the octagon. After both fighters entered the cage, the announcer introduced Saint Preux, the fighter out of Knoxville, Tenn. There’s no dinging bell. Instead, the referee clapped his hands, and both fighters charged into the middle of the octagon, touching gloves slightly to show a small hint of sportsmanship. Both fighters moved from side to side to look for opportunities to exploit the other. Saint Preux started in a southpaw stance but can fight orthodox if he chooses. The balanced approach is something that Turner takes great pride in teaching his students. The ability to adapt to your opponent rather than focusing on one area or one specialty is important at KMAA.

Donovan and Saint Preux exchanged several punches and kicks before Donovan pinned Saint Preux against the chain-link wall.  He landed several uppercuts on Saint Preux before they separated.

Donovan then once again pinned Saint Preux to the edge of the octagon, trying to gain the upper hand. While it seemed like Saint Preux was losing the match, he knew things could change in an instant. Saint Preux made his move in the blink of an eye. As Donovan tried to throw him to the ground, Saint Preux flipped his hips—an advantage of being so athletic—and rolled Donovan under him and onto his back. Advantage Saint Preux.

From there, Saint Preux did something even more impressive. With Donovan in a guard position, the former linebacker began to strike with his left hand. The first swing glanced off Donovan’s head, but the third and fourth punches hit him square in the jaw. His eyes rolled into the back of his head, a signal for the referee to end the fight in a knockout win for Saint Preux just more than two minutes into the bout.

Saint Preux vs. Villante
Saint Preux delivers a high kick to opponent Gian Villante during an April 2013 contest.

Fresh off this second victory, Saint Preux advanced to 2-0 in the UFC heading into the March fight. Saint Preux needed just 1:29 in the first round to beat Krylov with a rare Von Flue choke, recording the fourth-fastest submission in light heavyweight history. The name of the game is compiling as many wins as possible, climbing the ranks as he goes and hoping one day to have a shot at the title of world champion.

Ovince St. Preux with Haitian flag
Saint Preux’s parents both emigrated from Haiti. Before he fights he wears the Haitian flag, which also is printed on his mouthpiece.

The Future

Turner has a unique way of teaching MMA, and a lot of it stems from studying philosophy.  “When you combine philosophy with punching people in the face, that’s when you get MMA,” says Turner. To him, philosophy is an argument. One person takes one stance, the other another. When debating philosophy, you’ve got to pay attention to all angles. He compares it to a fight. One fighter is taking one side of the argument, and the other is taking the other side, both determined to prove they’re right. It’s this mental side of MMA that often goes unnoticed amidst the swirling punches, high kicks and wrestling.

Fight Terms

Judo: A product of Jiu-Jitsu, Judo was created in the 19th century and has many techniques similar to its style of origin, including an emphasis on takedowns and throws. Now it is more widely known as a sport and as an Olympic event, but the principles carry into MMA.

Kickboxing: Kickboxing is basically boxing but with kicking involved, hence the name. There are several styles, and Muay Thai is one of the most widely used.

Muay Thai: A type of kickboxing originating in Thailand, Muay Thai adds striking with the elbows and knees to a fighter’s arsenal and is prominent in mixed martial arts.

As a former football player, Saint Preux has a strong ability to listen to instruction, which has helped him get so far, Turner says. It’s not easy being in the UFC. His journey to the March fight was an example of how difficult it can be. He was originally scheduled to fight in January against Thiago Silva. When Silva backed out unexpectedly, his team looked for a new fight but was unsuccessful. The fight against Silva was then rescheduled for March. A month before, however, Silva was arrested and subsequently removed from the UFC, leaving Saint Preux with no opponent. After regrouping, Saint Preux finally got his fight when Krylov dropped down a weight class and stepped in for Silva.

There is only one motivation for Saint Preux as he moves forward—to be the best. His idea of the best isn’t the best in Knoxville or the best in Tennessee. His idea of success will be fulfilled only when he holds the title of world champion in front of his name.

“I think you believe things into being,” says Turner. “You have to believe so much that they happen. I believed, and Vince believed, and that’s why Vince is in the UFC.”