Ovince St. Preux said he learned “the meaning of hard work” playing football at Immokalee High School.
The 2001 grad said he can still hear former Indians coach John Weber saying “come on, come on” urging the players to give their all.
St. Preux said he heard Weber’s voice Saturday night in his Ultimate Fighting Championship debut.
He admitted battling nerves more than his opponent, fellow former college football player Gian Villante, in a preliminary bout at UFC 159 in Newark, N.J.
“It was a little nerve-wracking at the beginning but at the end of the night I wanted to get my hand raised,” St. Preux said of reaching the pinnacle of the mixed-martial arts sport.
Ovince St. Preux prepares for UFC debut
After 30 seconds of the third and final round, St. Preux did get his hand raised — along with a little controversy. The referee stopped the fight after Villante said he got poked in the eye by a St. Preux punch. The referee thought Villante was unable to continue and called it an unintentional foul. St. Preux (13-5) gained the victory on a scorecard decision (30-28, 30-29 and 29-29).
Villante said he could have continued fighting. St. Preux said he still would have won the fight.
“I felt like I was dominating,” St. Preux said. “I felt refreshed in the third round, especially better than the second round. I knew at the end of the day I was going to win. In the third round I was looking for knockout.”
St. Preux, 30, called his UFC debut a “dream come true.”
Five years ago, he said he didn’t even know about MMA.
After his college football playing days, St. Preux saw his former teammates carrying around an extra 20, 30 pounds.
He stumbled into what he thought was a kick boxing class, but was actually a mixed martial arts class, intent only on keeping his washboard stomach.
The hobby turned into a job. His job went national on Saturday night.
“It was kind of crazy being on the big stage,” St. Preux said of being part of the undercard to the Chael Sonnen-Jon Jones light heavyweight title match. “I really battled with my nerves.”
The former Tennessee linebacker-turned-mixed martial arts fighter says 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 last week in Knoxville, Tenn., where he now calls home.
Before Saturday night’s UFC debut, 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.
That’s how a fighter gains a rep and makes the jump to the UFC. And that’s what St. Preux has been working toward since 2008.
Weber described St. Preux as a raw athlete with long arms and big hands. Weber said he isn’t surprised to see St. Preux succeeding in the octagon.
“I could see him doing this because of his quickness,” Weber said. “He always attacked the ball.”
St. Preux starred on Immokalee’s 2000 team that went undefeated in the regular season, only to lose to Sean Taylor and Gulliver Prep (Miami) in double overtime in the state semifinals.
St. Preux, who played defensive end, was heavily recruited by many Division I schools. Then-Florida coach Steve Spurrier even flew into Immokalee to try to convince St. Preux to come to Gainesville. Instead, he went to Tennessee.
St. Preux spent the 2002 through 2004 seasons as a backup linebacker under UT coach Phillip Fulmer. 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.
And that’s when he discovered mixed-martial arts.
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. Weber said he remembers St. Preux being a lanky, athlete who couldn’t gain weight to get stronger.
“That’s funny because I did have a hard time gaining weight,” St. Preux said “I use to eat everything I could get my hands on and still not gain a single pound.”
St. Preux said growing up in Immokalee made him stronger.
“Immokalee has only been known as outcasts and we are always known as underdogs,” said St. Preuex, who also credits his mom and dad for instilling a strong work ethic in him. “A lot of people don’t give us much credit and that makes us a lot hungrier.”
St. Preux started his professional career five years ago and 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 on Saturday his name was called.
Now, he’s hungry for a second UFC bout. He said he’d be willing to give Villante a rematch. He said he’s capable of getting better.
“That wasn’t even my A-plus fighting game,” St. Preux said. “I went from five years ago to not knowing anything about MMA and now I am still learning. I got that first fight out of the way and now it is climbing up the ladder.”
He said despite a bruised foot, he's heading right back to the gym. St. Preux said he’ll continuing to work hard, just as he learned playing football at Immokalee High School.
Knoxville Sentinel reporter Brendan F. Quinn contributed to this story.