At the time, St. Preux was a relative rookie in the sport, having competed for just over a year. It's safe to say that back then, he wasn't exactly a prodigy. With a record of 4-4, he also wasn't lighting up the radar of major MMA talent seekers. In fact, when St. Preux's name was floated for the card, Strikeforce execs were against it. It was only the tenacious and repeated calls from some of his coaching staff to the Strikeforce office that ultimately landed him on the event, and St. Preux has taken the opportunity and sprinted with it.
Since that moment, he has yet to lose. Now 11-4 and with five Strikeforce wins under his belt, St. Preux makes the leap to title contender, fighting former light-heavyweight champ Gegard Mousasi in the co-main event of Saturday's Strikeforce: Melendez vs. Masvidal event.
But how did he get from there to here? How does one start off a career winning just three of his first seven bouts, then suddenly find a new gear and dominate everyone put in front of him?
St. Preux said it was a few simple adjustments that changed everything. The former University of Tennessee football player recommitted himself to strength and conditioning, focusing on correcting stamina issues that he says plagued him early on. He also changed his eating habits, and when the time came, he seized his moments.
At Strikeforce: Nashville, he ended up romping in a 47-second TKO. A couple of months later, he scored an 8-second knockout of former UFC fighter Jason Day. With every win, he learned something about himself.
"Some of those fights let me know know where I was," he told MMA Fighting. "I wouldn't say I doubted myself, but when you have a lot of people telling you that you're good, sometimes you ask yourself, 'Am I that good?' So when you actually go out against those opponents and take care of business, you go, 'OK, I think I could push myself a little more.'"
St. Preux's confidence grew further with wins over hard-hitting strikers Antwain Britt and Benji Radach, and when he added a win over Abongo Humphrey for his seventh win in 11 months, it seemed that St. Preux was on his way to contention. But first he got a strangely matched bout with debuting Joe Cason.
St. Preux didn't allow himself any disappointment at what most saw as a step back from a matchup perspective, and ran through Cason in just 72 seconds. That set up his current match with Mousasi.
"It's just a situation that worked out perfectly for me," he said. "I don't feel like I have anything to lose. I don't have my back against the wall. It's a situation where I'm the underdog for this fight anyway."
Not that he feels like an underdog. St. Preux acknowledges that Mousasi is the better striker and even the better submission fighter, but he feels the edge is his when it comes to wrestling. Above that, he feels he's simply a better fighter than Mousasi.
"People will be surprised that I say that, but we'll see what happens after the fight," he said. "We'll see if they're still surprised after the fight.
"He's one of those top fighters," he continued. "He's 31-3, he's the type of fighter who has a lot of will, he's a tough guy. So it's not like I'm going in there thinking I'm going to cakewalk all over him. I'm going in there like it's an adventure. I'm definitely going to go in there and make sure I use all my skills to the best of my ability."
The Strikeforce light-heavyweight championship is currently vacant, left behind by Dan Henderson when he moved over to the UFC. The winner of the St. Preux-Mousasi fight seems a logical choice for one-half of a future title bout. Though that hasn't been guaranteed, those are likely the stakes he's playing for.
That's a pretty good second act for a guy who grew up wanting to play in the NFL. After exhausting his eligibility at UT, St. Preux briefly tried to wedge his way into pro training camps, but wasn't able to find a situation that offered him a legitimate opportunity to make a roster.
"I always say 'I never quit football; football quit me,'" he said.
St. Preux still has his roots down in Tennessee, training at the Knoxville Martial Arts Academy, just 15 miles from Neyland Stadium, the home of UT's football Volunteers. But he sprinkles in occasional work with Team Quest in Temecula, California, and arrived in the state a week earlier than necessary in order to get in some time there before facing Mousasi.
And make no mistake about it, this is the fight he wanted. After his last win over Cason, when Strikeforce announcer Mauro Ranallo asked St. Preux what might be next for him, Mousasi's name was the first thing out of his mouth.
"Everything kind of worked out my way, and now I've got to capitalize on it," he said. "I've just got to do my job and keep on winning."
In the last two years, that's all he's done. And on Saturday, he can continue the unlikely story of going from a losing record to the verge of a major championship.
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