Ovince Saint Preux a rare MMA transplant

The most significant moment of Ovince St. Preux's professional mixed martial arts career arguably occurred about 12 years before it started.

Before he played linebacker and defensive end at the University of Tennessee in 2001 (and well before he was a UFC light heavyweight), St. Preux was persuaded to join his high school wrestling program by the team's head coach.

OSP did it partially because he found he was good at it (he was a state runner-up in Class 1A) but also just because, "it would be a good base for football."

Had St. Preux (16-5) never been a high school wrestler, he would most likely not be fighting Ryan Bader at Saturday's UFC Fight Night 47 in Bangor, Maine. Obviously, OSP had a natural affinity to MMA, but his familiarity with wrestling was crucial.

"A lot of football guys could probably [fight], but if you don't have a wrestling base, it's going to be real hard," St. Preux told ESPN.com. "The hardest thing to pick up in MMA is wrestling. If you're not somewhat of a natural, you're going to be in trouble."

Generally speaking, it wouldn't be the worst thing in the world for the sport of MMA to see a few more guys like OSP fall into its lap. He is a former collegiate athlete who successfully transitioned into MMA in a heavier weight class.

The average age of the UFC ranked light heavyweight is 32-years-old. Heavyweights are even older, with an average age of 34. Not one top-10 UFC heavyweight is under the age of 30, and up-and-coming prospects are few and far between.

St. Preux is certainly a phenomenal athlete. He was a standout defensive lineman in high school, and was eventually moved to linebacker in college due to his physical makeup. His speed and explosiveness is unmistakable when he fights.

After attempts at a career in the NFL came up short (he was in contact with the Buffalo Bills and St. Louis Rams at one point), St. Preux effectively retired as a competitive athlete, but went to an MMA facility as a way to stay in shape.

It didn't take long for St. Preux's abilities to get recognized. His athleticism was off the charts, and he demonstrated a high fight IQ. As he describes it, MMA came pretty easy and he found that opportunities weren't hard to come by.

Within two years of his pro debut, he had signed a contract with Strikeforce.

"It wasn't difficult at all," St. Preux said. "I wasn't a world class wrestler, but I know defense and I have strong hips. I'm an athlete. You show me something during the day, I can pull it off by that night.

"There are a lot of fast and explosive guys on the football field. You get a quarter of them in MMA and there's no telling what's going to happen. Imagine if you ever give someone like [San Diego Chargers linebacker] Dwight Freeney just a little bit of wrestling and striking. What would happen?"

And yet, it doesn't happen very often.

St. Preux remains the exception, not the rule, concerning collegiate athletes finding success in professional MMA. St. Preux has seen both sides of it.

He trains out of Knoxville, Tennessee and remains close to the UT football program. He has had several players approach him in recent years about the possibility of following in his footsteps. He invites every single one that does to the gym.

Typically, the same thing happens every time. Athletically, the football players show a ton of promise -- but they don't like getting hit.

"The first thing that comes out of their mouth is the first thing that came out of my mouth when I started and that's, 'I don't want to get hit,'" St. Preux said. "I don't like getting hit to this day, I just now know I can take it.

"You're seeing what great athletes can do in this sport, though. The UFC is evolving. Athletes are picking up moves in a day that used to take people three weeks to learn. You've got guys who can jump across the ring now."

Whether an influx of those athletes, at least from the collegiate realm, ever truly hit MMA is anyone's guess. Meanwhile, St. Preux will continue to set the standard for it and look to break into the division's rankings for the first time in his career.

As OSP's rarity attests, athleticism alone doesn't equate a pro fighting career.

"You have to be a very determined person to say, 'Hey, I haven't done combat sports but I'm going to start from scratch at 21-years-old," said St. Preux's opponent, Bader. "He had a little wrestling, but obviously he's dedicated and [has] taken nicely to it.

"It's a daunting realization to say, 'My football career is over. I'm going to try be the best in the world in combat sports.' That's why you don't see a lot of people doing it. It requires dedication and it's a gamble."