Five years ago, Ovince Saint Preux was a 26-year-old former football player looking for a new career. At just 3-4 after his first seven fights, it didn't necessarily seem like mixed martial arts was the right choice.
Those around him knew otherwise, as they saw the raw potential Saint Preux possessed and told him that with the right work ethic, he could one day easily achieve the highest rank in the sport: Ultimate Fighting Championship title holder.
It seemed like a long way away at the time, but Saint Preux took the words to heart.
"I believed them," Saint Preux told USA TODAY Sports. "I knew I always had the talent. Hearing stuff like that actually makes you push yourself a lot harder."
Saint Preux was born and raised in Florida, but he moved to Knoxville in 2001 to play defensive end and linebacker at the University of Tennessee. After graduating in 2004 with a bachelor's degree in Sociology, Saint Preux tried unsuccessfully to break into the ranks of professional football. When that didn't pan out, he decided to try his hand at MMA.
While he enjoyed the challenge, things didn't necessarily go his way in the beginning stages of his professional career.
"I think it was just being new to the sport," Saint Preux said. "Also, when I first started, I was just working out by myself. I didn't have a strength-and-conditioning coach. Now I do, and that's been a blessing for me. I'm getting stronger and faster, and I feel more explosive now, too. That's been a big help."
The results have been evident in the cage, as Saint Preux is 13-1 in his past 14 fights, including a perfect 4-0 mark in the sport's premier promotion, the UFC. Now 31 years old, Saint Preux has orchestrated his entire advance under the guidance of the team at Knoxville Mixed Martial Arts and head coach Eric Turner.
Oftentimes, fighters will stray from their original school in order to get work at some of the nation's larger academies, but Saint Preux has eschewed that approach in favor of remaining loyal to the team that has fueled his rise.
"It's definitely good for me to have been here in Tennessee the whole time," Saint Preux said. "I usually have to go to other gyms to get good sparring in, as I'm usually the fastest, biggest guy in the state. However, this camp I've had guys like Justin Fisher, Isaac Fine, Jason King and Nick Eastman there pushing me. Plus, my coaches know me very well and know what I need better than anyone.
"A lot of people tell me, 'You need to go here,' or, 'You need to go there.' But I've been around elite coaches all my life. I know what an elite coach looks like. When I hear people say I need to go somewhere else, I just tell them I know what a good coach looks like, and I have great coaches."
The approach has worked thus far, and Saint Preux (16-5 mixed martial arts, 4-0 UFC) has worked himself up to the No. 14 spot in the latest USA TODAY Sports MMA light heavyweight rankings. On Saturday, he headlines a UFC event for the first time, as he meets Ryan Bader (17-4, 10-4) in the featured bout of "UFC Fight Night: Bader vs. Saint Preux," which takes place at Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, Maine, and airs on FOX Sports 1 (10 p.m. ET).
Bader fights for the 15th time under the UFC banner and has been a perennial top-10 contender since his arrival to the promotion. Saint Preux knows it's his chance to truly make a name for himself in the sport.
"This fight is going to be one of those fights," Saint Preux said. "Ryan Bader is a household name. He was 'The Ultimate Fighter' champ. The only guys he's lost to are Jon Jones, Lyoto Machida, Tito Ortiz and Glover Teixeira. This fight right here, this is the one that gets me noticed."
Bader will certainly provide Saint Preux with his stiffest UFC test to date. A former collegiate All-American wrestler who has since added heavy hands to his arsenal, Bader has only lost to the absolute best light heavyweights in the sport. But Saint Preux feels confident that he matches his opponent in terms of physical abilities.
"I think we match up pretty well," Saint Preux said. "I might end up looking a little bigger. I think he's a strong guy, but he'll also be surprised to find out how strong I am. Also, I definitely have a length advantage.
"You know, Bader is Bader. He's a strong wrestler. Everybody knows he's great with his takedowns, but when he struggles to get the takedowns, he struggles in the fight. I'll be ready."
With a victory, Saint Preux would become just the fifth 205-pounder in UFC history to earn five victories to start his octagon run (Bader was one of the other four) and would likely crack the top-10 in the current divisional rankings.
Not bad for a man who was mired in mediocrity just five short years ago.
"It definitely means something to me," Saint Preux said. "I'm feeling good. I can't complain about anything. I'm in a great situation, and I've been blessed. Now it's time for me to capitalize on this opportunity."