Ovince St. Preux was on a three-fight winning streak heading into UFC on Fox 28 on Feb. 24. With a win on that night, he would have taken the lead in the clubhouse as far as legitimate title contenders. At worst, he would have been firmly in position for a title-eliminator fight with perennial top contender Alexander Gustafsson. Unfortunately, though somewhat predictably, OSP was summarily and decisively finished inside of a round by Ilir Latifi. Once again, St. Preux was sent to the back of the line of the division. His reputation as a perennial underachiever and a standout example of untapped potential was reaffirmed.
Let’s look at St. Preux and the five main reasons he has been so inconsistent in his performances, so unable to maximize his prodigious athletic talent, and why he has been good enough to get into position to be elite while never good enough to step into the realm of actually being elite.
When discussing a fighter as a prospect, one of the first things that has to be looked at is the fighter’s athleticism. Unlike previous stages in the history of this sport, physical ability is a necessity to compete at the elite levels. Luke Rockhold has long been considered one of the best physical talents in MMA history. He is a middleweight with the size, strength and physicality of a light heavyweight and the speed, explosiveness and agility of a welterweight. Fans, coaches and fighters alike have marveled at the dynamic finishing ability he has shown in fights and the ability to pick up and excel with a variety of disciplines at a world-class level.
Few are able to match and or exceed St. Preux in this same category. This natural talent has allowed him to navigate the majority of his career with very few hiccups, setbacks, mistakes or missteps even as he moved up in the quality of organization and opponent. However, there are plenty of problems with St. Preux rising through the ranks as a result of his physical abilities.
- OSP’s overreliance on his physical strength, power, explosiveness, durability and agility has hindered his development, because he has leaned on his athleticism like a crutch instead of leaning on fundamentals and using his physical talent to increase the effectiveness of his skills. He lacks the skills to work himself into good positions, stay in those positions, avoid bad spots and work his way out of the bad positions he gets caught in. He has to subject himself to unnecessary abuse and energy expenditures trying to get into, maintain and improve on good positions, as well as trying to stay out of or escape bad positions. We saw this illustrated in his fights against Patrick Cummins, Glover Teixeira and Ryan Bader.
- St. Preux’s rare combination of physical dimensions and physical talent have assisted in him developing a very counter-based style. He knows he can turn a fight around at any moment, which has led to a passive approach in his willingness to throw with volume or to initiate exchanges. He is often outworked or overwhelmed by lesser athletes or declining athletes because he won’t exploit their physical limitations by forcing them to deal with his abilities. This was on display in his outings against Virgil Zwicker and the aforementioned Latifi and Teixeira.
- The two hardest things to develop in combat sports are a legitimate defense and consistently efficient counterpunching. Due to an overreliance on his height and length as a line of defense against shorter and somewhat limited strikers, St. Preux hasn’t developed the footwork, positioning or defensive techniques to minimize the number and quality of attacks used against him. He doesn’t really use his length all that well, either. All of these factors impact his willingness and ability to counter aggressively, because he is so often pushed back, taken down, or blasted with leads. His fights against Bader, Cummins, Latifi, Corey Anderson, Jimi Manuwa, Jon Jones and Volkan Oezdemir all put a spotlight on this issue.
- In his gym, St. Preux is most likely the best athlete and fighter, which means he isn’t being pushed. If he’s not pushed in his sparring sessions, it only reinforces a lackadaisical approach to training. Regardless of what scenarios are created to establish the illusion of danger, a fighter knows the truth. If OSP knows he can knock out most sparring partners, get up when he wants to, stay up if he wants to, handle the power, and get takedowns whenever he wants, then it creates a false sense of security that shows up in fights when facing guys who can put him in bad spots and exploit him. This was obvious against Teixeira, Bader and Jones.
- St. Preux’s ability has limited his coach’s ability to coach. OSP has been able to pick up so much so fast, and as a result, the reps, drills and attention to detail haven’t been there. With a lesser fighter, the holes in the development and refinement of the athlete would be exposed time and again. He wouldn’t have the physical tools to turn fights around, which for some camps erases or overshadows shaky performances. Lightweight and welterweight fighters can’t skate this long on talent and incomplete, unconnected skills. St. Preux, though, competes at light heavyweight, a division so low on prime, experienced and athletic talent that OSP can put three, four or five wins together without addressing things. His opponents aren’t able to exploit the consistently obvious holes and one-note line of attack of St. Preux. Just look at how Benji Radach, Yushin Okami, Corey Anderson, Marcos Rogerio De Lima and Cody Donovan performed against OSP.
St. Preux is essentially a fully formed fighter in regards to the identity he has crafted for himself. At age 33 and with 33 fights under his belt, OSP is as good as he is going to be. At this stage, an overhaul in approach and technique isn’t impossible, but it is very unlikely given the frequency St. Preux fights at and the somewhat shaky amount of money paid to MMA. He wouldn’t have the time or the finances to take an extended break from the sport as a competitor to do a reinstallations of skills and redirection in philosophy and points of emphasis.
Better sparring and training partners could be provided to OSP, which could force a focus on the subtle aspects of offense, defense and counters. It could also create a sense of urgency that would result in sharper execution. These things won’t change his character, though.
Given the amount of success and length of his career, any changes, modifications or additions of all the techniques in the world won’t matter if you can’t change the reaction of the fighter when under duress. Even this might be manageable in spots if St. Preux was a young fighter coming into his prime with a whole tank of durability and physical ability. He’s not. He has been training and competing often. Not only is his ability to take and recover from shots starting to slip, but so is his athleticism. If he was in any other division, this would be a death knell. At light heavyweight, however, it’s merely a sign of bad things to come down the line.
Other fighters have resurrected themselves and managed to stay on top or close to it even as they have lost a step. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, for example. Teixeira, too. Even Daniel Cormier can be counted among this group. However, these guys were combat-sports athletes and have a base level of skills, familiarity and awareness that St. Preux was never had or properly developed.
OSP is one of the most gifted and uniquely talented athletes in the sport, and especially in the division. Yet, his lack of development, lack of being pushed, and lack of initiative in his willingness to change his environment, his training partner and his coaches has placed a very low ceiling over the very high floor his talent gave him.