When Jan Blachowicz pulled out of his UFC Fight Night 104 bout with Ovince Saint Preux due to injury a couple of weeks ago, the promotion drafted in Swiss light-heavyweight Volkan Oezdemir to replace him.
Handling a short-notice change of opponents can be tough on a fighter mentally, especially one like Saint Preux, who has lost on three of his last four trips to the octagon and is coming off of a devastating stoppage defeat to Jimi Manuwa.
However, OSP is in a surprisingly good position to handle the drama surrounding this change of plans right now, due to an increased focus on…well focus. For the Haitian-born, Tennessee-based fighter this camp has been as much about psychological preparation as physical.
“My focus wasn’t all the way on the fight,” Saint Preux said of his defeat to Manuwa in London last October during a recent interview with MMAJunkie. “It was pretty much my fault – don’t let outside distractions hinder you and just learn how to push that away. I tell people at times, you can be in the best physical shape ever, but if you’re mentally broken, you’re done before you’ve even fought.”
“If you have certain outside distractions, if you’re not mentally there, you have to some way learn how to channel that. That’s why my coach Eric is harping on mental skills training. I’m not going to lie: At times, it’s worse than actual physical training. I’d rather physically exhaust myself instead of doing the mental skills training. But the mental skills training, you have to do it because it’s going to make you that much better of a fighter.”
Given the context of this conversation, it isn’t exactly surprising that the name Conor McGregor eventually came tumbling from Saint Preux’s mouth. When one thinks about the mental side of MMA, the Irishman is the first fighter that comes to mind. He has shown time and time again that he is a master of psychological warfare, something which allows him to shepherd his opponents in the direction of defeat before a strike is even thrown.
However, it’s not just the way that ‘The Notorious’ one manipulates the mind’s of his foes that impresses and even inspires Saint Preux, it’s also the way he steels himself ahead of battle.
“One of the guys that actually does it the best is Conor. It’s Conor,” he said. “You see a lot of guys come in (against him) and they’re beat before they even get in there. But he’s also the type of guy, he knows how to prepare himself mentally. When he does that, you can tell – you see him when he’s training, he’s meditating, or how he’s taking everything in, or how he’s breathing and that mentally challenges you”
“You want to be confident within yourself, but you have to be a little cocky, you have to be a little arrogant, you have to be a little conceited because if you’re not, you don’t have the qualities of being confident. I try to be humble at times, and it’s good because I’m more reserved. But I’ve found out I’m better if I have that swag effect, and in order to have that, the cockiness comes out.”
Saint Preux’s opponent, Oezdemir, is 12-1 as a professional but he has been relatively inactive in recent years. He suffered his only career defeat at Bellator 115 back in April of 2014, when he was submitted by Kelly Anundson. He was back in action five months later, stopping Spain’s Paco Estevez(then 2-3) inside a round, but he was out for another 19 months thereafter.
Oezdemir, who goes by the bizarre nickname ‘Cousin’, returned in April of last year, claiming a decision win over Alikhan Vakhaev at an Akhmat Fight Club show in Russia. That was his only fight of 2016, however, and the Saint Preux fight will be his first in 2017.
Considering his level of activity and the fact that most of his opposition has been poor and/or inexperienced, Oezdemir seems like an ideal rebound opponent for the talented yet traditionally inconsistent Saint Preux.
UFC Fight Night 104 takes place on Saturday night at the Toyota Center in Heuston, Texas.
You can watch the entire MMAJunkie interview with OSP below…