Markinike St. Preux was born in Haiti and lived for a while in the Bahamas. Life was always difficult. There wasn't a lot of money around and hard work was a necessity.
He emigrated to the U.S. in search of a better life for himself and his family. And though he didn't attend college, there was no question in his mind his children would not only attend college, but graduate.
The oldest, Ovince, grew up in Miami, Fla., a high school football hotbed, and was fortunate enough to get a football scholarship to the University of Tennessee.
Many gifted high school athletes think only of national championships, All-America honors and a high-round selection in the NFL draft when they first sign their national letters of intent.
But from the moment Ovince walked onto the Tennessee campus, he was fixated on one thing and one thing only: Becoming the first in the St. Preux family to graduate from college.
And three years later – not four – he finished his degree in sociology with a concentration in criminal justice.
"I was the first one in my football recruiting class to graduate," he said. "I was the first from my high school graduation class to graduate college. That means a lot to me."
Despite everything that comes along with playing big-time college football – the celebrity status, the attention from the pretty girls, access to places the average college student can't dream of – St. Preux never deviated from his goal of earning his degree.
"As a college student-athlete, you have everything you need accessible to you [to complete your studies]," St. Preux said. "I was motivated to finish because my father just made a point of how important an education was."
St. Preux wasn't able to go on to a professional football career, but he's still making his living from sports. He's ranked 13th in the UFC's light heavyweight division and has won 12 of his last 13 fights overall.
He meets Ryan Jimmo on Saturday at UFC 174 in Vancouver, Canada, in a bout he hopes will vault him into fights against top-10 opposition.
But even with his career in full swing, St. Preux, 31, hasn't forgotten his roots.
He works the overnight shift once a week at the Florence Crittenton Agency in Knoxville, Tenn., counseling youth who are beset with drug and alcohol problems.
"He's a guy who believes in doing the right thing and helping people," said his trainer, Eric Turner. "Between his pay and bonuses and his sponsorships, he's making over $100,000 a year now. He doesn't need to do anything but concentrate on fighting. That's his job. It's where he's going to make his living. We kill him six to eight hours a day, and an elite athlete like him just seems to be always in the gym.
"He has one day off and it would be good for him to use it to rest and recover, but he won't give up on the troubled kids. He tries to encourage them to make better life choices and be a positive influence. He works that overnight shift, which is truly tough to do, and he loves it. He's the kind of guy who gets joy out of helping someone else."
Turner first met St. Preux not long after St. Preux gave up on his goal of playing professional football. A friend had gotten St. Preux into martial arts training.
He enjoyed it so much he wanted to see how he could do as a fighter.
He met Turner, who could barely believe what he saw.
"I've been with him from the very beginning, back in the days when we trained in my garage, which was 10-by-10 with no heat, no air conditioning and a roof that leaked," Turner said. "But he never complained once. He went out and worked, and I saw this great athletic ability that needed to be developed."
Even as he took a few amateur bouts, St. Preux wasn't sure what he would do with his fight career. He had long-term goals outside of athletics, and mixed martial arts was something totally new to him.
The sport hadn't exploded yet and there weren't a lot of high-level coaches and elite gyms. But Turner told St. Preux after two or three amateur fights he thought he was good enough to win a UFC world title.
That piqued St. Preux's interest.
"I had no idea, really, what I was doing, to be honest with you," St. Preux said. "I didn't know how to throw a punch. I hadn't even heard of an arm bar. I didn't know anything. But I heard [Turner] say he thought I could be a UFC champion, and I took it and ran with it."
St. Preux has a long way to go, and he hasn't beaten any truly notable names. But just as he stuck to his plan in his education at the University of Tennessee, he's going to keep working on improving as a fighter.
And, whenever he can, he's going to give back and help the youth in need of support in Knoxville who know and look up to him.
"A lot of them, I have credibility because I played football there," he said. "And then when they find out I fight in the UFC, it helps me get a head start with them. The first thing for any addict recovering is admitting you're an addict in the first place, and if I'm easier for them to talk to because of my background, that's great.
"It's a different mix of kids. Some kids come from severe poverty, and others have well-established families and backgrounds. But they all need help, and I just want to be able to make a difference and help."
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