Just four years into his MMA career, Benoit Saint-Denis is already one of the top up-and-coming prospects in the UFC’s talent-rich lightweight division. But even before he laced up his first pair of four-ounce gloves, combat was where Saint-Denis felt most at home.
The 27-year-old Frenchman, who recently pushed his record as a UFC lightweight to 5-0 with a 91-second head kick knockout of Matt Frevola, spent the early chapters of his adult life serving as a paratrooper for the French Army’s special forces. The son of a serviceman, Saint-Denis joined the military out of school after earning a black belt in judo and dabbling in rugby. Saint-Denis ultimately spent several years fighting terrorist groups overseas, including the Africa-based Boko Haram and a mission reclaiming an airport in Timbuktu.
“It was an adventure and I loved it,” Saint-Denis said in a recent in-studio interview on The MMA Hour. “And it was hard for me to quit this because it was a lot of investment to do that. But the passion [I discovered] for mixed martial arts when I started BJJ in 2017, I loved it.”
MMA was illegal in France at that point in time, but Saint-Denis already had a fleeting interest in combat sports dating back to his younger days. The warrior spirit inherent to MMA and the brutal artistry on display at its highest levels was not only something Saint-Denis related to, but also the type of adrenaline-fueled challenge he craved.
“I enjoyed watching it because I went to Special Forces to be part of the best warriors of my country. It was in my mentality, my philosophy of life,” Saint-Denis said. “I wanted to be part of these kind of small groups doing very important geopolitical missions, and being great at using any kind of weapons, any kind of way of approach [against] the enemy, skydiving and everything. It was all these adventures that I loved and I wanted to be part of, so close combat is part of it. It’s a small part of it, so of course I already had some [training].
“Then the Dan Henderson against Shogun [Rua] fight, it’s one of the fights that makes me love MMA right away. And when I started BJJ, then I fell in love even more and I restarted watching it. Then I saw the fight, [Rory] MacDonald vs. Robbie Lawler fight, and I was thinking, if I’m doing a career, this is what I want. This is what I want to experience.”
Yet it was all still luck of the draw.
Saint-Denis said he didn’t truly consider pursuing Brazilian jiu-jitsu until he saw a poster of his current grappling coach Christophe Savoca affixed to a car in 2017, and at that point he convinced himself to give it a try. By early 2018, he was dabbling in kickboxing in well, then in September 2018, he tried his first taste at actual MMA training. Instantly, he was hooked. Just 15 days later, Saint-Denis entered himself into an amateur MMA tournament and won.
“Then I asked myself, ‘OK, I want to do this for a living, is it possible?’ And I find out there is a professional career, everything,” Saint-Denis explained.
“I quit my job for my first fight for a couple of hundreds of dollars, and then it has been great, because two years later we went to the UFC.”
Today, only a handful of years after his second life in MMA began, Saint-Denis has all the makings of a future UFC lightweight title contender. Yet he still gives all the credit to Savoca. Had he never seen Savoca’s poster on that fateful afternoon in 2017, he doubts any of this would be happening. MMA would still be a passing interest and he’d still be dropping out of plans overseas, risking his life with every mission in the French special forces.
“It’s like a rebirth,” Saint-Denis said. “[Savoca] gave me the passion and the emotion of the sport, the love of competition. He showed me also the mindset. He is the guy that put me back in combat sports. Maybe I would [have found it anyway], but maybe later.”
Saint-Denis now is determined to make the most of his opportunity. He’s officially a top-15 ranked UFC lightweight after his romp over Frevola, and he’s eager to test himself against as many of the top 155-pound fighters in the world as possible. He lobbied hard on The MMA Hour for an opportunity to face Justin Gaethje in what he guarantees would be a “bloodbath,” but he’s also ready to take on whatever comes his way next.
Ultimately, Saint-Denis has surprised even himself with his rapid rise since his 2019 pro debut.
“What is very interesting in the sport is there is a lot of instinct,” Saint-Denis said. “It’s not only about how bad you want it, but it’s also, do you have the intelligence and the capacity to learn new stuff? And to be curious about all the stuff? For example, I cannot understand a mixed martial artist that doesn’t want to be the best in everything. That’s what I train to be. When I’m going to be at the best time of my career, I want to be the best striker, the best wrestler, and the best ground guy of my division, so nobody can test me anywhere.
“I don’t understand guys that are only satisfied by being the best strikers or the best [grapplers]. Man, you are not the best fighter. If you are not at least one of the best in everything, you are leave a lot of openings to get beaten. And I’m really passionate about being better every day in each of the disciplines, and when you put them back together also, it’s all a little bit different, and this is what makes mixed martial arts special. You have to use not only your body, but also your mind, and it’s the mentality of the special service, I was able to use it very well by doing adjustments in my preparation, how I use my 24 hours.”