LE FIGARO - How do you feel after these five frantic months, have the fights and cuttings left their mark?
Benoît Saint-Denis: At first, yes. Cuttings are tiring, I'm happy to finally have a little free time. It allowed me to take a good three weeks off, to cut out sports and enjoy my family. Today I'm seriously restarting my physical preparation. My goal is to get back in shape from a cardiovascular point of view, to get back into the swing of things, to raise the levels of strength and explosiveness, and to raise the muscle mass a little bit for the future. I can't wait! I'm very hungry again to get back to my sport and enjoy myself again. That's what allows me to see that I still want to. Sometimes it's hard to still want to after three fights in a row in a few months. Today, the desire is there. All that's left to do is get back on the road to victory.
Don't have a particular injury? Footage suggested pain in his foot during the fight against Thiago Moises.
No! There is a false alarm against Moises, because the area had suffered a lot of bruises. We had to get it back on track, but today it's good. These bruises were a bit frightening at first, but I had scans, X-rays, and there was nothing. It just took two weeks for it to deflate. I had used a lot of percussion, and there had been some good blocks from Moises. Nothing serious.
When Dan Hooker was replaced by Jalin Turner against Bobby Green, did you want to take the short notice, or was it one too many times and you had to rest?
I had already let go, I had gone back up to 82 kilos. So it would have been really hard to make the weight. On the other hand, Turner was less interesting than Hooker. If it had been him, I might have hesitated, but Turner had lost quite recently to the opponent I had just beaten by knockout. I really want to move up the rankings, so I'd like to face someone who is well placed ahead of me. I think I deserved it with my last fight.
If a fighter progresses but takes too much damage, the quality of his chin, physique and desire can be degraded in parallel with the evolution of his athletic and technical skills
Right now I'm on a five-fight winning streak in a tough weight class, so I think I've earned a well-ranked fighter to continue to move up athletically, and have a big intellectual stimulus in the preparation. I need to be stimulated, that's what makes me want to hurt myself to come out victorious and advance in my career.
You are characterized by your clear progress in each fight: how much of the ultimate BSD do you still consider yourself to be?
In terms of technique and experience, I have to be around 70%, something like that. Now, if I keep going up without taking any damage, it's going to start to be very interesting in terms of athletic level. I wish me and my staff all the best for us. But the career of an MMA fighter is fraught with pitfalls; Because if he progresses but takes too much damage, the quality of his chin, his physique and his desire can be degraded in parallel with the evolution of his athletic and technical skills. You have to be able to progress while preserving the body. That's the goal, we're getting there little by little, and we're going to keep working on it to get to the best version of myself possible.
Will it mean changing your fighting style, being less offensive to preserve yourself?
No, that's one of my strengths. In the last few fights, I didn't take many hits, even though I was offensive. I've taken a few, it's my style and it's going to stay. But if I can be more precise and decisive in the actions, of course it will help me; to take fewer hits, and finish fights faster. In particular, in the last fight (against Matt Frevola, at Madison Square Garden in New York, editor's note), my team and I had the ability to exploit the few interesting situations, to use the small windows of opportunity. We're going to keep it up.
A UFC is looming in March, maybe in France. Will you be there, knowing that your manager mentioned a camp in February? Can we expect to see you there against a top 10 player, especially Mateusz Gamrot?
My manager Guillaume Peltier is working on it very clearly. I hope it can be done, and that we will have this opportunity. Gamrot is someone I have in my sights, because he's a fighter who excites me sportingly. He's beaten guys like Tsarukyan, Fiziev... Sure, he lost to Dariush, but he proved that he can compete with the best. He's young, he's ambitious. He's ranked sixth, so it's an interesting place. A win against him would allow me to position myself much further forward.
Gamrot is someone I have in my sights, because he's a fighter who excites me sportingly
Does your physical preparation include any changes for a five-round fight?
Not particularly, you'll just have to be ready, like a three-round fight. As usual, I'm planning a hard and intense preparation, to get the rhythm over the five rounds.
Your goal is to fight for the belt, in how many, three fights?
It's going to depend on the performance, and the UFC. The organization can push to put me in whatever I want, which is competitive fights against tough guys. A win before the limit against Gamrot, which has never been done, will probably allow me to position myself for a fight where the number one challenger spot will be at stake, or even a fight for the title, or a replacement. It can go very fast. A fight against a top ten, then a top five, then for the title... It will depend a lot on the next opponent. I think that a Gamrot or a Dariush would allow me, in the event of a big performance, to position myself directly against Dustin Poirier, Justin Gaetje, or Arman Tsarukyan. There are others who are going to fight as well, it's going to move the weight class.
I can't wait to have an opponent: if it's not Gamrot, so be it. But I want to project myself. I want an opponent who is in the best position possible: but clearly, if I were given Makhachev to-morrow, I should be the happiest in the world; But it works in stages. Someone in the top ten, close to the top five, that would already be exceptional, that's what we want.
Does doping risk creating an insurmountable glass ceiling between a clean fighter and the belt? Bellator champion Usman Nurmagomedov, who is close to Islam Makhachev, was caught recently...
Regarding the Nurmagomedov family, for example, I no longer have any doubts: they are loaded like mules. They're smart at doping, but they're very good at it. Makhachev got caught in meldonium, for example. It's a product (typical of Eastern European countries, editor's note) that led to the entire Russian federation being sanctioned and withdrawn from the 2016 Olympics. The current UFC lightweight champion got caught in 2016!
The problem is that it's a business sport and a spectator sport. The UFC is an American organization. Americans don't have the same relationship with hormones and doping as we do. For example, for basketball players and American football there is the "off season" and the "on season". The guys are going to play for six months only, and for the other six they're going to get ready for the season; There, they will have periods when they will not be subject to controls, and when they will unfortunately have freedom to the products. It's something that existed in the UFC before the partnership with USADA, which came in 2016: all the monsters that were there before, even if they stopped the products and lost a lot of the positive effects, keep traces of it in the body. It's modified, a bit like RNA with the Covid vaccine.
I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror at the end of my career. If it doesn't allow me to take the last steps, so be it. I'll have stayed clean
Indeed, it's hard and it creates a gap. In fact, what it doesn't allow the French is to make a mistake. Fortunately, this sport requires a lot of technique, a lot of intellectual skills, which still leaves a window to perform at the highest level for a clean fighter. But the French have no room for error, unlike others who will be able to take more liberties in terms of diet, train harder for longer, and be less intelligent in their preparation. These are issues I'll have throughout my career, so I'm preparing for them. From the moment you sign with the UFC, or do professional MMA, you know you're going to be up against it.
Now I will always have my conscience to myself. Faith helps me a lot. If I had a career with doping, I would be betraying my faith, my family, the values I believe in. This is unacceptable. I want to be able to look at myself in the mirror at the end of my career. If it doesn't allow me to take the last steps, so be it. I would have stayed clean. The most important thing for me is to remain a trusted person for my friends, my family, and to be able to educate my children with values that I believe in. Either way, fame is fleeting. I'll go as far as I can with my weapons. Natural weapons; Intellectualize my discipline as much as possible, and have fun.
You have managed to perform at the best level in the world since Bayonne. Do you think that the future of French MMA lies in a form of decentralization, and a better development of provincial clubs?
Yes! Especially at the amateur level. Centralization is never good. There are a lot of athletes, and a coach can't take care of too big a group. Above all, this involves the training of quality coaches, with small centres in the provinces. No gym can offer high-quality training to dozens and dozens of athletes. In fact, we see it with gyms like the Atch Academy and the MMA Factory: they do a good job, but they have a hundred professional athletes. They only come out in dribs and drabs from very high-level athletes. If there are three or four very high-level coaches, there will be a maximum of twenty athletes who will benefit from quality coaching. A coach can only take care of a maximum of five to ten athletes. You have to accompany them in battle, monitor them, help them, set them up step by step, take an interest in their style, their career, their schedule... It's a lot of work, and I don't think it's possible to do it with a huge volume of fighters.
Of course, initially, to train someone and bring them to a good level, yes, but to bring them to the level of the largest organizations, it's not compatible. Or you have to do what the American top team is like in the United States, where there are a hundred or so high-level fighters, but with a dozen coaches: we are in the right volume, one coach focuses on three or five athletes; they are bound to take less care of others. That's how Poirier, Masvidal, Tsarukyan train.
So what are we to make of the PSG MMA project, which would launch a vast team with very media-friendly faces?
I don't believe in it. It seems complicated to me. Even if it all depends on how the project will be set up, it will always depend on the same parameters: the volume of fighters, the volume of coaches. In addition, the number of quality coaches is limited. To bring a fighter to the right European level, there are some coaches in France able to do it. At the world level, at the moment, there are five or six men who can do it. There's Daniel Woirin (Benoît Saint-Denis' coach, editor's note), Johnny Frachey, Atch (Stéphane Chaufourier), Fernand Lopez, Aldric Cassata... You can still count it on the fingers of one hand.