How Benoit Saint-Denis went from fighting terrorists to fighting in the UFC

How Benoit Saint-Denis went from fighting terrorists to fighting in the UFC

If ever there has been an earned nickname in MMA, it is that of Benoit Saint-Denis. Some fans deem the Frenchman worthy of his “God of War” moniker purely due to his belligerent violence in the cage, but the UFC lightweight’s time fighting terrorists in the special forces is the clincher.

“I was in the French special air service,” Saint-Denis tells The Independent, his gentle drawl tinged with a French fizz as he speaks from his home in Bayonne. “It comes from you guys in Great Britain in the Second World War, it got created to destroy German aircraft in north Africa, and the special forces went on from there. In the UK it still exists as the SAS [Special Air Service]. I was part of a unit in France, and I was mostly in Africa – Mali, Burkina Faso – fighting against terrorist groups like Boko Haram. So, it was mostly counter-terrorism.”

Saint-Denis, the son of a military father, recounts the experience as matter-of-factly as if this was a normal career. It was not. Nor is his current one.

When Saint-Denis joined the military, it was not the first time he had emulated his father. As a teenager, Benoit did so by becoming a black belt in judo, and those skills would serve him not only in the army but also in his journey through mixed martial arts. Along the way, Saint-Denis added jiu-jitsu and enhanced his striking, ultimately impressing Daniel Woirin – a former coach of UFC champions Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida – in 2018. It led Saint-Denis to the life-altering decision of leaving the army in 2019, trading armed combat for combat sports. He gave himself two years to make it to the UFC.

“Of course it was difficult,” Saint-Denis says. “I moved to Paris to live in a 20m room and all I did was train, eat and sleep for two years. It was difficult to leave my friends and everything I had back in Bayonne, where I was serving. Now I’m back there, because I managed to have success in my MMA career, so I’m very happy. But yes, in the beginning it’s always difficult. But you know what? ‘Who dares wins’ is the motto of the regiment, so I followed it.”

During a time when professional MMA was barely legal in France, Saint-Denis dared and won. By October 2021, he had arrived in the UFC, but his introduction into the promotion was a brutal one. The Frenchman lost a unanimous decision against Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos at welterweight, doing well to survive to hear the final buzzer. It was the first loss of Saint-Denis’s pro career and inspired a move down to lightweight, which kickstarted a run of five straight stoppage wins – continuing his trend of finishing every opponent that he has beaten.

That trend has taken Saint-Denis to his next fight, a startling step up in competition, as he faces former interim champion Dustin Poirier at UFC 299 on Saturday. The five-round co-main event will see Saint-Denis, ranked 12th at 155lbs, punch up as he faces the American, ranked third. Saint-Denis, who admits his “surprise” that Poirier accepted the fight, will enter Miami on the back of a head-kick knockout of Matt Frevola. Poirier, a fellow southpaw, will enter UFC 299 on the back of a head-kick knockout by Justin Gaethje.

Saint-Denis’ upcoming opponent Dustin Poirier (left) in action against Justin Gaethje in July (Getty)
Saint-Denis’ upcoming opponent Dustin Poirier (left) in action against Justin Gaethje in July (Getty)

Saint-Denis was booed mercilessly by the crowd in Madison Square Garden as he fought Frevola, a fellow veteran, but his response to the New Yorkers was a dignified one. In his post-fight interview, the tourist said: “You can boo me as much as you want; I love you, New York. Thank you, America, for saving our ass in [19]45.” He signed off with a salute to Frevola, who responded in kind.

Meanwhile, Poirier’s defeat by Gaethje secured the latter the “BMF” (‘Baddest Motherf*****’) title, which he will defend against Max Holloway at UFC 300. Saint-Denis believes his bout with Poirier will be “a No 1 contender’s fight” for that belt. A win over Poirier would also catapult the God of War up the rankings, bringing him closer to a shot at the lightweight title held by Islam Makhachev. Indeed, 2024 could be a year in which the Frenchman’s life changes as drastically as it did in 2019, though there have been pivotal moments since then, too.

In 2022, the UFC visited France for the first time, with Saint-Denis becoming the first home fighter to ever compete on a UFC card in the nation. He secured a vicious victory over Gabriel Miranda in a raucous arena and recalls: “There was an amazing communion with the crowd. I made a lot of sacrifices to be on that card. I had a foot injury and it was the worst training camp I ever had, but all the pain and suffering paid off in Paris.”

Another sacrifice surrounded the timing of the event. “I had my wedding one week before,” Saint-Denis explains, adding: “Laura and I met at a point in our lives when we were both taking different directions. She went from being in the French futsal team and winning the European Champions Cup with Toulouse to being a dog keeper then a shooting instructor in the police force.”

Benoit and Laura, whose various jobs include being her husband’s communications manager, also welcomed their first child last summer. “It didn’t change me, but it has brought a lot of joy in the house,” Benoit says. “It has good and bad moments, but mostly good moments,” he laughs. “We’re very happy together.”

They say a happy fighter is a dangerous fighter. That is a daunting proposition for Poirier, given how dangerous the God of War already is.

N.B. Article first published in January 2024.