Despite being only 28 years old, Ben Saunders is the man most traveled in the Bellator Season 6 welterweight tournament kicking off tomorrow night. He holds a professional record of 12-4-0 which includes a seven-fight stint with the UFC, where he went 4-3-0. There are some guys older than him and guys with more fights, but nobody else in the tournament has fought in the UFC—the NFL of MMA.
"It always, I'd say, plays its role as far as mental confidence for sure, I've been in there against the best in the world," said Saunders on having fought for the UFC in the past.
Only one other fighter scheduled to fight in the Bellator welterweight tournament had fought in the UFC before, and that was Brian Foster. However, he was pulled from the event because he was not medically cleared as reported by MMAjunkie.com. The situation Foster is in could result in his retirement and it made Saunders reflect on how lucky he is.
"Anytime you get an injury you sit back and evaluate your life and your career and what you're going to do and what's going to happen, it can be depressing, it can be very scary at times," Saunders said. "When that happened to him, it definitely made me be grateful and tell myself hey man whatever the hell you might be going through or might not be happy about or whatever, shut the hell up and suck it up because you're still able to do what you want to do," he continued. "They told me that he got pulled out and then and there that just completely changed my mood, it changed my mentality of everything and it kind of depressed me a little bit."
Fighters have to deal with injuries and Foster's situation definitely made Saunders reflect. Despite the impact Foster's situation had on him, he'll always give 100 percent and lay it all on the line in his fights, even if it is in a tournament where you need to be healthy to move on.
"I have a certain style that I bring to the cage, a certain aggressiveness, I come to fight. I can't be thinking what if I do this or what if I do that and that injures me for the next round," Saunders said. "I'm going to go out on my shield, there is no tournament to me, for me there is no point to even think of anything beyond what's in front of me."
Saunders' attitude is probably a reflection of his passion for the martial arts and combat sports that began at a young age.
"From a very young age, I was like seven to eight years old, my oldest brother was taking karate and he'd come home and beat the crap out of me," Saunders recalled. "He wouldn't even beat the crap out of me as in we'd fight, I remember one particular point in time he was like, 'Hey stand right there I want to show you something really cool' and then he did a spinning back kick to my gut," Saunders continued. "My older brother is probably one of the main reasons I got in to martial arts."
Saunders fell in love with martial arts and was particularly fond of late martial artist Bruce Lee. Lee developed Jeet Kune Do, a martial arts system and philosophy in life. Lee inspired Saunders and he feels Lee is very much responsible for the popularity mixed martial arts has received today. Saunders is one of probably a handful of mixed martial artists whose base is in Jeet Kune Do.
"When I was 14 there was actually a JKD academy that opened up and I was able to convince my parents to let me get a job at McDonald's to pay for it myself," Saunders said. "That was the first time I actually started getting a true training, other than that throughout my life a lot of my style is self-taught."
Tonight, Saunders will be taking on 9-0 fighter Raul Amaya and maybe you'll get a chance to see some Jeet Kune Do elements come out in his fight. Amaya has a lot of submission wins. and although Saunders hasn't seen many of his fights, he isn't taking Amaya lightly.
"The one thing I will say is he's got a lot of heart, he's got maybe some power in his hands even if his technique is a little sloppy and he's got conditioning at what not because he seems to be able to wear his opponents down and catch them later on in the fights," Saunders said. "Stylistically he seems like a brawling wrestler, the thing I need to watch out for anybody I fight is it doesn't matter who they are, everyone's got a punchers chance," he continued. "I just have to go out there and do what I do best, fight my fight, don't let him fight his fight and my hand will be raised hopefully via knockout or submission before the third."
I'm not sure if Saunders is superstitious or not, but he did tell me that the last time he fought in Connecticut for Bellator he was on the same card as his two teammates and all three guys won. Now almost a year later and in Connecticut, he is again fighting with two teammates on the same card.
Should Saunders win, he will move in to the semifinals of the tournament. If he wins the tournament this year, Saunders will get his shot at either a rematch with Douglas Lima or a fight with current Bellator title holder Ben Askren. Askren and Lima fight next week at Bellator 64. Saunders lost to Lima in the tournament finals last season.
Saunders welcomes a potential rematch with Lima, but isn't a huge fan of fighting teammates either.
"I'm never too fond about fighting teammates man, I mean we do what we do because we are professionals and because we respect each other," Saunders said. "If our paths cross again, you know what it's going to be another great fight."
You can catch Saunders tonight at 8:00 EST on MTV2 as he tries to move on to the semifinals of the tournament. Before concluding my conversation with him, Saunders urged fans to follow him on Twitter @bensaundersMMA and check out his walk out t-shirt at bensaundersmma.com.
Leon Horne is a writer for Bleacher Report and is part of the BR MMA Interview team, Follow @Leon_Horne