It takes one to know one. Maybe that's why Bellator welterweight Ben Saunders knows exactly what fight fans want.
"I was 10 when I saw the first UFC fight,” Saunders said in an exclusive interview with Bleacher Report. “I’ve paid attention to the sport for a long time. I always knew it was going to blow up. I can bring that fan mentality to my own fights because I remember what it was like to be one.”
It’s also probably why he’ll never participate in a boring fight, at least not if he has anything to say about it. And it’s why plenty of fans will watch Saunders (14-5-2) fight Koffi Adzitso (18-9) Thursday night at Bellator 86. It's the quarterfinal round of Bellator's latest welterweight tournament, and the tourney winner will receive a date with champion Ben Askren.
Florida native Saunders, whose in-cage calling card is a pair of lethal knees, entered MMA on the ground floor and grew right along with the sport. With excitement in his voice, he recently recalled hours spent in MMA chat rooms during the early days, talking with other fans. One conversation in particular provided a turning point in Saunders’ life.
“Back in like 2001, I’d be on MMA Underground and all those discussion boards, and I remember talking to [UFC veteran] Din Thomas on AOL Instant Messenger,” Saunders said. “There was only one MMA school in all of Florida, and it was his. It was like a ghettofied boxing gym. I’d clean the mats so I could train because I couldn’t afford to pay for it.”
Sounds like it was a good thing he followed through. Like many who find martial arts, Saunders was initially a bit of a wayward soul who needed an outlet.
“There’s something sadistic inside me, man,” Saunders said. “I would say I have some inner demons that through martial arts I’m able to somewhat control. I’ve learned how to control my temperament and my anger. It’s important because I remember how agitated or short-fused me and other men in my family could be.”
Saunders, a former contestant on The Ultimate Fighter who amassed a 4-3 record in the UFC, described a need to continue learning. The phrase “student of the game” comes to mind. Far beyond the Muay Thai attack for which he’s primarily known, Saunders said he has explored esoteric disciplines like Indonesian Pencak Silat, French Savate and Filipino Kali, not to mention Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do style, for which he’s long maintained an admiration.
“I look at all the martial arts,” Saunders said. “I want to be an all-around martial artist. I like to go outside the spectrum. There’s not a straight path to making it work. I’m definitely looking to showcase cool stuff and bring something new to the table. I want to get people thinking and looking and talking."
He also said he wants to be an ambassador for MMA and martial arts in general, and represent and share the sport's history.
“I have a bigger purpose than just fighting and being a champion,” Saunders said. “I want to impact as many lives and touch as many people as possible. I try to remember the Chute Boxe days, the Wanderlei Silvas and the Shoguns. They would go out and just fight; win, lose or draw, it didn’t matter.”
His reference to the days of no-holds-barred fighting is telling. Saunders is a fan first, and as such it’s the sheer juice of the action that motivates Saunders most, and it's his commitment to that action that endears him to fans.
"It’s a chess game. You're always thinking, if he does this, I’ve got three counters. You're always choosing between offense and defense. I’m just refining my game so no one can get that checkmate on me anymore,” Saunders said. “I get to do in the cage what I don’t get to do anywhere else. I get to take all my pads off and just see how quickly I can destroy this other person. There’s no other good way to test myself.”
Scott Harris is a featured columnist at Bleacher Report. All quotes obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.