UNCASVILLE, Conn. -- Ben Saunders stood pressed against the fence, deflecting his opponent’s hunt for control of his long legs. Raul Amaya wanted his man on the mat. It was where he could get to showing why “Smash” and “Mode” are stenciled in the hair on both sides of his head.
Nothing else, it seemed, was on Amaya’s mind other than this takedown attempt. This, though, was only one of the things about which Saunders was thinking.
“I was punching him in the face from there. I stopped for a second, and it was silent,” Saunders told Sherdog.com several hours after a referee raised his hand in victory. “And there was someone in the crowd going, ‘Punch him in the face!’ I straight up screamed, ‘Don’t you see I’m trying?’ I tried to find where he was, and I was looking out in the crowd.”
This was a tournament fight on national television; if he won, Saunders would advance closer to a $100,000 payday and a crack at the Bellator Fighting Championships welterweight title. However, he wanted that guy in the crowd to know that, even though it has cost him, he always opens up.
Last November in a Canadian casino, Saunders faced Douglas Lima in the Bellator tournament final. It was a familiar scene in the first round: standing battles for control against the fence, Saunders’ foe looking for the takedown and Saunders stringing together offense that won him the round.
There was more of the same in the second. A minute in, Saunders put a few kicks out there and stepped forward for a right straight. Lima came over the top with a power right counter. Saunders fell, and was pummeled limp for the first time in his 19-fight mixed martial arts career. Thus, it is Lima who will challenge Bellator’s 170-champion Ben Askren this week, and Saunders who stepped into his second Bellator bracket on Friday.
“Pissed off,” “rage” and “beat the crap out of” were all words Saunders used during pre-fight interviews in reflecting on the loss to Lima and referring to what Amaya would have to contend.
Toward the end of round two, after another close-but-no-cigar submission attempt, Saunders threw up rubber guard, looked out at the spectators at cageside and smiled. He has a big, wide smile, the kind one could see from the rafters. Again, in this fight, a bit of Saunders’ attention drifted to the crowd.
“I’m, like, ‘Yo, what’s up? What’s happenin’? I’m gonna go for this submission right now,’” Saunders recalled about the moment. “[Amaya] was tough as hell, man. He was tough as hell. I’m not there to try to disrespect anybody, but I am there to try to enjoy myself. At the end of the day, if you’re able to enjoy yourself, have a good time, you flow better. It’s when you start getting anxiety and freaking out [that] things are not going to go your way. You need to relax. Everyone needs to relax out there.”
Saunders jumped at a host of submission openings in the fight but eventually lost each of them. He gave up favorable position several times in the hunt. His knees boxed Amaya’s ears in the clinch, and his arms reached around Amaya’s neck when he was back mounted, stuff a welterweight with a 77.5-inch reach can do. It was messy but quite watchable. Saunders was in his glory.
“I just created a style where I need to be able to look for a finish, be aggressive and be fan-friendly in every one of my fights,” he said. “If they’re going to be taking me down, I need to be able to come up with a system that works for me. I chain-strike, I chain-clinch, I chain-grapple, man. I’ve come up with a system where it all flows very well together.”
It is not some recent discovery for the 28-year-old Florida native. Walking through the mall with a friend at age 14, he noticed a booth advertising classes in Jeet Kune Do, the amorphous martial arts style espoused by Bruce Lee, and signed up. Saunders still lists his fight style as “Jeet Kune Do Concepts.” That pretty much means whatever one wants it to mean, but an essential element is rejecting rigidity.
For better or worse, “Killa B” flew this flag in his 4-3 UFC campaign, which began with his participation in Season 6 of “The Ultimate Fighter” in 2007. In 2010, his American Top Team campmate, Thiago Alves, fell out of a fight against Jon Fitch, who was then widely regarded as the world’s No. 2 welterweight. Saunders famously texted UFC matchmaker Joe Silva and UFC President Dana White and offered to fill in for Alves, eager for a fight few wanted and one which represented a quantum leap considering his resume.
It was three rounds of Fitch controlling Saunders at UFC 111, clogging his free-flowing style at every turn. Not the best showing, but Saunders took a type of stand he hopes defines him. He said he dismissed his camp’s attempts to convince him to fight Fitch more conservatively that night and categorically does not regret it.
“They wanted more footwork, more circling. I said, ‘No, that ain’t me.’ It was squashed immediately,” Saunders said. “I wanted to just break his face, just wanted to come forward and break his face. Didn’t work out very well. If I let some takedowns happen or I let a knockout happen because I was trying to be aggressive and push the pace or make something happen and I get caught, you know, whatever, man. I go out on my shield. That’s how I want to go out.”
It was approaching 1 a.m. backstage at the Mohegan Sun Arena, hours after Saunders took the unanimous decision over Amaya at Bellator 63 to advance to the welterweight tournament semifinals. It was long after Bellator boss Bjorn Rebney announced Saunders will next face Bryan Baker, who could not have taken a more opposite approach in his careful tournament win.
Wearing a “Future Legend” beanie and a signature T-shirt he was pushing all night, Saunders chatted about his tough-to-scout style and how he would not let up on an arm lock next time. As he talked, a stoic Baker passed by in a suit and eyeglasses, a silver chain with a cross over his collar.
The cage and press conference stage were being deconstructed, and only Bellator personnel and a few media members were hanging around. Saunders munched on a sandwich. He did not seem to want to leave.
“I’m just trying to think … [when’s the] last time you saw a guy’s eye actually closed in MMA? Doesn’t happen too often,” remarked Bellator television commentator Sean Wheelock, referencing the damage Saunders did to Amaya’s left eye in their fight.
“Did anybody get a good picture? I want to see what it looks like now,” Saunders said. “I went to talk to him, and he kept hiding it. I wanted to see how bad [it was].”
“I like enjoying my work,” he said, smiling but not kidding. “I’m an artist. That was my canvas. I want to see it.”
And perhaps show it to that guy who screamed “Hit him in the face!” Hours after the fight and shortly after he learned who his next opponent would be, one could only wonder if Saunders still had that guy on his mind.