Would Ben Saunders have beaten Jake Ellenberger at UFC 111 in New Jersey? The world will never know. When Thiago Alves had to drop out of his fight with Jon Fitch only two days before their scheduled bout, the UFC turned to the “Killa B”—himself setting to face Ellenberger—and asked him to switch intended targets. His response: Hell yeah. Forget about the fact that he just got bumped into a fight with a perennial welterweight contender on 48 hours notice with no time to scheme, diagram and soak it in. He wasn’t about to miss the chance to—as the old saying goes—fly into flight.
Saunders texted his mindset the night before the fight: “It’s a good day to die.” And it’s true that there’s a little Crazy Horse—the guy who first uttered those words just before the Battle of Little Bighorn—in his mentality.
“The opportunity popped up, and this is what I do,” says Saunders. “I eat, sleep and breathe mixed martial arts, and I want to fight the best in the world. The opportunity that I got right there, yeah we didn’t game plan and yeah, there wasn’t a training camp for it . . . but guess what? I also didn’t have to wait and get a couple of wins under my belt to get that shot, either. The fact that they thought of me [to fight Fitch] means they thought I had a chance to actually pull if off. That alone, right there, inspired me—that they actually believed in me enough to give me the shot.”
Because of the insinuation, Saunders says he doesn’t harbor any regrets having fought and lost against Fitch, who neutralized his highlight-reel appendages by forcing the fight into a frustrating grappling match. Fitch doesn’t hide what he tries to do, Saunders says, “he pulled a Fitch.” But the idea of a true mixed martial artist is to constantly evolve and learn and to face these challenges head on. He happily took the Fitch lessons back to the gym with him, first to Central California and then to his regular American Top Team in Florida.
“I’ve been working on a lot of things that I thought Fitch was able to utilize on me,” he says. “I’ve been working on things that I might find to be my weaknesses, so that anybody who tries to implement the same game plan—which I pretty much feel Dennis Hallman is going to attempt to do—is going to fail miserably. I’ve just been getting better at my all around game.”
Things don’t get easier come August 7 at UFC 117 in Oakland—not with the durable, always game Dennis Hallman on the docket. Hallman has been around the block a few times himself, having fought every one from Matt Hughes and Jens Pulver to Caol Uno and Jorge Rivera. Needless to say, Hallman’s storied reputation precedes him.
“Man! He’s another legend,” says the 27-year-old, Saunders (8-2-2). “I think he’s got close to 100 fights under his belt. He’s the only guy to submit Matt Hughes twice. He’s been in there with some of the best in the world. He is without a doubt one of the most experienced veterans, right up there with Jeremy Horn as far as number of fights he’s had. It’s an honor to fight him.”
In coping with his loss to Fitch and before beginning his preparation for Hallman (64-13-2), Saunders took his Jiu-Jitsu coach Ricardo Liborio up on another opportunity he couldn’t refuse—going out to help Chuck Liddell train for his UFC 115 bout with Rich Franklin in San Luis Obispo. The Iceman was looking for rangy southpaw strikers for his camp and Saunders fit the bill, and the experience doubled as a chance for the “Killa B” to study the ways of one of his prize fighting heroes.
“At the time I was looking to jump right back into my preparations and get ready for my fight, but Chuck Liddell? You don’t pass that up man,” he says. “I thought that was an opportunity of a lifetime right there. To help the Iceman? Dude, I’ve been a fan of his since the beginning, of the whole sprawl-and-brawl, which has been a part of my game also. It was a win-win to go out there.”
One of the things that the Jeet Keen Do practitioner Saunders took from his time in California was Liddell’s unyielding nature as a fighter. There was still plenty of me-against-the-world edge in those hard sessions, and it made Saunders appreciate the man that much more.
“You definitely see a different side training with Liddell,” he says. “I could see his mentality in my mentality—sometimes you need that fire. It’s not just about ‘this is what I love to do and how awesome that I’m fighting in the UFC,’ sometimes it’s more than that. Sometimes it’s just the ambition and the rage to be the best and to never lose again. To see his passion and his drive as everyone was telling him to quit, telling him to retire . . . I just saw the fire in his eyes man, and it brought it out of me. Everyone’s going to see what I got to bring to the table when I come out for the Hallman fight.”
It’s been a long, contemplative training camp for Saunders, who says he’s chomping at the bit to get back in the Octagon and getting his knees back and elbows some action. He says that while he reveres Hallman’s legacy, there’d be nothing better than to add his name to a victim’s list that already includes Marcus Davis, Ryan Thomas and Brandon Wolff. Every fight, he is wont to point out, begins standing. If Saunders has it his way, it’ll be a first round TKO—or, worst-case scenario, “I make him quit on his stool after the first round.”
And that’s what you get with the Killa B. Every time he steps in the cage it’s time to battle. That’s his attitude.
“I don’t go in there to just win, and I don’t go in there to just not lose,” he says. “Win, lose or draw I am going in there to go to battle. My mentality is, when we go into a fight, my plan is that you need to know you’ll be bleeding. You’re going to be leaving there broken, swollen, bloody . . . and that’s my goal.”