When Ben Saunders and Douglas Lima collide to settle Bellator's long-awaited season-eight welterweight final this Friday in Phoenix, AZ, they'll do so with the carrot of a title shot dangling in front of their faces.
But what happens if the man who currently holds that belt, Ben Askren, isn't there to greet the victor?
"As of right now, I'm under the impression that he's a free agent," Saunders said of Askren, the undefeated wrestling virtuoso who's expected to field an offer from the UFC.
"I don't know what's going to happen with him, but as of right now, I feel that [Lima and I are] the two top welterweights on Bellator's roster. This is for the tournament championship, but at the same time, I don't think anyone can deny that me and him are probably No. 1 and No. 2 ranking-wise for Bellator. So I'd believe that this would be considered an unofficial title fight in it's own right."
It'd be a bittersweet feeling for Saunders, a two-time tournament washout, if Askren bolted the promotion before the two ever locked horns.
On one hand, Saunders simply wants to win this tournament because that's what he came to Bellator to do.
The former TUF 6 contestant nearly inked a deal with Shine Fights back in 2010. He grew up on one-night UFC tourneys, and the way he saw it, Shine Fights' grand prix were the closest match he could get. But then Shine Fights went belly-up, and Bellator came calling with their distinctive, but still "hardcore" tourney format.
By that time Askren already established himself as Bellator's champion, and Saunders tried twice in vain to earn the right to challenge him. It's a match-up Saunders still wants, even if it's looking less likely by the day.
"It would be nice," Saunders admitted. "I definitely think stylistically, me being really good on my feet, plus aggressive with jiu-jitsu off my back, [it'd be a good fight].
"I would give Askren maybe a third-degree black belt in wrestling. I would say he's probably a purple belt in jiu-jitsu. And striking, man, anybody can choose their rankings on that one, but I'd say maybe low-level blue belt. So if you look at it, on paper, it would be a very, very entertaining match-up. I have no problem fighting of my back. I really receive no damage there. You can lose rounds, for sure, but I'm tricky."
At this point, though, Saunders is just relieved to fight.
Season-eight's welterweight tournament, more so than any bracket the 30-year-old veteran can remember, has been cursed. The competition, which started in January and generally spans three months, stretched into an agonizing seven-month layoff due to a series of Lima injuries and scheduling complications.
"I didn't do no side work, man. I definitely was financially not cool with it," Saunders said. "I'm in the peak of my career right now. I'm on a roll. I'm coming off a great, great win, and that momentum and everything rolling with me -- seven months is a long time to be completely healthy, in shape and ready to go, and stuck on the sidelines. On a financial level, that s--t was f--king terrible.
"I was trying to get them to set up a fight, but I guess they didn't want to do that, so we waited, and then the other injury occurred."
After languishing on the sidelines for half of 2013, Saunders believes he's devised a solution which Bellator could enact, to avoid what he calls his "seven-month escapade" from happening to tournament fighters in the future.
"I think it's real simple, man," Saunders explained. "Okay, if you've got four fights going on, they just need to have two additional fights at the same weight class. Those guys can be the alternates. If any injuries or any bulls--t occurs, at least no one's really getting an advantage, because if there's six fights going down on the exact same night, then we're all in the same boat.
"What happened to us should be a learning experience. And they should be able to maybe take the idea and figure it out. I think it's a great idea."
Even despite his frustration, Saunders acknowledges that, timetable aside, he's pleased with how this tournament played out. Saunders routed Koffi Adzitso in the quarterfinals, then scored a highlight reel head kick knockout over Raul Amaya to pave a road to Lima, the man who brutally finished Saunders back in season five's tourney finals.
Now Saunders meets Lima with vengeance on his mind. And though he admits Lima's strategy to "finish him as fast as possible" is "a brilliant gameplan," Saunders vows that this time around, Lima should expect a different outcome.
"This is it, man. This is everything, right now, on the line," Saunders said. "I'm putting my livelihood, what I dreamed, what I'm trying to accomplish by coming to Bellator, it's here right now, man. There's no doubt in my mind that this is what I signed up for. It's right around the corner. It's available to me, man. It's at my fingertips. I want to f--king win this s--t. I want that bigass check in my house, and I want to be able to tell my family what I did. I want to be like, ‘Look what your dad did. Look what your grandfather accomplished.' This is my legacy."