Considering how he was first introduced to the mainstream, it’s almost a miracle that Ben Saunders is still in the UFC today.
“Killa B” was part of the mostly forgettable cast of The Ultimate Fighter 6 back in 2007. While the Floridian made an impression on viewers with his affable personality and long and lanky frame, he didn’t make it past the quarterfinals and was outshone by names like Tommy Speer, George Sotiropoulos, and eventual show winner Mac Danzig.
Fast forward to today and Saunders has outlasted them all. He’s in his third stint with the UFC and still competing on major cards. On Saturday at UFC 245 in Las Vegas, he fights fellow welterweight lifer Matt Brown in what will be his 19th appearance for the promotion.
Saunders’s Octagon record sits at a tidy 9-9, though he’s been finished in his last three outings. He may not get another chance to right the ship should he fall to Brown, at least not in the UFC. In a recent interview with MMA Fighting, Saunders explained what is motivating him ahead of what could be a do-or-die fight, beyond the immediate stakes.
“Man, I still got goals to achieve,” Saunders said. “I’m still in my opinion a dream chaser. I gave my life to this. There’s not anybody in this sport that has committed themselves from 10 years old, from watching the very first UFC live on pay-per-view and have been living this lifestyle and dedication ever since. There is not a blueprint for the pioneers and though I am not an early pioneer, I guess I would be a second generation pioneer if you will. I’m definitely a pioneer of Central Florida martial arts.
“The great thing about martial arts is this sport keeps evolving and I’ve been a part of the evolution from the beginning and known, coming from a Jeet Kune Do background, that it’s pretty much evolve or die. You have to evolve with the game.”
As impressive as Saunders’s longevity is, he’s actually short of matching Brown’s UFC presence. “The Immortal” has a record of 14-10 with the organization and was seemingly content to walk off into the sunset with a stunning elbow knockout of Diego Sanchez in November 2017, only to set up a fight with Carlos Condit the following April. An ACL injury knocked Brown out of that booking and now he’s set to make a proper comeback against Saunders.
Given their long association with the UFC, Saunders had no explanation for why the two never crossed paths in the cage until now.
“I thought this matchup was going to go down a long time ago,” Saunders said. “I’ve actually been a fan of his for a very long time. He’s very fun to watch. As far as the matchup coming together, that just came down to my management hitting me up and being like, ‘Yo, you’ve got Matt Brown on this date’ and it’s like, let’s go. There’s no hesitation on that one.
“A fan-friendly and possibly fan-favorite fight, and that’s what I’m looking for. Those are the fights that get me up in the morning. Those are the fights that get me really, really hyped and motivated. No disrespect to anybody else that doesn’t really have that as far as me being super excited and motivated, but it’s not often that you get a veteran that is a fan favorite also. That, for me, is what this sport—especially at this point in my career - I’m all about it.”
Saunders only halfheartedly mentions missing out on a UFC title when asked what aspects of his 15-year career could be considered unfulfilled. He prefers pointing out that he holds a spot in the record books as the first UFC fighter to earn a tap-out via omoplata submission, a feat he accomplished against Chris Heatherly at an August 2014 Fight Night event in Tulsa, Okla.
Otherwise, he doesn’t dwell on any regrets, viewing wins and losses in the same light. That attitude was on display in September of last year when he had an impromptu grappling session with Sergio Moraes backstage shortly after being submitted by Moraes.
“Never been a loss,” Saunders said. “No matter what’s happened in a fight, I feel that I’ve come out, I’ve performed strong, and even if the fight didn’t go my way I think I proved a lot in those fights. There was a lot of learning and things I was able to take away, making anything that might not have been considered a win on the scorecards or on my official record a win for intelligence and experience.”
That zen attitude may explain why Saunders isn’t putting too much weight on the outcome of his fight with Brown. Yes, he wants to win and yes, he understands that a fourth straight loss could mean he’s not on the UFC roster when the New Year rolls around.
But whenever this UFC run comes to a close, he doesn’t expect it to signal the end of his martial arts journey. Not by a long shot.
“I will fight until I am no longer able to that is an absolute fact. That I know,” Saunders said. “Is Anderson Silva still fighting? Yes he is, isn’t he? That’s my calling card, as long as that man is still fighting, I see no reason not to still be able to fight too.
“With age comes a lot of wisdom and experience, as much as these young guns are getting blueprints and a lot of people are getting quicker insight and instruction into what is a good training camp and how to put it all together—because I sure as hell didn’t get that coming up. I think everything that I have put together is still very, very valid and I can never put a—It’s funny when I hear people ask questions like this to veterans or people that are getting older because it’s like, unless they have in their head, ‘No, I’m only fighting to this age and then I’m calling it quits,’ nobody knows. You’ve got to listen to your body. Everything’s gonna be different, it’s gonna go fight to fight, circumstance to circumstance. Luckily for me I don’t party much, I was never a big drinker, and I’ve always been about vitality, my diet, and nutrition. So I think that what I’ve been able to do with my body should—Hell, for my age, I think I look a lot better than a lot of people my age, so I don’t know, that could be genetics or it could be because I’ve been very good with how I’ve committed to my sport, my art, and my career.”
For more from Saunders, check out his fight week interview with MMA Fighting: