LOS ANGELES — Any time you pull off something that’s never been done before, well, it’s bound to get you thinking about what could be next. And so it was for Ben Saunders.
A journeyman with runs in both the UFC and Bellator, Saunders began working with Eddie Bravo almost two years ago. He had already started adopting some of the 10th Planet Jiu Jitsu system and had Bravo in his corner for his first fight back in the UFC.
You probably already know what happens next. Saunders pulled off the first omoplata in UFC history in the first round against Chris Heatherly in August 2014. Once known for his aggressive striking and vicious knees, Saunders was hooked on fighting off his back.
“I came into this game to change the game and f*cking just pulled off history,” Saunders said. “From that day, me and Eddie were like, ‘F*ck dude it’s on.’ I’m making the trips out. We’re taking it to the next level.”
Saunders might be a Florida guy, but he’s calling Hollywood home for training camps now. He does his ground work with Bravo at 10th Planet HQ in downtown and his striking with former UFC heavyweight Antoni Hardonk at Dynamix MMA in West LA.
In 2013, Saunders didn’t just suffer a knockout loss to Douglas Lima in Bellator, he also had to deal with his gym, American Top Team Orlando, breaking up. Saunders went down to the main ATT in Coconut Creek, but in advance of a matchup with Matt Riddle for Titan FC he wanted something different. Saunders knew Riddle was a good wrestler and he wanted to be active off his back.
So “Killa B” called Bravo, who hooked him up with 10th Planet students in Florida. The Riddle fight fell through, but Saunders was able to re-sign with the UFC after four years away. He worked more closely with Bravo before his return and Bravo was in his corner for the fight with Heatherly.
Since incorporating 10th Planet maneuvers like the rubber guard into his game, Saunders (19-6-2) has won three in a row and not lost in the UFC. He’s had success off his back in every one of the victories. On Sunday night, Saunders will meet Patrick Cote at UFC Fight Night: Dillashaw vs. Cruz in Boston in a bout that could get him into the UFC’s top-15 rankings at welterweight.
Saunders, 32, was hardly a rookie on the mat when he began working with Bravo. He’s a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under the great Ricardo Liborio. According to Bravo, Saunders had all the tools to enhance his game.
“With Ben, everything has just lined up,” Bravo said. “The flexibility, the striking, he’s already a black belt, he’s already a warrior. It’s all there.”
Saunders still somewhat considers himself a striker first. His background is in Jeet Kune Do. Now, though, Saunders figures he can really put his opponents into a quandary, because they won’t want to stand with him nor do they really want to mess with his aggressive guard. Saunders doesn’t just go for submissions off his back. He’ll trap opponents in what Bravo has dubbed “crackhead control” and slice them up with elbows.
“Then you’re in this weird zone where it’s like you don’t want to enter it, you don’t want to let me stand back up,” Saunders said. “You’re in this weird spot. That’s a very, very hard zone to control.”
It wasn’t difficult for Saunders to implement these things to his game, Bravo said, because he had the will and desire to do it. So few fighters at his level have the time and patience to add what Bravo refers to as “new game.” Saunders did and is being rewarded for it.
“What has gotten him so advanced in the 10th Planet system is the fact that he’s willing to drill and repeat stuff he’s not used to,” Bravo said. “That’s how you develop your game. It’s all about repetition, knowing no matter how uncomfortable something feels to you numbers can change all that. A lot of people stop, ‘Oh, this is not for me. It doesn’t feel comfortable.’ They forget that nothing feels comfortable in the beginning.”
Even if it wasn’t going to suddenly make him an MMA champion, Saunders needed this. He’s nearly allergic to traditional means and has very little interest in doing things the way everyone else does them. In that way, Saunders and Bravo have found a kinship.
“I didn’t come into this game to just be a name and just be a similar face in the crowd,” Saunders said. “I came to change the game. I came to bring something new. I always came into the game to bring excitement and it’s cost me a few times.”
Saunders is fine with that. He’s willing to take a punch to give a couple back. He’s willing to give up an apparent dominant position in an attempt to go for a submission and finish the fight.
Wins are great. Pulling off an omoplata? Even better. That’s worth the risk for him.
Saunders admits he’s not sure what will happen against Cote. He’s confident he’ll win and he’s hoping it comes in spectacular fashion. At one time, he’d wish for a head kick knockout. Now? Don’t rule out him pulling a Dead Orchard out of nowhere.
“Now working with Eddie, I was just able to come up with his game plans, his concepts to a whole new level,” Saunders said. “Honestly, he’s got me believing that I have the best guard in the welterweight division hands down. I can submit anybody.”