Ben Saunders: The second I got cut the goal was to get back to the UFC
Ben Saunders nearly retired after a falling out with an executive from another promotion, but when the UFC came calling to bring him back after four long years away, he knew that he was finally going home.
Ben Saunders hopes to duplicate this performance when he returns to the UFC
J. Kopaloff / Getty Images North America
By Damon Martin
Following his time on The Ultimate Fighter season 6, Ben Saunders quickly became a fan favorite with his aggressive style and highlight reel knockouts with some of the nastiest finishes in the welterweight division at the time. Saunders fell on harder times in 2010 losing back-to-back fights to Jon Fitch and Dennis Hallman and with the UFC roster being slimmed down, he was released from his contract.
Saunders ventured off to fight in other promotions, most notably Bellator for 10 fights, but towards the end of his tenure there things got so bad he nearly retired. While the American Top Team welterweight refuses to even mention the person by name, it was a falling out with former Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney that rubbed him the wrong way and towards the tail end of their relationship he was ready to quit fighting rather than compete under that promotion's banner any longer.
"I will say this -- almost all the people that worked for Bellator and almost all the fighters on their roster are freaking amazing people. They're awesome people and I loved my time with those people. My time with certain head people, which I won't get into, it was bad," Saunders revealed speaking to FOX Sports. "It was depressing, I almost retired, I was furious. There was a lot of things that I was forced to suck up and just play the game and I did so. I did everything that I had to do to fulfill my contract and after that because of those people, and only because of those people, I wanted nothing to do with renegotiating.
"They could have paid me a half a million dollars and I wouldn't have even listened because I was that pissed. I was set in my ways. I just wanted out."
Saunders eventually worked free of his agreement with Bellator and ended up signing with upstart promotion Titan Fighting Championships where he was granted a welterweight title shot on the first day with the organization. Unfortunately, injuries mounted for one opponent and visa troubles kept another from entering the country and so Saunders was left stranded once again without a fight.
It was depressing, I almost retired, I was furious. They could have paid me a half a million dollars and I wouldn't have even listened because I was that pissed. I was set in my ways. I just wanted out
— Ben Saunders
It's at that moment Saunders got a call from his manager with an offer he couldn't believe.
The UFC wanted to re-sign Saunders to a new multi-fight contract and return at this weekend's UFC Fight Night event in Tulsa, Oklahoma. The bout was considered short notice by most standards, but not for Saunders who had spent the better part of six weeks already training and preparing for a fight that ended up falling apart at the last minute.
Thankfully the executives at Titan FC allowed Saunders out of his deal, and minutes later he was a member of the UFC roster again for the first time in four years. While Saunders absolutely values the offers he received from Titan FC and even the time with Bellator, no matter how sour the relationship ended, his long term plan was always to return to the UFC.
"That was always the goal. The second I got cut that was the goal," Saunders said. "I made a post on my Facebook and my social media letting people know the sad news that I got cut and it wasn't just a small post. I wrote out exactly how I felt and I made a damn promise to myself that I wasn't going to stop and I was not going to quit until I brought my skill set up and proved I belonged in the show.
"This entire time I've been out that's the only purpose I've had. I cannot fail myself. Honestly after this fight I could die, I could never fight again, and I would be so satisfied because I did what I set out to do."
The last time Saunders was in the UFC the two losses that resulted in his exit from the promotion came thanks to fighters who were able to take him to the mat and control him on the ground. Saunders struggled to get up from the bottom and his takedown defense wasn't on par with the best wrestlers in the division.
When the UFC called and handed him his pink slip back in 2010, Saunders wasn't the least bit surprised but it did wake him up to the reality of how he needed to change his training and get better if he ever hoped to return to the Octagon one day.
I cannot fail myself. Honestly after this fight I could die, I could never fight again, and I would be so satisfied because I did what I set out to do
— Ben Saunders on his UFC return
"The bottom line was the entire division is overrun with high level wrestlers. You're not able to keep the fight standing and your jiu-jitsu, you either need to get better to get back to your feet or get deadly off your back and I completely understood," Saunders said.
"I got it and I worked on it. It took time and I don't believe it took as much time as it took, but at the end of the day, the one great thing I can say about Bellator is I got a lot of experience under my belt. I left the UFC as a child, I was a baby and I'm coming back with 11 more fights under my belt and proving that I have that veteran background now to really make an impact in my division."
For his first fight back, Saunders will take on newcomer Chris Heatherly in the second bout on the opening preliminary card. His last fight in Bellator was a main event, but none of that matters to Saunders because he's finally back where he believes he always belonged.
"I'm here to fight. I'm just happy the UFC came up and they made it happen," Saunders said. "I might be the first fight of the night and that's the best news of it all because I'm looking to get the show started right."