Dave Mandel for Sherdog.com
Ask Matt Lee if Ben Saunders can punch, but don't ask if he learned yet how to grapple.
If Ben Saunders could tailor his opponents to approach him like Matt Lee did at Bellator 39 -- or Marcus Davis before him, or Brandon Wolff before him -- he'd be mixed martial arts' biggest star. That's what happens when your Muay Thai comes off like a penitentiary offense and you have nearly 78 inches of compacting arms. Guys come out of fights like the lone survivor does at the end of slasher movies: bloodied, traumatized and fundamentally changed.
But Saunders was "Swicked" long before he was "Fitched." And then Dennis Hallman stole the blueprint. You take Ben Saunders down, you beat Ben Saunders. It's black and white. That's why "Killa B" is now in resurrection mode with Bellator.
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For one fight, Saunders looked exactly how you'd expect him to look: Exciting. Problem is that even in Bellator, all roads lead to a grappler -- in this case, Ben Askren, a lanky, super-athletic wrestler who can staple guys to the mat with relative ease. If recent history in MMA has shown us anything it's that smart wrestlers usually neutralize optimistic maulers.
So it wasn't what we saw at Bellator 39 when Saunders beat Matt Lee to the point of a third-round doctor stoppage, it's what we didn't see. Is his wrestling in a better place now than it was a year ago? Enough to compete against Askren? This is the question that his relevancy hinges on.
"If I fight [Askren], I guess we'll see where my wrestling's at," Saunders said after his fight with Lee. "It really comes down to basic fundamentals, just like anything. Striking, jiu-jitsu, whatever. As long as you have basic fundamentals and you're good at it, you can nullify what they're trying to do."
[+] EnlargeDave Mandel/Sherdog.com
Ben Saunders has no issues tearing through opponents when they're standing and obliging.
A fight with Askren isn't imminent, but Saunders says in the seven months since he was cut by the UFC he's gone back to basics while getting more into the spirit of his Jeet Kune Do concepts. One of the main tenants within those concepts is unpredictability. So far in the 26-year-old's early career, he's been anything but. That's why Saunders says he has broken out the virtual singlet and trained wrestling just about every day since losing to Hallman at UFC 117 and, ultimately, losing his spot in the UFC.
"I've been working with my teammate Ralph Acosta nonstop and he's probably one of the most technical wrestlers I've ever seen and worked with," Saunders said. "Visually, and from a third-person view, the passion he has for wrestling is the passion I have for Jeet Kune Do. It's been a great combination.
"A crazy statistic is apparently I have been ranked as high as No. 8 or 9 on the UFC roster of best takedown defense," he said. "That's kind of ironic. But at the end of the day, I've fought some of the best in the world in guys like Jon Fitch. He does what he did to me to everybody. When I make it back to the big show, I'm going to make it back with a bang like I did tonight."
That is likely, if the fighters come at Saunders as Lee did. But in a landscape of top-tier wrestlers and handlers with plenty of tape to go by, chances are opponents are going to demand proof of his work. Saunders likes to fight to audiences' tastes. That is, exciting. Nothing wrong with that. But it remains to be seen if he can do it while thwarting determined wrestlers. Otherwise he'll require fights that fit his style. In other words, predictable.