When he was 14, Ben Saunders worked at McDonald’s for as many hours as child labor laws allowed. His slim paychecks—he says he made as little as $4.30 an hour—paid for lessons in Jeet Kune Do, the martial arts system founded by his idol, Bruce Lee. Now, as a Bellator Fighting Championships welterweight with a 14-5-2 mixed martial arts record (as of press time), the 29-year-old Saunders has made a career in sanctioned violence. Even if he only earns enough to get by, that’s fine with him.
“I don’t need crazy money,” he says. “Even if I lived in my gym, that’d be cool as hell.”
The laughter that breaks up his sentences is at odds with the person Saunders becomes inside the cage, an aggressive, rangy fighter equally skilled at ending a fight with knees in the clinch or by sinking chokes. After gaining fame on The Ultimate Fighter reality TV show in 2007, Saunders fought in the Ultimate Fighting Championship and earned a 4-3 record before signing with Bellator in 2011. In January 2013, as Bellator makes its Spike TV debut, Saunders enters a tournament of contenders vying for a shot at the organization’s welterweight title.
It’s a format that Saunders knows well; he fought in two previous Bellator tournaments, coming up short on both occasions. But he’s ready to go through the grind again. “I’m hoping to go through this tournament the same way I went through the other ones, and that’s pretty much coming out injury-free, trying to take some heads off—and trying to turn some heads, maybe, pull off some unique stuff that people have maybe never seen before,” he says.
The Florida-based athlete has long trained with American Top Team, home to countless high-level MMA fighters, but you might not know it to look closely at his right arm. When Saunders first entered MMA competition, he was training with Gracie Barra, and he used the purse from his first bout to get a tattoo of the Gracie Jiu-Jitsu “G” logo. A year later, he left the gym on amicable terms. The tattoo “brings back memories of where I came from, how I got brought up—even the history of MMA in Orlando,” he says. “We’ve got quite a few places here now, but originally there was nothing.”
As MMA continues to grow, Saunders says his goals are to live by a warrior’s principles—the same principles that inspired the samurai and dragon tattoos elsewhere on his body—to become a champion, and then to train a new generation of champions to take his place. “I’m building a re?sume? that I can utilize once I choose to either hang ’em up or take a break,” Saunders says. Because, after all, fighting sure beats flipping burgers.