Sports fans can be the most cruel critics when a team or individual isn't performing well. Unforgiving and relentless, droves of fans will take to the streets, the stadiums, the offices, the schools, and the Internet to let everyone who will listen know of their displeasure. As a lifelong Bears and Cubs fan, I've participated in these types of prolonged criticisms, and judging from the Detroit Lions' utter destruction of the pitiful Chicago Bears' offensive line last night -- it's going to continue.
Those same criticisms run rampant in mixed martial arts. Fighters come in through talent acquisition or The Ultimate Fighter reality series and fail in some manner that fans see as embarrassing or undeserving of a shot in the world's premier organization. If those fighters fail again, it's likely they'll be sent back out into the regional proving ground, and many of them never make it back to the big show.
UFC veteran Ben Saunders, at first glance, didn't fit that profile. The 6'3" welterweight was cast on The Ultimate Fighter season six after amassing a 4-0-2 record in Florida's local MMA scene. His sheer size made him an immediate threat to anyone he was pit against on the show. Unfortunately, eventual finalist Tommy Speer grinded out Saunders in the quarterfinals.
After the show, Saunders made all the sacrifices to become a well-rounded martial artist, improving by leaps and bounds on both the feet and the ground under the watchful eye of one of the best camps in the world, American Top Team. Wins over Dan Barrera and Ryan Thomas proved he was progressing, but his brutal victory over Brandon Wolff at UFC: Fight for the Troops in December of 2008 was a rude awakening for anyone sleeping on Saunders as a rising prospect. The win earned Saunders bigger and better opportunities.
Unfortunately, Saunders faltered against the better competition put in front of him, amassing a 1-3 record in his last 4 appearances. He absolutely crushed UFC veteran Marcus Davis at UFC 106, but dropped decisions to Jon Fitch and Dennis Hallman at UFC 111 and UFC 117 respectively while also succumbing to strikes from Mike Swick at UFC 99 prior to his win over Davis. The two consecutive losses earned him a release from the promotion. Too much, too soon was a constant mantra repeated by fans in the aftermath.
As the old adage says "When one door closes, another one opens". Saunders signed with rival promotion Bellator six months later in February. The move was seen by some fans as a bad one due to Bellator's restrictive contracts, but I'd argue it was the perfect opportunity. I've watched countless hours of footage of every prospect on the planet, and there isn't a substitute for fighting against veteran competition while attempting to improve your skills.
Saunders skipped that segment of his career, mainly due to his incredible success in the UFC. Despite his failure to break through to the upper tier of the UFC's welterweight division, he's now doing exactly what he needs to do in order to become an elite level fighter. He's fighting known prospects and veterans who possess different styles. They may not be the most successful fighters on the planet, but they offer Saunders what he needed after The Ultimate Fighter... a consistent increase in competition while he improves the details of his skill-set.
Unlike many of the perished fighters of the UFC who washed away out of our memories, Saunders made the right call. The 28-year-old has demolished the competition in three fights with the organization, including a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu clinic on Scouting Report rankee Luis Santos this past Saturday at Bellator 53. He'll square off against heralded prospect Douglas Lima in the finals, an even greater challenge than his last. Win or lose, Saunders' choice is one that we don't see often, and other aspiring MMA fighters should follow in his footsteps.