Ben Saunders is a UFC fighter in the welterweight division. He is also a jiu-jitsu black belt under the legendary Master Ricardo Liborio of American Top Team (ATT). As a Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioner, you probably know who Ben is. For those who don’t, Ben is predominantly a striker, and outside of ATT, much of his jiu-jitsu training has been self-taught. Ben recently made history using the gentle art. In his fight against Chris Heatherly last August, and with Eddie Bravo in his corner, Ben finished Chris with an omoplata, making him the first UFC fighter to ever finish a fight this way. It’s gained so much attention that he has been nominated for the 2014 Submission of the Year at the 2015 World MMA Awards and has already won that honor with several other media outlets around the globe. Outside of the cage, Ben represents jiu-jitsu in a way that can make us all proud. He is a true martial artist and says that the respect, honor and loyalty behind it personifies who he is. Here is Ben’s story with a special guest appearance from the one-and-only Eddie Bravo:
JJM: Do you train no-gi and gi, or like most MMA fighters do you just train no-gi?
Ben: I train in both.
JJM: When did you start training in jiu-jitsu?
Ben: I started training in martial arts at 8 years old. I started training in the gi around 2002 and no-gi around 1998, but it’s hard to say because I was self-trained and self-taught from 8 to 18. I grew up in South Florida and there was no jiu-jitsu there, so I learned from the Internet, books and from wrestling in high school. I’m a big fan of the guard; I showed my teammates moves, they showed me some. Wrestling’s all about the top game, so I would get them in my guard and say, “Yeah, you have my shoulders pinned, but you don’t win with that here!”
JJM: What belt rank are you?
Ben: I’m a black belt under Master Ricardo Liborio. I call him my Dalai Lama. He is the happiest person I’ve ever met. Even if I lose, he always says, “It’s ok, Ben, it’s ok.” He’s a straight shooter, though. He knows I have good striking and good jiu-jitsu. He tells me I need to work on my wrestling. He’ll tell me straight up what my flaws are and what I need to work on, but he’s always very positive about it.
JJM: What’s it like training with Master Liborio at ATT?
Ben: Master Liborio, for those who don’t know, he’s a historical icon. He’s a black belt under Master Carlson Gracie. He was a black belt world champion in jiu-jitsu. He’s one of the founders of Brazilian Top Team, which had one of the greatest teams of all time that competed all over the world in UFC and PRIDE. They produced studs. He moved to Florida with Dan Lambert to create American Top Team. I started training with him in 2006. He’s a professor, a guru, my Dalai Lama. The knowledge he has is unsurpassed. He’s absolutely incredible. It’s an honor to have a black belt under him, but to also call him a friend and to train with him.
JJM: When did you know you wanted to be a pro fighter?
Ben: It was when I was 10 years old that I knew. My best friend was into Tae Kwon Do and he had a subscription to Black Belt Magazine. We saw the ad for UFC 1. It was no holds barred. The fights would end only in a submission or knock out. I said, “Someone’s gonna die! We gotta order it!” His dad was an alcoholic. He ordered the fight for us, which, at 10, was probably not the best thing for us to see. I was horrified! In the first match with Gerard Gordeau against Teila Tuli, Geordeau kicked him in the face and his teeth went shooting out! He punched him in the face and he was bleeding out of his eyeball. Oh my God! It was the most traumatizing thing I’ve ever witnessed! Then I saw Royce Gracie win it all in the end and I said, “This is what I want to do.” My friend said I was crazy. I said, “Just watch.” So then I dedicated my life to it. I told my parents I wanted to train in martial arts and open my own school. It wasn’t long after that they were like, “Hey, wait a minute…” They started realizing I wanted to be a fighter, not a school owner.
“I’m a martial artist to the fullest and I express my art utilizing my eight limbs. I use my opponent’s face and body as my canvas and my favorite colors to use are red, black and blue.”
JJM: Describe your life leading up to becoming a UFC fighter.
Ben: When I graduated from high school the only MMA academy in Florida at that time was Din Thomas’ school. I was like, “Oh my God! Din Thomas!” He was my idol. I started talking to him on Messenger about coming down to train. I convinced my dad into letting me go by saying that I was going to go to college in Orlando…but when I said, “College,” I meant MY college – martial arts (laughs). I tried to juggle school, a job, and training; that’s three full-time jobs plus sleep. School trickled out, and then I was down to just training and working full-time. Then I hit hard times. I lost my job, my car broke down, I was getting evicted from my apartment. Everyone came at me: “What are you doing with your life?” “You’re 20-years-old!” “You want to be a pro fighter? How much money you making?” “You’re not going anywhere!” I had to deal with a lot of drama from my family. I literally disowned everyone, except my brother Jacob who always supported me. I said, “Ok you guys are all gone. I’m not going to deal with any of this.” I got things in order. Then I got on The Ultimate Fighter 6. That Christmas was the greatest Christmas of all time. Everyone accepted me. I proved I could fight and that there was money to be made. They turned around and now they’re my biggest fans ever. They get it now.
JJM: In 2007 you were on Ultimate Fighter 6: Hughes vs. Serra and you were on Matt Serra’s team. War Machine was on your team, you had it out with George Sotiropolis and Joe Scarola left the house. So much drama! Tell me about the experience of being on that show.
Ben: That show is all about who can fight through the obstacles, the psychological warfare and the cameras. Many coaches over the years have told me that fighting is 98% mental, 95% mental…if you’re psychologically not able to fight through it, your body can’t do it physically. When it comes down to digging deep: you’re down 2 rounds and have to make something happen in the 3rd, you gotta make something happen. Or the reverse, he’s down and has a stronger mind than you and the will to come back – he’s going to beat you. The Ultimate Fighter was a great way to see people’s psychological strengths and weaknesses; who can stay calm under pressure. The only thing that sucked about being on the show was having to diet and you didn’t know when you were gonna fight. Matt Serra told me when I lost my 2nd fight…I got sick and fought anyway and lost on a decision…he said that I was definitely gonna go far; that I had the mind and the talent for it. He said I had the right attitude for it. It was an honor training with him.
JJM: Do you have to be a little crazy to be a fighter?
Ben: Yes! We need to be a little crazy to do this job! You have to be a little sadistic because the goal is to finish your opponent; to bring pain upon him in an artistic fashion to get the finish. I’m not normal, I will never be normal and I don’t ever want to be normal. I don’t want to be perceived as someone I’m not. Above all, I’m a martial artist to the fullest and I express my art utilizing my eight limbs. I use my opponent’s face and body as my canvas and my favorite colors to use are red, black and blue.
JJM: Eight limbs?
Ben: Yes. Muay Thai is also considered the art of eights limbs: 2 hands, 2 knees, 2 elbows and 2 shins/feet.
JJM: What do you think is more effective in jiu-jitsu – drilling or sparring?
Ben: I think drilling is most effective. Consistency and numbers are always going to play the biggest role in any sport. If you kick a bag 1,000 times, you’re going to be better. If you punch a bag 1,000 times, you’re going to be better. If you practice an armbar 1,000 times, you’re going to be better. Drills, hands down, are the foundation of becoming good at anything you’re striving to be good at. Live training is your marker. It tests how you can adapt to different situations and how to utilize them in a live situation. With any kind of sparring you want to be as “live” as possible, and do it intelligently because if you’re injured, you’re not going to be able to compete at all or to the best of your abilities, but drilling proper technique is the key.
“I definitely think jiu-jitsu is one of greatest martial arts ever designed and created. The gentle art always caught my eye.” -Ben Saunders
Enter 10th Planet’s Eddie Bravo…
JJM: How has Eddie Bravo helped you in your pursuit of greatness?
Ben: I’ve always been a big fan of his. After The Ultimate Fighter, I had some money and I bought his book, Mastering the Rubber Guard. There’s no 10th Planet in Florida. As a kid, I self-taught myself jiu-jitsu until I joined United Champions with Din Thomas. Even though I’ve been with ATT since 2006, I still go out of my way to study jiu-jitsu techniques on the Internet, in books and by watching videos. I like to be intelligent on my own and search out styles and techniques that work for me. I try them and see what works. Eddie’s system just clicked for me. I’m an active guard player in my jiu-jitsu training, in jiu-jitsu tournaments and in MMA in general. I like to attack from the back. Behind jiu-jitsu is the concept of self-defense; someone’s going to be hitting me, attacking me…I like having a guard that’s both offensive and defensive, so that’s why the rubber guard clicked with me.
JJM: But you were using your own variation of the rubber guard, not Eddie’s actual version of it, right?
Ben: Yes, he jokes and calls it the Killa B guard. Instead of grabbing my right ankle with my left hand, I was grabbing the inside of my right knee and shin with my right hand, trapping my opponent’s left arm.
Eddie Bravo: Ben was playing a version of the rubber guard that I never play. Rubber guard is super technical. A lot of people mess with it. They say, “Oh I’ll just grab my ankle and go for a triangle.” It’s not like that. Ben was doing his own version of it and I didn’t want to tell him I didn’t agree with it because it was kind of working. We talked over social media, and then he was cut from the UFC and went to Bellator. I lost track of him. I started calling his version of the rubber guard the Killa B. He used it against a black belt (Luis Santos) and ended up tapping him with an Americana. It was pretty effective. Then I lost track of him again. Then I did the video with Rickson Gracie and Joe Rogan, and Ben realized he was doing things differently than I do. He tweeted me that he wanted to make the rubber guard part of his comeback into the UFC.
JJM: Ben, you’re in Florida and Eddie is in California, so how did you make that work?
Ben: I hit him up and said, “Yo man! You doin’ any seminars in Florida? I need to work my rubber guard.” He said he wasn’t, but said that he had a ninja in Florida named Tyler Woosley.
Eddie Bravo: Tyler’s one of my rubber guard geniuses. He’s 19 now and has been doing it since he was 14.
Ben: I did 2 privates with Tyler and then I got the call from the UFC to fight Chris Heatherly in August.
Eddie Bravo: After Ben trained with Tyler, he immediately contacts me and says, “I’m blown away! I had no idea it was this crazy! I have to master this!” He told me he had a spot open in his corner the following week against Chris Heatherly and that he would love for me to be in it.
Ben: Honestly, him saying he wanted to go out there and corner my fight…I thought, “Damn I hope this fight goes to the ground! I want to show this man what I’m working on.” I did 2 privates with Tyler, but I just needed to ask a few questions and get those few fine details. I knew it was money. I have the jiu-jitsu already to back it up; to add this to it, it all clicked.
JJM: This was really last minute, so how did the two of you find time to train together?
Eddie: The fight is Saturday and I get there Friday night. We go to his room. We’re on the floor; I gave him a basic lesson on rubber guard and the next day a little more. That was it.
JJM: Tell me about the fight and this remarkable omoplata you caught.
Ben: To have Eddie in my corner was priceless. I immediately went for the omoplata…I looked for it. I had listened to Dwayne Ludwig and TJ Dillashaw and the Alpha Male team on Joe Rogan’s podcast and they were talking about a variation of the omoplata, how you could go around the front of the face and do a neck crank/omoplata. So, when I got there, I circled to the side and got good position, and wanted to do what Rogan was talking about, but then Eddie screamed at me to go for the far arm to crank it and secure it more. Chris Heatherly tried to tripod up. I thought, “He’s gonna try to roll!” So, I pumped his wrist and arm into the omoplata and he tapped! It’s never happened before in the UFC! I went from mission control to crackhead control (for about 2 seconds) to dead orchard to elbows to omoplata (Check out Robin Black’s breakdown on Youtube). Me and Eddie were working on this in the hotel room and in the back room before the fight. That’s all the time we had!
Eddie: I thought his opponent was gonna roll out of the omoplata. But Ben had him seat belted really good. It was a shocker. People generally give up position and roll out of it. This guy didn’t roll and Ben didn’t let him roll. Everything went according to plan.
JJM: Your next UFC fight was against Joe Riggs.
Ben: I worked with Eddie for 3 weeks during my camp. Fight time, we both came out fighting and Joe picked me up and tried to spike me, but his chin hit my hipbone, which caused a stinger in his neck and his left arm to go numb. The second Joe and I hit the mat I knew exactly where I wanted him. I had him wrapped up, but before I could even decide which option I wanted to choose to try to submit him with, he was already tapping. Because he tried to injure me with a Rampage Jackson slam, he ended up digging himself into a freak incident. Neither one of us wanted it to go down this way.
JJM: It sounds like you were let down with winning like that.
Ben: Yeah! I wanted to go to rubber guard and work on what me and Eddie worked on in my camp, but then he’s tapping out. At the time, I was contorting his shoulder, so I thought for a second that maybe I subbed him with it, but then I saw him grab the back of his neck and I knew…no. So because of that I lost Fight of the Night and Submission of the Night opportunities. But I got in and out. I got the W. That’s the good news, so I can’t really complain.
JJM: Eddie, it sounds like you are going to be a big part of Ben’s future in the UFC. What do you think his potential is in the welterweight division?
Eddie: Opponents need to worry about him. If they’re smart they won’t take him down, but he’s such a great striker…he is going to confuse people. Ben is 6’ 3”, but has limbs of a guy who’s 6’ 8”. He’s super flexible, has really long legs, is amazing at striking and he’s already a black belt. He’s really good. His jiu-jitsu is really good, and he’s already playing rubber guard? I see extreme potential with him. I think if he fought Johny Hendricks right now he would give him hell. He’s so tall and Johny is so much shorter; I think he would eat him up standing. So, Johny would take him down and end up out of the frying pan and into the fire. Robbie Lawler is taller and lankier and he can bang. That would be harder…but I see a great match up between Johny and Ben. Ben can stand with anybody and anyone who takes him down, there’s a 30-40% chance they’re gonna get tapped. They’re gonna get wrapped up for sure. Just the 3 weeks I had him – I think he has tremendous potential. I‘m going to work with him a lot more. You can’t predict anything in this sport, but I think he has the potential to be one of best guard players in the UFC. No one has his guard skills or his flexibility. That omoplata has skyrocketed his fame. He’s a UFC star now. He came back to the UFC with a vengeance.
JJM: Ben, you’ve had some great success in the UFC using your jiu-jitsu skills and after reading this article about what a jiu-jitsu fanatic you are, you’re going to gain a lot more fans in the jiu-jitsu community. So, in closing, please tell me why you think jiu-jitsu is such a valuable and effective art.
Ben: I definitely think jiu-jitsu is one of greatest martial arts ever designed and created. The gentle art always caught my eye. I love the perception of size not mattering. That’s huge in my eyes, plus the fact that gender, male or female, doesn’t matter with proper technique. Everything about it – the intelligence of it, the chess match behind it…even if you’re lacking in athleticism, if you’re on point with technique and you’re intelligent about it, you can overcome any obstacle. Not to mention that it is one of the greatest workouts and ways of getting in shape in a fun environment. It’s amazing.
JJM: Ok, my work here is done! I think you have now etched yourself into the hearts of every jiu-jitsu practitioner out there. Good luck with your future in the UFC and thank you for your time!
Ben: (Laughs) Thank you to everyone who has been a part of my martial arts experience and thank you for this interview. I will keep working towards a title shot and ultimately, the title.
You can follow Ben on twitter and Instagram @bensaundersmma or on his facebook page: facebook.com/IamBenSaunders.