BREWER, Maine — Ray “All Business” Wood was a three-sport athlete at Bucksport High School not long ago, competing in football, wrestling and baseball for the Golden Bucks.
“The” Ryan Sanders tried freshman football at Bangor High School, but the Etna native ultimately chose to focus on what he describes as “backyard” sports before graduating from Nokomis Regional High School in Newport in 2005.
Yet from those diverse athletic backgrounds, Wood and Sanders are now kindred competitive spirits, training out of the same basement gymnasium with the goal of seeing how far success in the world of mixed martial arts will take them.
“I’m going big,” said the 24-year-old Sanders who, with Wood, is one of two headliners for the Fight Night 2 mixed martial arts card to be held April 14 at the Biddeford Arena. “I’m going to be in the UFC, I’m going to be in the top promotion.
“I keep telling my fiancee, ‘Give me a year, I’ll be there.’ And like I tell my coach, the picture was fuzzy, but now it’s getting clearer and clearer every day.”
That clarity in Sanders’ aspirations has been bolstered during the last year and a half by the development of mixed martial arts fight cards similar to Fight Night 2 within Maine’s borders, making bouts much more accessible than just a few years ago when he had to travel long distances just to find a match.
“It’s awesome,” Sanders said. “When I was an amateur I had to drive all the way to western Massachusetts to fight, so it’s nice to wake up now and be in your home state and have your fans there.
“And when you get your name called and you hear the fans supporting you, man it’s just great.”
Mixed martial arts, a blend of wrestling, boxing, jujitsu and numerous other fighting disciplines from around the world, was legalized in Maine by a vote of the state Legislature in 2009.
And while actual fight cards were somewhat slow coming, two well-attended shows were held in Portland last year and the Fight Night 1 card staged Feb. 11 at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston — where both Sanders and Wood secured their most recent victories — drew more than 3,000 fans.
“It’s great to see the sport coming to Maine,” said Wood, 22. “It’s blowing up fast, there are gyms coming up everywhere and anywhere. In this next card coming up there’s a lot of new gyms that have just come out of the woodwork and have decided to jump on the bandwagon as far as mixed martial arts go.
“Now’s the time to really get into the sport, because it’s really exploding here in Maine.”
Maine’s MMA claims to fame
Despite not sanctioning this relatively new sporting phenomenon until three years ago, Maine has had its share of high-profile mixed martial arts practitioners.
Hermon High School graduate Dana White serves as president of the largest mixed martial arts franchise in the world, the U.S.-based Ultimate Fighting Championship, while Ellsworth native Tim Sylvia is a two-time former UFC world heavyweight champion.
Bangor resident Marcus Davis made his way from a competitive boxing career to the mixed martial arts world, participating in The Ultimate Fighter 2 television series on Spike TV and eventually ascending to the UFC ranks. Now 38, Davis is no longer with the UFC but remains active in the sport, though a scheduled March 31 bout in Salem, N.H., fell through when that card was postponed.
Mike Brown, a 36-year-old graduate of Bonny Eagle High School in Standish, won the World Extreme Cagefighting 145-pound championship in 2008 and has competed on the UFC scene since those two organizations merged in 2010 — with his next bout slated for next month.
And Lincolnville native Tim Boetsch currently is ranked seventh worldwide among UFC middleweights after a come-from-behind stoppage of Yushin Okami in UFC 144 held just outside Tokyo, Japan, on Feb. 25.
The 31-year-old Boetsch, a four-time state wrestling champion while attending Camden-Rockport High School in the late 1990s, is expected to resume his pursuit of a world title shot with a bout against fourth-ranked Michael Bisping on July 7 at UFC 148 in Las Vegas.
It’s such success by fellow Mainers that have younger competitors like Sanders and Wood thinking similar success is not beyond their reach.
“You wouldn’t think there would be that much talent coming from a small state like Maine,” said Wood, “but these guys are coming from small towns and making it to the big show. People like that are paving the way, so why can’t we do that coming from a small-town gym?
“So far we’ve been doing pretty well and making a name for ourselves.”
Stars on the rise?
Sanders has been active in MMA for the past five years, going 4-2 as an amateur before turning pro — where he improved his record to 3-0 with a first-round stoppage of Dan “The Giant” O’Keefe in a welterweight (170-pound) bout at Fight Night 1.
“Ryan is that guy who wasn’t a natural athlete when he came into this, but he had the heart of a lion,” said Chris Young, a former mixed martial arts competitor who now coaches Sanders and Wood out of his Brewer gym.
“When he was younger he was a typical young guy, not taking it really serious, but in his second amateur fight he just got mauled but he would not quit. I remember watching that fight and thinking ‘This guy’s gonna be something,’ and since then he’s really worked on his technique.”
Wood is newer to the sport, turning to mixed martial arts in 2010 to fill a competitive void he had experienced since graduating from high school in 2008.
“I always loved to watch mixed martial arts, it’s very exciting,” he said. “When I first started doing it I had no intentions of getting in the cage, but after witnessing a few events first-hand that’s when I knew that I should give this a shot.”
Wood currently is 4-0 and ranked second among Northeast amateur featherweights (145 pounds) by NortheastMMA.net after a technical knockout of Ashan Abdulla at Fight Night 1.
“Ray obviously came in with his wrestling background, but the big thing with him is his conditioning,” Young said. “He’s a machine who just runs and runs and runs. The thing that impresses me most about Ray is his transition game. He’s able to transition between his wrestling and striking and jujitsu and it all flows and that’s huge in this sport, a skill that a lot of people don’t have.
“It’s just two different ways of getting there for Ray and Ryan. Ray’s a natural athlete and he just picks things up as well has having a big heart and drive. Ryan is going to use his will, he’s going to drive and drive and drive until he gets that win.”
Spreading a message
While Wood and Sanders represent the variety of backgrounds that are drawn to the sport, even more varied are the specific skill sets that make up the typical mixed martial arts competitor.
Many, such as Wood and Boetsch, have used a wrestling background as their MMA foundations, while Davis was an accomplished boxer and Sanders has relied more on jujitsu fundamentals.
Mastering multiple fighting disciplines and being able to shift from one to another during the flow of a match is one key to success. Maintaining composure under duress is another key.
“I feel really at home on the ground [mat] so being there is kind of calming for me,” Sanders said. “I just try to remember all the techniques I need, and it’s just muscle memory so I’m able to remain pretty calm as I work on technique, so even though you might be getting hit in the face and the other guy is trying to put you away, as long as you stay calm you can fight through it.
“It’s just a chess game back and forth on the ground. You do one thing and see how the other guy reacts, at least that’s how my fights have been.”
And that’s a big message those in the mixed martial arts community are trying to spread, that their sport is not what Sen. John McCain of Arizona once described as “human cockfighting,” but an athletic endeavor that requires both brain and brawn.
“Back when I was fighting we were thought of as barbarians,” said Young, who has been associated with mixed martial arts for more than two decades. “But now we’ve got college graduates fighting and a lot of guys who are in college who are fighting, these are smart guys. And as more people get to watch it, they’ll see it’s not the barbaric sport that people try to portray it as.
“Is it rough? Of course it is, but in football they’re smashing into each other all the time, a lot of sports have violent elements to them.”
Taking the next step
Sanders and Wood hope to extend their winning streaks at Fight Night 2 against opponents from the Ithaca, N.Y.-based Team BombSquad.
Sanders will face veteran welterweight Mike Winters, 5-2 as a professional.
“He’s never been stopped,” Sanders said. “He’s tough as nails and I believe he’s more of a ground guy like me so I believe it’s going to be a chess match.”
Wood will take on Shane Manley (3-1) in a 150-pound battle, one of 13 amateur contests on the 17-bout card.
“He’s a pretty good boxer and has had some good boxing experience so I think his strength is his hands,” Wood said of Manley. “But he’s very explosive and has a very good ground game as well. I think he’s a very well-rounded fighter and a pretty good matchup for me.”
Wins at Fight Night 2 may lead to headliner status for Sanders and Wood at subsequent regional cards — and who knows, may advance them another step closer to the next level, in Wood’s case to professional status and for Sanders perhaps a call-up to one of the mixed martial arts franchises that lurk in the shadows of the UFC such as Bellator and Strikeforce.
“Ryan and Ray are knocking on that door,” Young said. “There have been some guys in the New England area who were in shows just under the UFC level and we were trying to get matchups with them, and I think we would have done well against them.
“With the way they work and the team they’ve got behind them, it’s not an impossibility. I know they’re going to get there.”