BANGOR, Maine — “The” Ryan Sanders has proven to be a fan favorite as he has carved out a 4-1 record during his professional mixed martial arts career.
Soon he’ll have the chance to fight for a championship.
Sanders, an Etna native now living in Brewer, is set to take on former Ultimate Fighting Championship competitor Ricardo Funch on Sept. 8 at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston for the newly created New England Fights Maine MMA welterweight (170-pound limit) title.
The bout will be one of the feature matches of Fight Night IV, the latest in a series of MMA cards promoted by the New England Fights promotion.
“Having the chance to fight for a title is always a goal for any fighter,” said Sanders, who trains at Young’s MMA in Bangor. “It’s a big deal for me, having the chance to fight for a title in my home state and hopefully taking another step in the right direction.”
The Sanders-Funch clash will be one of two championship matches scheduled to highlight the Fight Night IV card. Two former Maine high school wrestling champions, Jesse Peterson of Mountain Valley of Rumford and Cody Lightfoot of Marshwood of South Berwick, will vie for the NEF middleweight (185-pound) crown.
Peterson and Lightfoot, who wrestled each other during their high school days, each has a professional MMA record of 6-3.
Also scheduled at Fight Night IV are two semifinals for the NEF lightweight (155-pound) title, with Bruce Boyington (2-2-1) of Brewer facing Sanford’s Tony Woodman (2-6) and Josh Parker (3-4) from Littlefield’s Gym in Oakland taking on Windham native Jaime Harrison (3-1).
The creation of championship fights within the promotion is the latest effort by New England Fights to increase the popularity of mixed martial arts in the state. Already NEF has staged three Fight Night cards this year, with previous Lewiston cards in February and June each drawing 3,000 fans while a third card held at the Biddeford Ice Arena in April attracted a near-sellout crowd of 1,600.
“We wanted to get a few shows under our belt and give guys a chance to develop into contenders organically within the promotion,” said Matt Peterson, a state representative from Rumford who is the co-owner and matchmaker of New England Fights. “And as the fans have become familiar with some of the fighters, we’ve gotten feedback from them saying they want to see title fights.”
Mixed martial arts includes competition in eight weight classes from 125 pounds through heavyweight, and Peterson said plans are in the works to eventually crown champions in each division.
“We plan to fill all the other weight classes,” he said, “but right now we want to put an emphasis on the classes where there is a lot of in-state talent.”
Sanders rebounded from a narrow-decision loss at Fight Night II in Biddeford with a second-round victory over Ray Shawdee of Lowell, Mass., at Fight Night III in Lewiston on June 16.
His next opponent also is from Lowell, Mass., though Funch figures to be a much tougher test. Funch (8-4) has lost four of his last five fights, but all four of those losses came in the top-tier UFC and he remains the No. 2-ranked pro welterweight in the Northeast by NortheastMMA.net.
“It will be a really tough fight,” said the ninth-ranked Sanders, who this week began an eight-week training camp leading up to the bout. “It will be the biggest fight of my career so far; it will show me where I’m at.
“If I can beat him, it will tell me that I’m ready for the next step.”