The start of the new year in Maine’s mixed martial arts scene just got a bit more interesting with Monday’s announcement that Bangor’s Marcus “The Irish Hand Grenade” Davis will take on Brewer’s “The” Ryan Sanders in a welterweight bout on Saturday, Feb. 8.
The battle between the two Eastern Maine rivals will take place as part of NEF XII, a show being hosted by the New England Fights promotion at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston.
“For followers of Maine mixed martial arts, there’s no bigger bout that we could make right now,” said NEF co-owner and promoter Nick DiSalvo. “This matchup is a nuclear bomb.”
Davis, the former Ultimate Fighting Championship contender with a 22-10 professional record, is coming off a first-round loss to Alexander “Tiger” Sarnavskiy on Sept. 27 as part of the Bellator MMA lightweight tournament.
Sanders, 5-4, returned from a knee injury that sidelined him earlier this year with a second-round victory via armbar over Rashaun Spencer at NEF X in Lewiston on Sept. 21.
The bout figures to feature plenty of emotion given the sometimes stormy history between the combatants, beginning in 2006 when Sanders began training at Davis’ Team Irish MMA Fitness Academy in Brewer.
While training under Davis, Sanders also was working with a former training partner of Davis’, Chris Young, at nearby Young’s MMA. But after nearly five years of working with both schools Sanders moved fully to Young’s MMA in 2011, sparking what has been a continuing rift between the state’s two biggest MMA gyms.
The relationship grew more heated in September 2012 when Sanders fought for the Maine MMA welterweight championship at NEF VI against Brazilian Gil de Freitas — with Davis working in de Freitas’ corner.
De Freitas won a unanimous decision, and after the judges’ scorecards were read members of the two corners sparred verbally until being escorted out of the cage under the watchful eye of representatives from the Maine Combat Sports Authority.
“Normally you take fights that you have no emotional connection and nothing at stake other than a win or a loss,” said the 40-year-old Davis. “In this case, it’s a classic student versus former instructor … [and] also competing against our main competition in our area.
“I have the most at stake here. Sanders is supposed to lose. I’m a 22-year professional fight vet with 15 appearances in the UFC. I own my gym; he is just another student at Young’s. This fight affects not only my pride, but my business. I can’t just ‘get the win’ against Sanders. I have to knock him out or submit him quickly.”
The 29-year-old Sanders sees this bout as an opportunity to regain some of the momentum he had early in his professional MMA career when he won his first three bouts and four of his first five fights.
“Fighting Marcus is the biggest opportunity of my fighting career and I will not let it slip through my hands,” he said. “You will see the best Ryan Sanders that anyone has ever seen come February 8. It’s an honor to fight him and it’s my time.”
NEF officials are hopeful the bout will help get the promotion’s third year of staging MMA bouts in Maine off to an explosive start.
“Marcus Davis made the decision over two decades ago to devote his life to competing and teaching martial arts,” said NEF co-owner and matchmaker Matt Peterson. “He is a fighter in every facet of his lifestyle and literally gave young, upcoming mixed martial artists their start — including Ryan Sanders himself.
“Marcus’ legacy is solidified and now we get to witness whether Ryan is the next breed of Maine fighter with the potential to make it big and go on to a long, storied career in combat sports.”