Ryan Sanders was one of New England’s busier mixed martial arts competitors during the past decade, fighting in 27 bouts between 2011 and 2018.
Perhaps he was too busy.
An 18-9 record in the highly competitive lightweight (155-pound) division reflected success for Sanders, an Etna native now living in Bangor, but not enough in the way of professional advancement.
So not long after a second-round stoppage of New Yorker Jacob Bohn in the main event of a New England Fights card in Portland on Nov. 17, 2018, Sanders stepped away from the sport.
“Life really got in the way and then COVID happened and all the promotions started shutting down,” he said. “I was just mentally and physically burnt out from the sport. I felt like I was doing everything right but I was getting nowhere and I just needed a break.”
Break time is over for the 34-year-old Sanders, who will return to the cage for the first time in 3 ½ years Saturday night when he faces Portland’s Mark Gardner (2-2) in a welterweight clash as part of “NEF 47: The Battle for L/A,” the promotion’s first show at the Norway Savings Bank Arena in Auburn.
A sold-out crowd of 2,000 is anticipated for the 17-fight card.
“This is a good fight for me,” Sanders said. “Mark is a tough kid, but I think I have way more tools in my toolbox than he does, and I’ve swam with the big sharks before, that’s where I love to be.”
This marks the first fight in the 6-foot-1 Sanders’ permanent transition from lightweight to the 170-pound welterweight ranks.
“I’m stronger and bigger now,” he said. “I tell people jokingly that I won’t see 155 again until I’m on my deathbed. With my frame I’m a welterweight now.”
Sanders began fighting professionally in 2011 and steadily fought his way into the upper echelon of MMA fighters in the Northeast, in part through a willingness to accept the challenge of virtually anyone put in his way.
The earlier stages of his career produced some notable victories, including a stoppage of former Maine UFC fighter Marcus Davis in 2014.
But he also absorbed defeats to some high-profile national-level opponents such as Bellator’s Michael “Venom” Page and one-time UFC “The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil” contestant Gil de Freitas, twice.
So even with eight wins in his last nine fights before stepping away from the sport and then seeing the MMA world go on hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic, Sanders was unable to experience the upward mobility from regional to national competition.
Sanders spent more than a year away from virtually any sort of formal MMA training but ultimately found that he still longed for both the competition and the kinship with others dedicated to the sport.
“I had a tendency in life to never follow things through, and fighting was the only thing that had always been my rock so I wanted to give it one last go to see what I could do,” he said.
“The biggest thing I missed was the camaraderie with my teammates, just grinding with them and being around that atmosphere and joking around and having a ball. I really do love training and being around that energy.”
Sanders returned to that environment last summer at Vision Quest Muay Thai in Newport under veteran MMA coach Primo Bellarosa, and now with more than nine months of training since then with the likes of teammate and highly regarded lightweight Josh Harvey, Sanders believes he is returning to the cage more capable than ever.
“I was a pretty good fighter with basic wrestling and basic striking, and now that I’m at Vision Quest Muay Thai and Primo Bellarosa I feel like I’m even more of a straight killer,” he said. “My wrestling is on point, my striking is getting tighter and crisper and I’m getting more confident with everything.”
Sanders expects to be more selective in his opponents as he restarts his fighting career, though he acknowledges he needs to remain active in his effort to move back up the regional rankings toward national exposure.
“Obviously I haven’t fought in a while so I need to get fights in, but I can’t take fights just to take fights. I’ve got to take smart fights because any setback now would be pretty much the end of my career,” he said.
“Ideally I’d like to fight at least two more times this year to get my name back out there. In this sport it’s what have you done lately and obviously I haven’t done anything so I’ve got to let my fights do the talking.”