Custom Search

October 12, 2022



Portland, Maine (October 8, 2022)

In the process of building a docket for its golden milestone of 50 cards to punctuate a 10-year anniversary celebration, New England Fights couldn’t find a more fitting personality to put a face near the top of that poster than “The” Ryan Sanders.

Sanders is the most recurring character in that scintillating series. Despite a 3½-year layoff prior to resurrecting his career this past spring, the Bangor native is preparing for his 20th walk to the NEF mixed martial arts hexagon.

It would normally be labeled a crossroads bout: The 35-year-old veteran Sanders (20-9) against 26-year-old rising star Jonathan “War Hawk” Piersma of Waterville, New York. When those highways intersect Saturday, November 12th at Aura in Portland, Maine, however, Piersma may discover that Sanders’ motor is just now reaching full song.

Emboldened by a pair of electrifying first-round stoppages, having tasted defeat only once in his past 11 fights since the summer of 2016, Sanders appears to be climbing to the peak of his career. He sees the NEF professional welterweight title that’s at stake as a gratifying opportunity but also a steppingstone to brighter lights and bigger audiences.

“I know that I have the mental and physical capabilities to thrive in the upper reaches of the sport. I know I have it,” Sanders said. “Everything is coming together right now. This is my last run, and I want to see it all the way through. I know I have the ability to make it. If I keep beating these people up, these regional studs that they put in front of me, they can’t deny me.”

Sanders’ needed only 25 seconds in May to win his comeback fight with a thunderous kick to the head of Mark “Pockets” Gardner at NEF 47: ‘The Battle of L/A.” Two cards and four months later, he thrilled hometown fans with a rear naked choke of Stephen Stengel at NEF 49: “Queen City Showdown.”

Both bouts exhibited the versatile acumen that has blossomed under the tutelage of renowned trainer Primo Bellarosa, now owner of Vision Quest Muay Thai in Newport.

“I’m under a new head coach, probably one of the best coaches in the world. That’s just what I think,” Sanders said. “The guy is just so knowledgeable. He has everything covered. He comes from a striking background, but he grew up wrestling too. He was a stud wrestler, so he knows how to incorporate grappling with a wrestling base instead of BJJ (Brazilian jiu-jitsu), where you tend to go to your back and stuff like that.”

That immersion has baptized new life into a career that began as an amateur all the way back in September 2008. Sanders won that bout and two others before turning professional in Portland at a 2011 MMA card.

Less than a year later, Sanders stood in the spotlight in Lewiston when NEF cut its ribbon, improving to 3-0 as a pro with an armbar against Dan Keefe. His journey has included wins over the likes of Maine legend Marcus Davis, John Ortolani and Jonathan Lemke, yet his willingness to adapt and grow has elevated his craft to an unprecedented level of late.

“Being under a new coach and a new team at Vision Quest Muay Thai, I’m learning so much every single day,” Sanders said. “I’m absorbing new techniques, new knowledge and whatnot. And Primo, even though I’m the pro there, he doesn’t let me slide at all. He’s on everyone’s ass to make sure he’s pushing us every single day, and that’s just helped a lot.”

The change of scenery has given his career, quietly abandoned for a spell after consecutive wins over Vince McGuiness, Armando Montoya and Jacob Bohn at consecutive NEF shows in 2018, a fresh start.

“I’m just in a better place mentally. I’m in a good place mentally because I’m around good people now, so everything’s just clicking for me,” Sanders said. “A little over a year now I’ve been (at Vision Quest), and I’ve just seen leaps and bounds not only in my striking but in my wrestling as well, and in the confidence he’s giving me because of the stuff he’s showing me.”

How does a veteran of soon to be 30 pro fights punch the reset button so easily? Perhaps it is the nature of the sport and its multifaceted disciplines that no one individual can every truly master.

“My mind, I just always need to be fed new knowledge or I get bored, and that’s why I think I love MMA so much,” Sanders said. “You can be doing it your whole life and never absorb everything, just because there’s so much to do. You’ve got the striking, wrestling, grappling, and there’s so much to it. There’s so many levels and layers.”

Sanders’ formative years coincide with the origins of MMA. He gained an appreciation for the sport on the ground floor long before most of us dreamed of becoming involved.

“I was like seven years old, and my dad took me to a local video store back when there were video stores. I saw an old UFC, and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s really cool.’ My dad let me get it. We went home, we watched it, and I was hooked the very first time I saw it,” he recalled. “I’ve always been into athletics and stuff like that, but I never liked team sports. Then high school I started backyard boxing with my buddies, and then it just steamrolled from there. I went to the gym and started training, fell in love immediately and just enjoyed it ever since.”

That childlike fascination and faith remains alive and well as Sanders continues to chase his aspirations against significantly younger opponents.

Experience gives him insight into what to expect from Piersma, who bounced back from a split decision loss with a guillotine choke of TJ Welch in July. Piersma also has split a pair of grappling bouts this year.

“I expect him to come out, touch gloves and then shoot immediately. He's a strong kid. He's a strong grappler, but his stroking is mediocre at best on his good days,” Sanders said. “He's definitely a game opponent. He's strong as an ox. He's a grappler through and through, so I don't see him trying to stand with me at all, especially knowing that I come out of one of the best striking gyms in New England.”

Sanders left no doubt when asked what his fans should expect from the fight.

“Just prepare to watch his soul be snatched,” he said. “I want to snatch his soul. It’s only a matter of time. I have 25 minutes to take it. Eventually I’ll make his voice chirp, and that belt’s coming back to Newport.”

While his ultimate goal is a date with a worldwide promotion – Sanders briefly had an audience with UFC president Dana White in his “Looking for a Fight” series for his unanimous decision win over Derrick Kennington – having that NEF strap around his waist would carry special meaning in this milestone campaign.

“If it wasn’t for (NEF co-owners) Matt (Peterson) and Nick (DiSalvo), I wouldn’t have a career,” Sanders said. “They’ve helped me out so much. They always promise and come through with the promises of getting me fights and keeping me busy, NEF has put New England MMA on the map. A lot of studs have come out of there, and they still have prospects coming through. Without Matt and Nick, I wouldn’t be dog shit, so I owe them a lot.”

Opening bell time for NEF 50 at Aura is set for 7 p.m. on Saturday, November 12. Tickets are available now at




✅ Use my referral link for to sign up for and we both get $25 USD :)

✅ Donate to our Paypal to support the site!