FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Portland, Maine (June 28, 2023)
A primary motivational mantra in the life and career of “The” Ryan Sanders, one recently added to his sprawling canvas of skin art, is “evolve or die.”
It’s advice he took to heart seven years ago in his professional mixed martial arts career and parlayed into 10 wins in 11 fights, punctuated with five consecutive wins by stoppage.
Sanders now finds himself at a similar crossroads after a November decision loss to a smothering wrestler, Jonathan Piersma, an outcome Sanders ascribes more to what he didn’t accomplish than anything his opponent did.
“That was a sucker punch. That was a real sucker punch to the gut. Not that he actually hit me in the gut or hit me at all,” Sanders said in a recent interview with Ryan Jarrell on the “Between Rounds Radio” podcast. “But his wrestling, he had a great game plan, man. He took me to my weakness. I thought my wrestling had gotten better.”
Never one to avoid a challenge to his status or his skill set, Sanders (20-10), based in Bangor, Maine and fighting out of Vision Quest Muay Thai in nearby Pittsfield, is poised to tackle another test that doesn’t exactly look tailor-made for his repertoire.
The New England Fights pioneer will encounter Ali “V.I.P.” Zebian (9-3) in “NEF 53: American Valor,” set for Saturday, July 8 at historic, picturesque Merrill Auditorium in Portland, Maine.
It’s a matchup that will make for a memorable weigh-in photo: The lean, rangy, six-foot Sanders posed across from Zebian, a relative tank at 5-foot-6.
“I love it. He’s a little sparkplug. He and I if you look at the photos are built identical,” Sanders quipped. “He’s got decent striking. I know he has a wrestling background, so on paper he almost looks like my Achilles’ heel, a rugged fuck who can wrestle. I think he likes to strike. Everyone says like they like to strike with me until they start striking with me, and then they all become fucking stud grapplers.”
Sanders still feels the sting from the NEF title bout loss to Piersma, who made good on the scouting report that indicated he would try to take the fight to the canvas and keep it there.
“It was kind of on me,” Sanders said. “I allowed that mindset of grappling and trying to fight off my back, which I did early in my career, and I ended up losing that way. That’s why most of my losses are to grapplers who can just hold me down.”
Piersma handed Sanders his first defeat since a unanimous decision loss to Jon Manley in March 2018. To find the other most recent time Sanders didn’t have his hand raised at night’s end, it required a trip back to June 2016, when he went the distance with Levan Makashvili.
All but two of Sanders’ pro losses have gone to the judges’ scorecards.
“It sucks. It was a gut punch, but I feel like this game is kind of a journey, and if you don’t learn from your mistakes then you’re kind of fucked,” Sanders said. “It was a good learning lesson. It made me realize I still have holes that I’ve got to work on.”
Despite his belief that the fight would have ended differently if he had been more earnest about forcing the action, Sanders, who is trained by the legendary Primo Bellarosa, was careful to give Piersma props.
“He was legit. He was a fucking stud. I’ll give him that,” Sanders said. “He can’t fucking throw hands though. He was a stud wrestler. He was strong, too. He had really good wrestling hips. He did a good job just holding me the fuck down.”
Although it was a convincing decision in the eyes of many observers, Sanders didn’t say no to a hypothetical rematch.
“I wouldn’t mind that. The thing is with grappling, in order to execute my game, I need a guy to actually move. Grappling is all about feeling your opponent’s movements and shit like that and creating space,” Sanders said. “That motherfucker did not want to move at all. That’s why it was frustrating. He did not want to move or give me any space. He just wanted to hold me there, you know? It was kind of shitty, so yeah, I’d love to run that shit back.”
Sanders learned valuable lessons about allowing his opponent to dictate the flow of a fight that he hopes to put into practice against Zebian.
“Unfortunately, I’m wired as a grappler first, so even though I know, hey, stop this takedown. I knew what (Piersma) was doing. He fucking shot in,” Sanders said. “I stopped the first one. You watch. Almost every initial shot, I stuffed. Then it was an agreement of letting him get into his next move and me not shutting that shit down. It was mostly on me. I didn’t show up. I didn’t hit the shit I knew I needed to hit.”
More than a decade of experience in the smaller NEF cage might have given Sanders the edge over a much younger opponent.
Instead, Piersma furnished those tight quarters as his own home away from home.
“That’s one of the things Primo and I talked about immediately after is that cage is set up for grapplers,” Sanders said. “You take three steps forward, you’re in the middle. You take three steps backward, your back’s against the cage. It’s geared towards the grappler.”
The end result was humbling for the self-assured Sanders, who in addition to his fighting acumen is willing to stack up his ability to talk smack and hype an upcoming fight against anyone.
“We talked real quick. I just congratulated him and whatnot and said great job, you’re a stud and keep doing your thing,” Sanders said. “That’s what I love about this sport is you can say whatever you want, but at the end of the day you have a chance to punch a guy in the face. Obviously, I’m gonna talk shit leading up to a fight, because that’s fucking fun for me. I think it’s hilarious. Also, it’s a mental thing. I talked shit and he talked a little, but he backed it up more, so tip to the cap to him.”
Now Sanders turns his full attention to Zebian, who shifted gears on short notice after a scheduled summer fight against Mark “Pockets” Gardner fell by the boards.
Sanders memorably floored Gardner with a vicious head kick only 25 seconds into their bout back in May 2022.
“We’ll see what happens. I’m gonna put hands, knees, elbows on him and some shins, and I assume he’s probably gonna shoot in,” Sanders said. “He was scheduled to fight Pockets, so I think whatever game plan he had for Pockets, he’s probably gonna try to carry it over to me. I just think I’m a lot better version of Pockets. That’s why I think they took this fight is because they had a similar opponent, so they could just switch over whatever their game plan was. But everybody’s got a game plan until they get punched in the teeth.”
Based on the weigh-in for their most recent bouts – 168 and 156, respectively – Sanders could have a significant advantage on fight night after both men break camp and rehydrate.
Sanders’ walk-around weight these days is approaching 200 pounds.
“He’s short and big. He’s rugged as fuck. This guy’s got muscles where you aren’t even supposed to have muscles. It’s not even fair. He’s like the guy I would want to be if I was lifting heavy. But I’m built like a fighter. He’s built like a sparkplug. Same weight, man. It makes no sense,” Sanders said. “I was 193 when I took the fight. That was after my birthday weekend, so I had a couple Bud Lights and whatnot. When I signed the contract I was 187, but that was after a good sweat. I’ll see 155 again on my death bed. That’s the next time I’ll see that.”
In addition to the difference in their physiques, one common opponent on the fighters’ ledger has caught Sanders’ attention.
Sanders took out Jacob Bohn by doctor stoppage in the second round back in November 2018, whereas just this past March, Bohn dealt Zebian his most recent defeat by guillotine choke in the third round.
“I just watched that fight. In all seriousness, Bohn’s actually built similar to me. He’s six-foot. I’m 6-1. Bohn would come in aggressively, but he’d come in aggressively with his hands down, and Ali would just counter real quick and stuff like that. But (Bohn) was giving him fits on the outside,” Sanders said. “Ali was winning that fight overall, but I think he gassed out. If I’m not mistaken I think I have a few guillotine wins on my resume too, so we’ll see what happens if he brings his neck in there.”
The loss to Bohn stopped a seven-fight winning streak that included a split decision over UFC veteran Peter Barrett.
It was Barrett who knocked out Mohammad Al Kinani earlier this year. By standing across the cage from Zebian, Sanders hasn’t changed his career-long pattern of taking the best available opponent.
“Every next fight’s your toughest fight, but he obviously has the credentials. He’s 9-3. He’s been in there with some tough guys. It’s a good matchup,” Sanders said. “He’s legitimate, and that’s what I’ve always wanted, I need someone legitimate to get me hyped up and bring out the best version of me. The fact that he is legitimate makes me want to beat his ass.”
Sanders predicted that he will deal Zebian a second-round TKO and headline a gaggle of what is expected to be four Vision Quest fighters on the card.
“The fact that the fight gods are letting me go to war with my boys, it’s nice. We’re all chasing the same thing, We’re going through the camp together,” he said. “I’ve been holding out hope to get a fight, so I’ve been in camp the last four weeks anyways, because I was hoping that fight was gonna happen, and luckily it did come to fruition, So I’ve been right there grinding with these guys.
“We roll deep at Vision Quest. We’re a bunch of bad fucking dudes. We’re not even a team. We’re a fucking, goddamn family. We’re just all on the same page. We’re there for one another, and it starts with Primo. He cultivates a family-type atmosphere, and it just trickles down. It’s one of the best places I’ve ever been a part of. It’s incredible.”
Sanders believes a victory will restart the momentum he owned before the frustrating result last time out.
“Ideally, I’d like to make it to any one of those. I feel like if I make it to either Bellator, PFL (Professional Fighters League) or UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), it’s a legitimate career. Or even if I don’t, I feel like I had a pretty solid regional career,” Sanders said. “I had some tough breaks and whatnot, but I feel like my credentials are good enough to get me at least one fight in Bellator or PFL just to let ‘em know I’m one of the best fighters in New England right now. I’d like a chance to prove that, but obviously I’ve got to beat guys like Piersma and shit like that, so it is what it is.”
“NEF 53: American Valor” is scheduled for Saturday, July 8 with an opening bell time of 7 p.m. as the blood, sweat and adrenaline of mixed martial arts take center stage where classical music, opera, contemporary dance and Broadway theater have long reigned supreme. Tickets are available at www.porttix.com.