The history of the New England Fights professional lightweight championship indicates that the guy with the belt usually doesn’t hold it for long. That’s because it is his ticket to fights in a larger arena, surrounded by more television cameras.
Ryan Sanders and Jonathan Lemke hope to continue that trend by winning the 155-pound belt at “NEF 28: Invincible” on Saturday night at Androscoggin Bank Colisee.
Five pro bouts and five amateur tussles are on the docket, which is slated for an opening bell of 7 p.m.
Three men have previously captured the title, only to vacate it in short order when the upper echelon of mixed martial arts promotions came calling. Dez Green (Bellator), Bruce Boyington (World Series of Fighting) and Devin Powell (Ultimate Fighting Championship) all took the proverbial “next step,” in part by claiming the title Sanders and Lemke are in line to win.
“As a fight fan, I couldn’t be more excited for Saturday’s showdown between Sanders and Lemke,” NEF co-owner and matchmaker Matt Peterson said. “Both fighters have been with NEF since the beginning, but that history isn’t enough for either of them. Despite their rich athletic accomplishments, both of them are still driven to be immortalized in the lineage of the NEF lightweight title. It sets up what it sure to be an epic showdown in the Colisee this weekend.”
Sanders defeated Lemke just last November, in a bout that stopped prematurely in the third round due to a deep cut on Lemke’s head. By the unified rules of MMA, the issue went to the scorecards, where Sanders was declared a unanimous winner.
The road to a rematch was paved by Powell’s signing of a UFC deal after his win last summer at the “Dana White Lookin’ for a Fight” taping in Bangor. NEF then named Sanders and Lemke semifinalists in a four-man tournament to produce a new champion.
Both won by first-round stoppage in February. Sanders took out John Ortolani, while Lemke handled Jesse Erickson.
“Jon is a tough opponent, but I’m the better fighter,” Sanders said. “I want it more, and I put in more work than anyone. I get my confidence from my training, and I know I’ll be ready.”
Sanders (13-8) has won six of his last seven fights. Lemke (6-7) is one of many top-flight opponents in that surge.
“I truly believe that this fight could headline any card in the world, and NEF fans are not going to want to miss this one,” Lemke said. “It will be a great battle and one that I very much look forward to.”
Local fight fans will have plenty of rooting interest on the card. Mountain Valley High School seniors Caleb Austin and Eddie DeRoche are scheduled to compete in amateur bouts, and pro mainstay Matt Denning of Auburn is in the mix.
Austin, a two-time Class B state wrestling champion and member of the elite 200-win club on the mat, makes his 125-pound debut in the cage against New Hampshire’s James Ploss.
His father, Eric, was undefeated in two NEF appearances back in 2012.
“I’ve wrestled by entire life and grown up around the NEF community,” Austin said. “I’ve been waiting a long time to turn 18 to become eligible to compete in the sport of mixed martial arts like my father did. I’m excited to put my skills to the test, represent Rumford and put on a show.”
DeRoche also owns a deep wrestling background and has a previous MMA bout to his credit. He’ll pursue his first win against Ken Dunn of Buckfield in a 150-pound scrap.
Although a state wrestling title proved elusive, DeRoche won more than 100 schoolboy matches in his own right.
“My first fight was a great learning experience,” DeRoche said. “I appreciated it for what it was and have made the necessary adjustments to make sure I come out on top.”
Denning (3-6) and Josh Parker (5-8) each have a win over Derek Shorey to their credit and have been on a collision course at the 145-pound threshold for some time.
“I thought the fight made sense,” Denning said. “We both have had a lot of fights against very tough fighters.”
Shorey wasn’t planning to fight this time around, but a family emergency put him back in the gym with renewed purpose.
Four of his children and their mother lost everything to a fire in Somersworth, New Hampshire. Part of Shorey’s motivation for fighting Josh Harvey is held with fundraising to get the family back on its feet.
“As luck would have it, a spot opened up,” Shorey said. “I believe everything happens for a reason, and I still have a lot of fight left in me, especially when my heart gets involved.”
In another amateur highlight, former pro basketball player Josh Jones, an Erskine Academy and Husson University graduate, will make his MMA debut against Sean Worcester.
Story lines and personal challenges abound.
“There’s nothing more exciting in Maine right now than an NEF card,” Peterson said. “We feature the most dynamic athletes in combat sports, and this weekend will be no different.”
Tickets start at $25 and are available at www.TheColisee.com or by calling the Colisee box office at 207.783.2009, extension 525.