It’s tourney time for some of the state’s veteran mixed martial arts combatants.
The semifinals of a four-man tournament designed to crown the next New England Fights pro lightweight champion will serve as the main events for Maine’s first MMA event of the year, NEF 27, on Saturday night at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston.
Four veterans will battle for the right to replace former NEF lightweight champion Devin Powell, who vacated that title when he signed a contract with the Ultimate Fighting Championship after a victory over Jon Lemke in August on the “Dana White: Lookin’ for a Fight” card at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
Those semifinals — part of a card that features seven pro bouts and 15 amateur contests — match Ryan Sanders (12-8) of Young’s MMA in Bangor against Massachusetts native John Ortolani (8-10), now based in Florida, and Auburn’s Jesse Erickson (9-5) against Lemke (5-7) of Team Irish MMA Fitness Academy in Brewer.
“All four of these fighters have gone on their respective runs and are universally regarded within the region as some of the top lightweights in New England,” NEF co-owner and matchmaker Matt Peterson said.
“Any one of these four fighters could advance to the finals and win the championship. That’s what’s so exciting about these matchups — anything can happen.”
Sanders is likely considered the favorite, having won five of his last six bouts, including two for the Rhode Island-based CES MMA before scoring his most recent two victories in the NEF cage against Derrick Kennington and Lemke.
The win over Lemke at NEF 26 in November was a third-round unanimous technical decision, as Sanders was leading on all three judges’ scorecards when the fight was halted after Lemke suffered a deep cut in his head on the cage.
Ortolani, a former professional lacrosse player, has split his last two fights and suffered a third-round loss by knockout in his only 2016 bout against Vince McGuinness last February at Tampa, Florida.
Erickson also is 5-1 since losing back-to-back bouts to former NEF lightweight champion Bruce Boyington, now campaigning with the World Series of Fighting.
Lemke has dropped his last four outings — three of them to Sanders, Powell and Boyington — but the veteran scored a first-round TKO victory over Erickson in each fighter’s second professional bout at Bellator 93 in 2013.
“Sanders has fought for the NEF welterweight title on two separate occasions and come up short, so you know he’s hungry to snatch what’s eluded him for so long,” said Peterson, who plans to stage the NEF lightweight title match later this year. “Erickson has been a perennial contender, fighting and coming up short for the title on three previous occasions.
“John Ortolani is a multi-sport professional athlete, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt who has fought a who’s who of studs across the Northeast for the better part of the last decade. Jon Lemke was 8-0 in mixed martial arts when he started out between his amateur and professional records, so he knows how to win fights.”
Elsewhere on the card, undefeated featherweight prospect Aaron Lacey of Brewer, the 2016 NEF Fighter of the year, will look to scored his fifth straight win since turning pro less than a year ago when he meets Floridian Chris Jacobs, 1-0 in the pro ranks after an 8-3 amateur career.
“Jacobs is coming in from Florida, and he’s big — he’s fought much of his career at lightweight,” Peterson said. “Lacey has been on a roll and shows no signs of stopping anytime soon. It will be interesting to see how Aaron deals with the challenges of a big, powerful guy like Jacobs.”
Other pro fights include a featherweight match between Josh Harvey of Young’s MMA and Richie Collingham, a battle of heavyweights Mike Hansen and Ras Hylton, bantamweight Elias Leland against Nick Santos and Ricky Dexter of Team Irish making his professional debut against Matt Denning in a clash at 160 pounds.
The amateur card is headlined by an NEF light heavyweight title fight as Ryan Glover (3-1) defends against Victor Irwin (2-0) of Young’s MMA. Glover and Irwin are former Maine high school state wrestling champions — Glover at Mountain Valley of Rumford and Irwin at Brewer.