Ryan Sanders of Bucksport, pictured prior to a mixed martial arts bout in August 2017, returns to the cage on Saturday for the “NEF 35: Wicked Season” show at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Credit: Bangor Daily News

Ryan Sanders enjoys performing for familiar fans.

“There’s nothing better than fighting in your hometown,” said the 31-year-old Sanders, who will battle Armando Montoya as part of Saturday night’s “NEF 35: Wicked Season” mixed martial arts show at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.

“I remember fighting Derrick Kennington here two years ago, and every time I landed any combo, even if it wasn’t pretty, the crowd went nuts and it made me feel like I was Superman. I feed off that.”

The welterweight (170-pound) clash with Montoya will mark Sanders’ third bout in the city where he lives and trains at Young’s MMA.

While he’s won both previous Queen City encounters — a decision over Kennington two years ago at “NEF Presents Dana White: Lookin’ for a Fight” and a submission of journeyman Jay Ellis last year — Sanders would prefer to be involved in a bout that would enhance his pursuit of upward mobility within the sport.

Yet it appears he’s a victim of some scheduling naivete early in his pro career and his own success more recently.

Sanders was eager to take on all comers early in his pro career, including Maine legend Marcus Davis (a victory), Bellator veteran Michael Page and former CES MMA standout Gil de Freitas (twice), but by the end of 2014 his 7-7 record was less than attractive to major promotions.

“When I started fighting, I got thrown to the wolves. We didn’t take hand-picked fights. We got offered a name, I took it and fought win or lose, and I fought them with a very basic skill set at the time and these guys were top 10 in New England,” Sanders said. “I fought a lot of them just on heart, they were technically better.

“But now my skill set has vastly improved, but I’m being held back by the fact that I didn’t take the easy route and fought anybody and everybody.”

Coinciding with the maturation of the 6-foot Sanders’ MMA skill set was a decision to shift his focus from the welterweight ranks to the lightweight (155-pound) division. Since then he’s 9-2 and lost just once as a lightweight — in a fight he took on a week’s notice against an opponent fresh from a three-fight stint in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.

Sanders (16-9) now is ranked among the top New England lightweights, but instead of having a long list of opponents awaiting his challenge, his cellphone is largely silent even when he occasionally takes to social media to call out a potential opponent.

“I want to take fights that move me up the ladder, and right now we’re having a tough time finding opponents that are willing to come up here because they know what will happen,” he said. “I know I’m the best fighter at 155 in New England, and it’s just hard to prove when no one wants to fight me.”

Sanders said he has had offers to fight for New Jersey-based promotions as a welterweight but sees his path to career heights in the lightweight division, which may soon require him to travel to gain the exposure needed to interest national promotions.

“It’s hard regionally, especially a guy in Maine trying to make some noise because no one really pays attention up here,” he said. “All I can do is keep winning and eventually one of the promotions, whether it be Bellator or the UFC or the Professional Fighters League, will make a mistake and give me a short-notice fight hoping for me to lose and I won’t. I just need an opportunity, and when it shows itself I’m going to take full advantage of it.”

Sanders will fight out of necessity as a welterweight for the second time in three bouts this year when he takes on Montoya, who at 10-6 will return to the cage for the first time in 18 months due to family and work commitments.

A union carpenter by trade, the 6-foot-3 Montoya fought primarily in California, Colorado and New Mexico before moving to Maine where his mother-in-law resides.

“I’ve fought the top local guys wherever I’ve been my whole career. I fought against guys who wound up fighting for UFC or Strikeforce,” he said. “I’m 38, which I know is pretty old in this business, but I still like to challenge myself. It’s become more like a hobby. I have to work and support my family, but when the opportunities have come up, I love to train and give it a shot.”

As for Sanders, the fight against the veteran Montoya provides him the chance to remain active while playing his waiting game.

“He keeps me busy, and at this point in my career that’s all I can do,” Sanders said. “It gives me a chance to show everyone that I’m continuing to improve.

“If I keep chipping away they can’t deny me. That’s my mindset.”

Weigh-ins Friday

NEF 35 weigh-ins are scheduled for 2 p.m. Friday at the Sea Dog Brewing Co., 26 Front St., Bangor.

The weigh-ins are free and open to the public, and all of the competitors on Saturday’s card will be present. The weigh-ins also will stream live on the “New England Fights” Facebook page.

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...