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NEF 53 Sanders vs. Zebian: The Preview

Travis Lizotte "Full Contact Writer"

New England Fights returns to Portland, Maine this Saturday night, July 8th and for the first time since NEF 42: Symphony of Destruction, the NEF Hexagon resides inside the hallowed walls of the Merrill Auditorium. Built in 1912 the Merrill Auditorium has been the longtime home to The Portland Symphony Orchestra, ballet and opera performances and the Kotzschmar Memorial Organ. This Saturday night Matt Peterson and Nick DiSalvo continue to celebrate our nation's Independence with a Symphony of their very own, when they present; New England Fights 53; American Valor. Headlining the performance at NEF 53; a Welterweight showdown for the ages as "The" Ryan Sanders (20-10, Vision Quest) welcomes "V.I.P." Ali Zebian (9-3, Underground MMA) to the NEF cage for the very first time.

A high profile Main Event here pits two of the more successful Mixed Martial Artists still fighting within the New England Region against one another. Sanders' successes are nothing new to the New England Fights fans, winner of 15 of his 21 fights under the NEF banner, including 13 finishes inside the hexagon "The" Ryan Sanders is a shew-in for a spot on the promotions Mount Rushmore. Sanders will be looking for a strong bounce back performance at NEF 53, as he hopes to put a tough Decision loss to Jon Piersma at NEF 50 for the NEF Welterweight Championship behind him Saturday night, when he meets another tough customer in Ali Zebian.

Westfield, Massachusetts' "V.I.P." Ali Zebian had his personal five fight win streak snapped last time out when he succumbed to a third round Guillotine from New York's Jacob Bohn (13-10) in March. Zebian appeared to be on the cusp of the next level, and still could very well be there, prior to his upset defeat to Bohn. Having defeated the likes of Peter Barrett, Dylan Salvador and Aaron Blackie over the last two years, Zebian could be a highlight reel finish of Ryan Sanders away from a call. Needless to say there will be a lot riding on the Welterweight main event Saturday night as the pin drops on these two New England MMA veterans.

Following his first round Guillotine of Zach Faulkner at NEF 52 to claim the vacant NEF Amateur Lightweight Championship; Wakefield, Massachusetts' Artur Minev (Pro Debut, Defensive Edge) declared that he was ready to make the leap to the professional ranks. Less than two months later, Minev will do just that, in the very same cage that saw him crowned Amateur Champion, Artur will make his pro debut against NEF mainstay; Matt "Ken Doll" Denning (8-18, Denning's MMA). Denning's last appearance in the NEF cage saw him end a heated rivalry with Carl Langston, quickly, via first round Rear Naked Choke. Denning would go on to drop his next two contests before returning to the NEF cage this Saturday night looking to make Artur Minev's pro debut an unwelcomed one in the Lightweight co-main event at NEF 53.

Speaking of pro debuts, we have a pair of Welterweights making their pro debuts in our next contest as 35 year old Chris "Light Horse" Lee (1-0 as an amateur, Lee Brothers MMA), who, along with his brother Mike, owns and operates Lee Brother MMA in Fort Wayne, Indiana makes his NEF debut. Lee Brothers MMA has sent several fighters to the NEF cage over the past several events, and this time they send one of their leaders; as Chris Lee makes his professional debut against James Lawson (0-2 as an amateur, The Relentless Bunch MMA). Florida's Lawson competed three time as an Amateur in 2022, twice in MMA and once in Kickboxing, Lawson turns pro Saturday night against Lee as he looks for his first taste of combat sports victory.

Nostos MMA's Kyle "PoofDaGod" Pufahl (5-1) was a force in the Lightweight division here in New England as an Amateur, winning five of six bouts and capturing two regional belts along the way. One of those regional title just happened to come under the New England Fights banner, as he defeated Ed David (2-1) by decision at NEF 51 in Bangor this February to become the NEF Amateur Lightweight Champion. Poof hangs up his two amateur straps Saturday night when he punches his professional ticket against Tymar "The Marksman" Miles (0-1). Miles made his pro debut last November at NEF 50 where he was dismantled by top New England Lightweight Mo Al Kinani (5-2) inside two minutes. Miles returns here at NEF 53, staring down yet another New England Lightweight prospect; Kyle Pufahl at a Catchweight of 165 pounds.

Flyweight sensation Tyler "Butter Knife" Smythe (2-1, Evolution Athletix) returns to the NEF cage for the first time as a professional. As an amateur Smythe would capture and defend the NEF Flyweight strap before fighting outside of the NEF promotion for the last year. Since NEF fans last saw Smythe he has turned pro, which began with dominance securing two Rear Naked Choke finishes in his first two professional contests. Tyler then stepped up to fight former Ultimate Fighter contestant Mitch Raposo (8-1) in May, where the Evolution product would be handed his first professional defeat. Smythe wastes no time in his efforts to right the ship as he returns to action here at NEF 53 against BKFC veteran Paul Walters (0-1) in a Bantamweight affair. Walters has had a tough introduction to the professional levels in combat sports, still looking to taste victory after 5 bouts in three separate disciplines. Saturday night he meets a hungry Smythe in an MMA contest, and that will be no easy task.

Massachusetts Flyweight Phenom and Lauzon MMA product Joe Poirier (2-0) makes his highly anticipated New England Fights debut at NEF 53 looking to remain unblemished as a professional. Poirier has turned in back to back first round stoppages since first punching his professional ticket in March of this year. Saturday night Poirier will look to add Orlando "One Shot" Ortega (2-2) to his list of victims, as he continues his ascent up the New England MMA Flyweight ladder. The New Yorker Ortega reeled off back to back wins in 2022 after dropping his first two professional bouts albiet to two absolute studs in Cody Law (7-2) and Cody Linne (6-1). Ortega could ultimately pose the first true test of Poirier's young career, as he has tested himself against some elite competition in the past. Poirier will need to overcome Ortega's advantage in experience and rely on the skills he has honed on the mats at Lauzon MMA to carry him to his third professional victory. Ortega at a Catchweight of 130 pounds should be a good barometer of where Poirier's career could be headed.

Update as of Thursday night Poirier vs. Ortega has been scrapped, confirmed by a post on Joe Poirier's social media:

In the final Professional contest on the NEF 53 bill Saturday evening Nostos MMA's Kyle "Silent" Hill (4-0 as an Amateur) turns in his 4-0 Amateur record and his NEF and Cage Wars Amateur Welterweight titles as he makes his pro debut against New York's Cornelius Williams (Pro Debut). Williams comes to NEF as a virtual unknown and teammate to Tymar Miles, who happens to fight Hill's teammate (at Nostos MMA) later on in the card. Williams is going to have all he can handle standing across from him in the NEF cage when the pin drops on his encounter with Kyle Hill in the Welterweight division. I don't see this one ending without Hill ultimately getting his hand raised and improving to 1-0 as a professional.

The NEF 53 amateur card is highlighted by two Featherweight Championship bouts, first up the vacant Women's 145 pound title will be on the line as Central Maine BJJ's Cassidy Bedard (2-0) welcomes Kelsey Ivers (3-3, Lee Brothers MMA) to the NEF cage for the very first time. Bedard was supposed to fight Ivers' teammate Sarai Knapp at NEF 52 for this very same title but the bout fizzled. Bedard gets a second chance at romance here when she squares off with Indiana's Ivers in a Featherweight title fight scheduled for five, three minute rounds. Bedard is unblemished in the NEF cage, with her most recent victory coming via first round submission over Lindsey Kelley at NEF 50. Ivers has landed finishes in all three of her career wins, last time out Kelsey lost a decision to the very same Lindsey Kelley in Indiana. This is an interesting match up between two finishers as these two women throw down for the NEF strap.

Also being contested at a fight weight of 145 pounds, Bedard's teammate at Central Maine BJJ; Brandon Maillet-Fevens (4-3) throws down with Evolution Athletix' Brawler Teddy Politis (5-1) for the vacant NEF Amateur Featherweight title. For Maillet-Fevens he is getting his second shot at the elusive NEF Featherweight belt after succumbing to a second round TKO at the hands of Nathaniel Grimard at NEF 44 for the also then vacant belt. BAMF returned to the winners circle last time out in Bangor at NEF 51 with a second round submission of Johnny Milligan. This time Maillet-Fevens locks horns with the red hot Teddy Politis for the coveted strap. Politis is on a current three fight win streak, including a second round knockout of Aaron Rodriguez at NEF 50. If Politis can extend that streak to four wins Saturday night he will capture his second regional crown and his first in the Featherweight division.

Twelve more Amateur contests round out the NEF 53 fight card Saturday night and here is a quick look at some of the intriguing match ups: Titan Athletics' David McCarty (1-3) drops down from Heavyweight to meet Ascension Athletics' Logan Bond (1-2) who bumps up from Middleweight as these two look for their second career victories in the Light-Heavyweight Division.

Choi Institute's Qasim Abdulla (2-0) makes his third straight NEF start after turning in decision victories over Julian Menjivar and Alex Morris at NEF 51 and 52 respectively. Abdulla looks to remain unblemished over former Marshwood High School Wrestling standout Matt Jenkins who makes his Amateur debut out of Nostos MMA.

Speaking of former Maine State Wrestling standouts; Mountain Valley High School grad Evrit Roy (1-0, First Class MMA) looks for his second amateur victory when he meets talented KTA Nashua striker Mike Jolicoeur (2-2) at a Catchweight of 150 pounds.

Evolution Athletix teammates Sean Wakefield (2-2) vs. Jake Silver (0-0) Catcheight 180 pounds, Lightweights; Ben Grady (4-3) vs. Nestor Yuja (4-4) and Julian "Jiggy" Connerton (2-1) vs. Isaac Therrien (1-2) all make their returns to the NEF cage.

And Nostos MMA teammates Nick Eldridge (debut vs. David Dorr) and Alex Morris (1-1) vs. Timm Murray (1-1 VQMT) look to set the tone for the Nostos team, as they lead five combatants into battle Saturday night at NEF 53.

Opening bell for NEF 53 American Valor is due to sound at 7 pm local time Saturday July 8th from Merrill Auditorium in Portland, Maine. Tickets are still available at or by calling 207.842.0800, those not attending NEF 53 can purchase the pay per view stream at or follow along with New England MMA as we bring you live updates throughout the night right here at or through our social media outlets. Below is Saturday nights entire line up, note the Poirier vs. Ortega fight still appears on the graphic but has been scrapped, NEF 53 will feature 20 MMA bouts.

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