Featherweight newcomer Luke Sanders, who makes his Octagon debut this Sunday against Maximo Blanco, knew he was a fighter back when he was 17 years old. He’s not alone in this business when it comes to those who find their fistic calling early, but it’s how he found it that makes the story so much better.
“I had transferred schools and I moved to a new city just north of Nashville,” Sanders recalls. “And when I moved there, some of the guys at the new school I was at, they invited me up to the fair.”
Tame enough so far, as Sanders’ intentions were clear.
“I was going there just to hang out, talk to girls, and do what normal high schoolers do.”
But when he arrived to the fair, “basically the whole school was there, and they had decided they wanted to see me fight, so they put me in this Toughman contest.”
Toughman contest. With grown men, some who were police officers, others members of the armed forces who came from nearby Fort Campbell, and all seemingly better equipped than the 5-foot-6 teenager who had no intention of fighting that night.
“All I needed was some nachos, some good conversation, maybe a phone number would have been cool,” he laughs, but at the same time, Sanders was a scrapper, and he wasn’t going to back down from a challenge.
“In my neighborhood, you got tested,” he said. “It was just that way where I grew up in Nashville. At the playground, we fought all the time. It wasn’t because we had something against each other. It was a respect thing. So I was confident coming into the new school, and I think people didn’t know, so they wanted to see. They thought I could fight, so they wanted to see if I could or not.”
He could. His buddies chipped in the $75 entry fee, told the organizers he was 18, and he fought three times, winning each bout.
“I won six hundred bucks that night,” he laughs. “It was the first time I had been in the ring and put gloves on, and after I fought in that ring, I was like ‘okay, I can do this. I really can fight.’”
Eight years and plenty of real fight training later, Sanders made his pro mixed martial arts debut in Strikeforce, stopping Josh Jarvis in the first round. “Cool Hand” Luke could still fight, and now he was going to try and make a living at it.
Today, the 30-year-old southpaw is 10-0 and about to fight in the big show for the first time. Coming in as a late replacement for Dennis Bermudez, Sanders is as unbothered about the short notice as he was to fight at the local fair. A fight’s a fight, and he’s ready for it.
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“It’s a short camp, so everything has changed,” he said. “But I’ve just got to remember that at the end of the night, it’s me and him, and in that 15 minutes, I’ve got to make sure I’m doing what I need to do to be the one getting his hand raised. That’s all I’m really worried about; getting that W and coming home.”
Home is still Nashville, even though he spends plenty of time training in Arizona with the MMA Lab squad. And when the UFC went to Tennessee last August, Sanders was hoping he would be on the card.
“I thought that maybe I would get the call,” he said. “I thought there was a high percentage of that. There were two bantamweight fights on the card and I actually spent most of July in training camp because I thought that if someone gets hurt, there’s a huge possibility of them putting me on the card. It would have been something else. I’ve got a good following in my city, and they’re real supportive of me, and it’s just amazing how much support they give me. So I was hoping I’d get a shot or a short notice chance, and I didn’t, so I said ‘all right, I’ll just keep training, put my nose down, and when it’s my time, it’s my time.’”
Now it’s his time, even though he plans on moving back to bantamweight after the Blanco fight to make a run at UFC gold at 135 pounds.
“That’s where I want to make a run at it with my career. I feel good at featherweight, but bantamweight is where I’m gonna try and do some damage and make some big waves.”
Sanders does promise a show to remember in the meantime. Maybe even a quick one.
“I like to get in there and put on a good show and give the fans what they want to see,” he said. “I don’t want to be a boring fighter, so I’m always looking to handle business. In and out, the faster the better. We don’t get paid by the minute, so the faster you can get in and out, the safer you are and the better your night is.”