FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: Portland, Maine (January 25, 2022)
Four years are a relative eternity to a man in his 20s.
There’s a reason Olympiads and undergraduate degrees cover that much space on the calendar. It allows time for the world to change, and hopefully to get meaningful work done, to grow stronger and wiser.
In the world of mixed martial arts, that gap on the resume is a double-edged sword. It could create some level of cage rust. Depending on the discipline of the fighter in question, though, it’s space that could be used to watch and learn, sharpen skills, or fill gaps in one’s repertoire.
Ryan Burgess is banking on the latter list when he ends his 1,439-day break between appearances in the New England Fights hexagon on Saturday, February 12, 2022. Burgess (3-2), out of Mexico, Maine, will challenge Tyler Smythe (3-1) for the organization’s amateur flyweight title at “NEF 46: Decade of Dominance.”
The card is set for Aura in Portland, Maine, with an opening bell time of 7 p.m.
Burgess wasted no time after watching his fellow River Valley native and Mountain Valley High School product Caleb Austin drop the belt to Smythe via fourth-round technical knockout on Nov. 12 to text NEF co-owner and matchmaker Matt Peterson and express his interest in coming out of “retirement.”
“It was more just to prove that I’m one of the best flyweights in New England, because I really think I am,” Burgess said. “I’ve been putting the work in. Obviously, I haven’t been able to showcase that in quite a few years, but it’s not like I stopped. I’m ready to go out there and put on a show for everyone and see what happens.”
Burgess has been away from the spotlight since Feb. 3, 2018, when he won a split decision over neighbor and rival Nate Boucher at “NEF 32: Super Saturday.”
He hadn’t fought in almost a year at the time. Prior to that, Burgess split a pair of intense series with Dustin Veinott and Justin Witham, losing the sequel on each occasion.
So why here, and why now?
“I looked at the guys that are fighting,” Burgess said. “I ended up messaging Matt after the fight because Caleb lost. I don’t want to fight Caleb because he’s my friend and we grew up together. But I’m not afraid to get in there and avenge his loss, I guess, because I really do believe I can beat Smythe.”
Burgess scouted the previous title scrap with interest and sees a match-up that suits his style.
“It looked like a pretty even bout to be honest with you. There was a lot of wrestling. It didn’t really seem like either one of them wanted to stay on their feet,” Burgess said. “I haven’t really seen a lot of Smythe other than that. He showed some good top control, but it didn’t seem like he wanted to stand and bang with him. I just think I can beat a wrestler, and that’s what he looks like.”
Taking a break from competition either to feed his soul, find new interests or focus on the finer points of building his day-to-day life isn’t a new concept for Burgess.
A three-time state wrestling champion who won more than 150 bouts in his career at MVHS, Burgess briefly competed at Plymouth State University and attended five semesters before completely changing direction.
He returned home and enrolled at Kennebec Valley Community College, where he built his professional credentials. Burgess is self-employed in physical therapy.
“I got a little burned out. It was a lot trying to go to school full-time and wrestle Division III. Honestly when I left Plymouth and came back to Rumford, I wasn’t doing anything for a while, and that’s when I started lifting weights,” Burgess said. “That’s when Ryan Glover got into fighting, and then I met Mike Hansen, and we started Berserkers MMA, and we had a lot of success to begin with.”
Business at the gym tapered off, but it proved a profitable networking exercise for Burgess. It’s the period of his life when he struck up a fast friendship with Jason Eric Bell, who remains his trainer today.
“We’ve kind of just been there for each other the whole time,” Burgess said. “I motivate him to train, he motivates me to train, and we get after it. It’s not about we’ve got to prove we’re the best. We do it because we like it, and we want to get better.
“He’s a brown belt under Jared Lawton. He really should be a black belt if he’d been at a gym these last couple years, but he’s been spending all his time with me,” he added with a laugh. “We just really vibe together. We don’t butt heads. I listen well. He’s taught me a lot. He makes me work, and I respect him a lot.”
Regular workouts with Bell and Glory Watson make Burgess feel as sharp and active as if he’d been fighting every two or three months.
Training has maximized Burgess’ confidence in his stand-up and striking repertoire. Bell promoted his pupil to a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu in 2020.
“I’ve been working the whole time. We started training at the GR (Greater Rumford Community Center) again probably a year after my last fight, and we never stopped,” Burgess said. “Even when everything got shut down due to COVID, we started working out in JB’s garage, in his basement, wherever we could pretty much. We’ve been working on everything.”
Burgess said the long breaks between bouts have helped him rediscover all the things he loves about competition.
He also noted that when you have a fighting spirit, competitive situations can be found each day in the elements a different personality might see as drudgery.
“It’s a passion, because I really enjoy jiu-jitsu, and MMA just kind of came along with that when I transitioned from wrestling,” Burgess said. “I’ve always been a competitor, so even at practice, it’s still kind of a competition with yourself. It gets you going. It gets me in the gym. It’s a lot more exciting than just lifting weights or anything like that.”
Being in an actual fight camp again also is fun, he admitted, but anyone who thinks Burgess was otherwise sitting around eating potato chips and binge-watching Netflix is in for a rude awakening.
“When I was the No. 1 contender, when I beat Nate, I was supposed to fight for the belt, and Witham had retired and vacated it,” Burgess said. “There wasn’t really anyone else to fight, nothing that excited me, and then I just took some time off. Then when I started getting in the gym again, it wasn’t really to fight. It was just to get better because I really enjoy it.”
Burgess’ confidence is sky-high compared to its level four years ago.
“We were training the whole time, but it wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I have a fight coming up’ or whatever. I took a little mental health break, and it helped me focus on just learning the basics,” Burgess said. “That’s what it was really. I didn’t really know enough at the time, and over these last three years, I’ve learned so much more. Now I’m ready to go there and finish a fight. That’s my plan.”
Those four years away from the cage are also roughly the age difference between Burgess and Smythe.
Burgess acknowledged that gap in his self-assured proclamation of what’s to come in this midwinter, crossroads clash.
“You can always get better. There are levels to this stuff. Smythe’s young, and I give him credit. It was not easy for him to beat Caleb, I’m sure. But he’s gonna have a lot harder time with me,” Burgess said. “If you’ve still got it, you might as well go out there and show it, and I guess we’re gonna find out in February. I definitely see myself coming out with the belt.”
Doors open at Aura for “NEF 46: Decade of Dominance” at 6 p.m. on Saturday, February 12, 2022. Tickets make great holiday gifts and are on sale now at www.Ticketmaster.com.