Anthony Zender’s dream of fighting mixed martial arts professionally seemed simply that – a dream.

To really appreciate what fighting professionally means to Zender, to appreciate his gritty determination and commitment, you need to know one thing about him. He’s not a quitter.

pints logoAbout a year and a half ago, he had lost his first eight bouts as a pro. At that point, most fighters, discouraged and run down after losing eight straight bouts over a couple of years, would have quit. But not Zender.

“A lot of people wondered why I didn’t quit,” Zender said. “I just kept fighting because I couldn’t image not fighting. There was no way I was going to quit.”

Instead of quitting, Zender went looking for help. He found that help in coach Brian Johnson, who runs his own gym in Lacey – Academy of Brian Johnson – for the past 16 years.

anthony zander mma
Anthony Zender has turned his MMA career around with the help of Brian Johnson.

“Brian is one of a kind,” Zender said. “That’s why it’s been going my way. He’s helped me turn it around.”

Since teaming up with Johnson, Zender has gone undefeated, winning his last six fights and improving his career record to 6-8. He’s two wins from taking one giant leap in his professional career. Zender, who won a unanimous decision July 23, will fight again Aug. 6 at Tulalip Casino and his fight will be on televised on channel MYX TV.

“When you get an even record you can try out for the Ultimate Fighter,” Zender said.

Zender, at 5-foot-5 and 150 pounds, isn’t the biggest guy in the gym, but he just might have the biggest heart. His determination is a virtue.

“He has a big heart,” said Ty Orion, who trains with Zender. “He’s extremely tough. It’s incredible. I love working with him because he pushes the pace. He keeps pushing me.”

Zender is no stranger to facing challenges. Growing up near Bellingham, Zender leaned all about setting goals and working hard to achieve them when he turned out for wrestling while attending Mount Baker High School. Making varsity his freshman year, Zender placed at state in the 2A tournaments three times.

anthony zander mma
Ty Orion (right) is Anthony Zender’s workout partner.

He placed fourth his sophomore year, took second his junior year and won a state title his senior year after an undefeated season. After graduating from high school in 2003, Zender joined the Mariners and after a tour in Iraq he did the unexpected again. After that tour, he made the All-Marine wrestling team, giving him an opportunity to wrestle top-notch opponents.

“The level that they wrestle at is pretty much Olympic level,” Zender said. “We were wrestling Olympian quality guys. I’ve had a lot of wrestling experience – probably 200 matches in my life.”

After serving four years in the Marines, Zender, who is now 31, got out in 2007 and then found his next challenge – MMA. Fighting mixed martial arts is kind of a genetic thing for Zender, whose father, Chris Zender, is a commercial pilot for Alaska Airlines. His two brothers and sister – all younger than Anthony – are involved in the sport.

anthony zander mma
Anthony Zender does some sparring by himself at a recent workout at the Academy of Brian Johnson.

“I went pro in 2010,” he said. “I had two amateur fights before that and won them. I then made the decision to go pro. It was a little early.”

He admits that was just the Marine in him. He wanted to get to the highest level as fast as he could. In his first eight fights, he lost by submission. He wasn’t getting flattened out. It was a technical thing. He was getting caught in submissions.

“At the beginning, I’d fight anyone,” Zender said. “I got the losses, but I also got the experience against some tough guys. It made me more confident stepping into the cage with anyone.”

But it didn’t help his record. Now, with Johnson as his coach, Zender is making the most of his opportunities. He trains four hours a day, five times a week.

“Conditioning is the main part of it,” Zender said. “Because when you get in there, you don’t want to lose energy. The first guy that gives up is the guy who goes out. Conditioning is the biggest part. It’s five days a week. It’s as much as you can go, as hard as you can go.”

anthony zander mma
Brian Johnson has helped turn Anthony Zender’s pro MMA career around.

But Zender has discovered that conditioning is only part of the equation to success.

“It’s technique, technique, technique,” Johnson said. In the year and a half Zender has trained under Johnson, he’s perfected his technique.

“Cleaning everything up,” Johnson said. “All he was doing was self-taught and that doesn’t take you too far in amateurs or the pros. After going 0-8, he realized he had made a big mistake. He wanted to correct that.”

And, with Johnson’s help, Zender has made corrections.

“All his losses were on the ground and by submission,” Johnson said. “His wrestling skills got it down to the ground, but then he didn’t have any submissions to go with that. Since then he’s been working with my jujitsu coach, JJ Martin, and a team of guys with our boxing and our kick boxing.”

It’s been a winning formula for Zender.

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