Mainers helped legalize mixed martial arts

Posted Nov. 27, 2009, at 10:18 p.m.

The Pine Tree State has had a unique association with the Ultimate Fighting Championship right from the 17-year-old, mixed martial arts organization’s infancy.

Longtime UFC president Dana White grew up in Hermon and is building a home in Maine. Former champion Tim Sylvia is an Ellsworth native. Bangor’s own Marcus Davis has been one of the organization’s more popular fighters for the last couple of years and fighters like Dale Hart of Bangor and former WEC featherweight champion Mike Brown of Portland have enjoyed success as well.

Now that the state has finally legalized and sanctioned professional mixed martial arts fighting, the follow-up question goes from “Why Maine?” to “What took it so long?”

Actually, the more relevant question is what are the prospects for the UFC in Maine?

Maine MMA fight goes distance

It’s taken about five years, but Maine is now among the four-fifths of the country sanctioning professional MMA fighting, and the UFC in particular.

“Maine is now on our radar,” said Marc Ratner, UFC vice-president of regulatory affairs. “Officially, we have 41 states that have passed laws to allow MMA fighting [Maine was 40th and Rhode Island 41st].

“Augusta, Portland, and Bangor are the three areas we’ve looked at. We actually had a possibility of bringing a show next year in March.”

Yes, UFC fans, if not for a scheduling conflict, the UFC’s first-ever event in Maine would have been hosted at Portland’s Cumberland County Civic Center in March — much to the chagrin of Maine state Rep Matt Peterson of Rumford.

“THAT broke my heart,” said Peterson, a longtime fan of MMA fighting. “I got an e-mail from a guy I know at Cumberland County Civic Center that they [UFC] wanted to book a date March 31, which is also my birthday.”

Birthday aside, it was particularly significant development for Peterson, who authored and shepherded a bill — which officially became law last month — that legalizes and regulates MMA fighting in Maine.

“Sure that was disappointing, but still, it’s exciting because I know we’re going to eventually get this done,” Peterson said. “It’s been my dream to sit down here in my own state and watch something like this.”

Peterson another significant development occurred last week with Governor John Baldacci’s appointment of a five-member mixed-martial arts authority, or commission that will regulate the sport in much the same way as an athletic or boxing commission does.

“They dissolved the Maine Athletic Commission as a cost-cutting measure back along, so we had this funky situation of trying to regulate a sport without a commission,” said Peterson, whose brother Jesse was a record-holding wrestler at Mountain Valley High School in Rumford and now a professional MMA fighter. “I’m looking forward to working with them in setting up rules and regulations and once that’s all complete, we can start holding events in Maine.”

It’s a gratifying development for Marcus Davis as well, since he basically landed the first punch on MMA’s behalf back in 2004.

“I wanted to put on an MMA event in Maine, so I called the athletic commission and they said we could do it, but they wouldn’t oversee it,” the 36-year-old Davis recalled. “Our attorney looked into it, and although they said they wouldn’t govern it, they didn’t mention until we started really getting into it that they’d have to shut us down because under Maine law, it was a Class E crime to hold an event like that.”

The former pro boxer wasn’t about to abandon the fight, but fate followed up a setback with a lucky break in the form of a tryout for Spike television network’s Ultimate Fighter show and MMA promotion had to hit the showers for awhile.

Davis lent his support however and whenever possible in helping Peterson and others promote the adoption of the bill. He addressed lawmakers and testified before public hearings in Augusta last March and May.

“It wasn’t until this year, when the bill was submitted and passed, we were able to start making some headway,” said Davis, who wants to become a promotions manager after he retires from fighting. “One of my dreams was to be able to fight MMA in Ireland and I’ve done that twice. Now I think it’d be cool to fight MMA here in Maine at least once and that looks like I’ll be able to do that.”

Delivering an economic punch

Both Davis and Peterson believe a single, multi-bout UFC event could pump $8-10 million into Maine’s economy.

“When I testified, I used a UFC bout in Columbus, Ohio as an example because it’s a smaller city closer to a Maine one like Portland,” Davis said. “That whole thing generated almost $12 million for Columbus.”

Davis said a UFC multiple-fight card event in Broomfield, Colo., generated about $8-10 million in revenue for local hotels, stores, and merchants.

“You need hotel rooms for 26 fighters and their camps, so that’s about 110 people plus production crew members, UFC officials, and fans from out of town,” he explained. “Those people all have to eat, they’ll have to buy supplies at the local hardware store, and they’ll shop and buy groceries. Plus, a lot of them will go out and visit the bars or go see a movie or whatever.”

Peterson says it’s about time Maine got in on the potential bonanza a UFC or UFC lightweight arm WEC (World Extreme Cagefighting) multi-fight bout can bring.

“We have an unbelievably rich wrestling history here in the State of Maine. I think maybe Maine is the only state to produce two champions in Mike Brown and Tim Sylvia,” he said. “It’s too bad they were basically outsourcing fights and fighters like that who could have been fighting here in Maine for several years.”

With Rhode Island joining Maine in sanctioning MMA fights and Massachusetts poised to follow very soon, skeptics wonder if maybe Maine’s window of opportunity is already closing with the possibility of too many cooks spoiling the MMA’s economic broth in New England.

“I don’t buy that. It’s like saying nobody’s going to go see a high school or college football game in Portland or wherever because the Patriots are playing in Foxborough,” Davis said. “They do an MMA fight in Massachusetts every week and they sell out all the time with eight or nine smaller-time MMA organizations.

“Every time I go to those shows with my fighters [Team Irish MMA], they’re either sold out or doing quite well.”

The key factor is money or more specifically, profit potential.

“Population isn’t the only, or even most important factor. The first big show will likely be in Boston, but it basically comes down to finances and financial issues,” said Ratner, a former director of the Nevada Athletic Commission. “We look at TV ratings, pay-per-view percentages of buys, accessibility as far as airports and roads, and what kind of attendance we could attract, and regionally, the Northeast is very strong in interest for us.

”It’s a big area and Dana is from up there and would love to do a show in Maine. There should be a fight there, likely a smaller bout.”

It doesn’t hurt that Maine has experienced a noticeable growth spurt in the sport of wrestling though significant additions of varsity wrestling programs to high schools all over the state in recent years.

While a WEC event is more likely, Peterson says UFC is more than a possibility.

“Dana White, who’s a diehard Red Sox fan, informed me he’s building a home in Levant and he said he would love to come to Maine,” said the former high school wrestler. “I would encourage fans who want to bring this promotion to our state is to contact UFC directly however they can. They listen.”

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