PORTLAND, Maine — The glory days of boxing in Maine remain vivid in Bobby Russo’s memory.
As a youngster he often worked as the glove boy for cards at the Portland Exposition Building, where thousands turned out frequently during the 1960s to watch Pete Riccitelli emerge as a star on the local scene.
“Portland’s always been a great old fight town,” said the 58-year-old Russo, whose uncle George Russo was chairman of the Maine State Boxing Commission during the 1960s and ’70s.
The younger Russo also had a fifth-row seat for one of the most memorable moments in Maine sports history — Cassius Clay’s first-round knockout of Sonny Liston in Lewiston on May 25, 1965.
Such early boxing memories served to shape Bobby Russo’s career path as a coach, fight promoter, and president and lead instructor at the Portland Boxing Club for the past 21 years.
But while his club is thriving with a waiting list for new members, big-time professional boxing matches have been absent from the Maine sports scene since Lewiston’s Joey Gamache was a world champion during the early 1990s.
Mixed martial arts has satisfied the appetites of many fight fans in Maine since its legalization in 2009, particularly through the efforts of New England Fights, a Rumford-based promotion that has staged seven MMA shows since February 2012 and has three more cards scheduled around the state this summer — beginning with a July 12 program on the Bangor Waterfront.
And professional boxing? It became illegal in 2007 upon the demise of the Maine Athletic Commission in a cost-cutting move.
“It was a strange situation that went down, with mixed martial arts getting legalized and having their commission and boxing being outlawed because there wasn’t a commission dealing with it at the time,” said Russo, who last month was inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame for his continued contributions to the sport both within the state and beyond.
But that appears to be changing.
A new governing body, the Mixed Martial Arts Authority of Maine, was created in conjunction with the advent of that sport in the state, and that board’s name subsequently was changed to the Combat Sports Authority of Maine as it broadened its base to including developing standards to restore professional boxing in the state.
Peter Bouchard, a Falmouth real estate developer and former boxer, was appointed chairman of a seven-member authority in 2012, and following a template established by the Association of Boxing Commissions — an organization representing boxing authorities from around the country — he drafted a set of rules for the sport in Maine within a matter of months.
“It’s not complicated; boxing has been around forever,” Bouchard said.
The authority subsequently won state approval of its boxing rules on a 90-day emergency basis earlier this year to allow for a professional fight card to be held held in Skowhegan on May 11.
That card involved three amateur bouts and one professional fight featuring West Forks junior welterweight Brandon Berry, who made a successful pro debut with a fourth-round technical knockout over Billy Jones of South Berwick.
It was the first professional boxing match in Maine since another card organized in 2005 by Wyman’s Boxing Club in Stockton Springs, which along with the Portland Boxing Club and Gamache’s Boxing Club in Lewiston are among the better-known training centers for the sport in the state.
To gain legalization for pro boxing in the state on a more permanent basis, Bouchard said, the combat authority’s rules for the sport must be reviewed by several state agencies.
When that process might be completed remains to be seen, but likely in the coming months.
“Right now [Combat Sports Authority of Maine] are working under the 90-day emergency rules that were put in place earlier in the year, and they’re following that up with the regulatory administrative process before they can adopt the permanent rules,” said Tim Feeley, a spokesman for the state attorney general’s office. “But from what I understand the permanent rules will be in place later this year.”
Pro boxing supporters are eager for that administrative process to be completed and optimistic it will lead to a resurgence of the sport within the state’s borders.
“I think boxing’s got a great future here if we can just get past the red tape,” said Russo.
Russo bases his optimism on the sport’s professional past and thriving amateur scene in Maine.
He estimates he has promoted nearly 100 shows in the Portland area, including the USA Boxing New England amateur championships for the past several years. Last year’s event on Thanksgiving weekend drew “a couple thousand fans,” he said.
“Right from the beginning over 20 years ago the shows started selling out,” added Russo, who has hosted many of his events at venues that seat between 500 and 600 fans.
“If you have locals fighting, it works. Years ago we had a local fighter, George Herrick, and he drew 3,000 fans for one of his fights. The next week Carlos Ortiz, a world champion and hall of fame boxer, came to fight and about 300 people showed up.”
Bouchard described the May 11 card in Skowhegan as a success, as several hundred fans turned out for a show that included fighters from Skowhegan, West Forks and Belfast.
“Boxing also works in smaller towns, because people really come out to support local kids,” said Russo.
Russo would like to host a card of both professional and amateur bouts in the Portland area this fall.
Such an event would provide a local forum for some of his up-and-coming fighters such as middleweight Russell Lamour, currently 3-0 as a pro after an acclaimed amateur career that included more than 100 bouts worldwide. Lamour is scheduled to fight July 19 at Rockingham Park in Salem, N.H., on a card slated to be televised on ESPN.
Russo believes it’s important to create opportunities for local fighters to compete locally, because often professional fighters’ purses in regional promotions are dictated by the number of tickets sold on their behalf, which can be problematic when the fights are far away from their home turf and local fan bases.
“It’s tough to get on those shows because most of the promoters are all about getting you to pay for the bout through ticket sales,” said Russo. “There’s a bumper crop of pros wanting to get into these shows, but it’s kind of hard for us to sell tickets to a show in Rhode Island, which is why we want to get shows locally.”
Maine’s success as a draw for mixed martial arts events has come quickly.
New England Fights averaged more than 2,500 fans for its five 2012 shows, and Bellator MMA — the nation’s second-largest promotion for the sport — hosted a nationally televised card in Lewiston on March 21.
Pro boxing supporters envision similar success for their sport once it becomes legalized on a more permanent basis.
“Boxing is loved by Mainers,” said Bouchard, who pointed out that the Combat Sports Authority of Maine already has fielded calls from promoters in Maine and beyond expressing interest in staging shows in the state. “We’re going to have four to six good promotions a year in Maine once it gets ramped up.”
One out-of-state boxing promoter who has witnessed Mainers’ interest in combat sports firsthand is Massachusetts-based Peter Czymbor, who is director of media relations for the New England Fights MMA franchise and also has been a boxing matchmaker for several years.
“When mixed martial arts made its entry into the state of Maine, the crowds were so wildly passionate and enthusiastic due to the fact that it was so new to them,” said Czymbor, who most recently co-promoted a May 24 show with seven pro boxing bouts at the Dorchester (Mass.) Armory. “In other states like Massachusetts and Rhode Island maybe it had reached a point where folks knew what to expect going in, but people in Maine ate it up because it was so brand-new. It was an untapped market.
“I think the same probably can be said for boxing in Maine because it’s been many years since Maine has had professional boxing. Even with the [May 11 card in Skowhegan] there has not been a full-fledged professional boxing card in many years. I don’t think there’s been a pro boxing scene in Maine in many years and we’d like to change that.”
Should professional boxing be reinstated in Maine, it will face a different competitive market from its previous incarnation.
Many combat sports fans have developed an affinity for mixed martial arts in the absence of boxing and begun to familiarize themselves with such organically produced local heroes in the newer sport as Ray “All Business” Wood of Bucksport, John “First Class” Raio of Topsham and Jesse Peterson of Rumford.
There’s also professional MMA practitioners on the world and national stages with Maine ties such as Ultimate Fighting Championship middleweight contender Tim Boetsch of Lincolnville and Bangor’s Marcus Davis, who made the switch from boxing to mixed martial arts more than a decade ago, went on to a top-10 ranking in the UFC and earlier this year signed a contract with Bellator.
And MMA gyms are popping up around the state, including Davis’ Team Irish facilities in Brewer and Westbrook, and Young’s MMA in Bangor.
Matt Peterson, a state representative from Rumford who along with Davis was instrumental in getting mixed martial arts legalized in Maine, is now co-owner of New England Fights. He has taken notice of the interest in bringing professional boxing back to the state.
“I think when you look at the pantheon of sports, fighting is something that transcends culture and transcends language,” he said. “So in terms of how many combat sports there’s a place for in this space, I think it’s limitless.
“We’ve been approached by quite a few people asking us to add that piece [boxing] to what we do, and it’s something we would definitely take a strong look at. There’s been obviously a rich boxing history here; it inspired me when I was younger and it’s part of the tradition here.”
Davis also believes there’s room for boxing and MMA not only to co-exist in Maine but to mutually thrive despite the state’s modest population base.
“You have MMA fans and you have boxing fans and then you have fight fans,” said Davis. “Maine is a fight fan state — they’ll watch both. Whatever’s on, they’ll watch it. Mainers are hungry for entertainment. When’s the last time we saw a boxing match here, a real big one? It was a long time ago.
“I’m pro-everything. If the people of Maine want it and will watch it, I want it here. I want business to grow in Maine, I want more opportunities whether it’s an MMA fight or boxing. I just want everybody to be able to make a living and everybody to do well.”