Much as mixed martial arts has gained a foothold in Maine — with crowds of 3,000 the norm for New England Fights-promoted shows staged in Lewiston since 2012 — so, too, has the state experienced a resurgence of boxing popularity.
Since the professional ranks of that sport returned to the Pine Tree State last spring after an eight-year absence, nearly 3,000 spectators flocked to a pro-am show in November at the Portland Exposition Building.
Then 1,000 more fans trekked to Carrabec High School in North Anson last Saturday night to follow the progress of promising light welterweight Brandon “The Cannon” Berry from the tiny town of West Forks in northwestern Somerset County.
“I think we proved tonight that boxing is back as good as it ever was in the state of Maine,” said Ken “Skeet” Wyman of Stockton Springs, a veteran boxing trainer and promoter of the North Anson show through his Wyman’s Boxing Club.
Wyman and southern Maine boxing legend Bobby Russo plan to build on the momentum they see, with at least three more cards planned in the state during the remainder of the year.
Russo, a noted coach and fight promoter as well as president and lead instructor at the Portland Boxing Club, will bring former world heavyweight champion Evander Holyfield to Portland as the special guest for a June 14 card at the Expo, and he has another show planned there in November.
“The last show we had went so well, just talking about it I get a little chill because the stars just lined up great that night,” said Russo. “I was a little nervous about going to the Expo because it’s a big venue, but we whacked it out of the park.
“People were so happy to have boxing back.”
Wyman is teaming with Young’s MMA in Bangor to stage a boxing show at the Queen City’s Cross Insurance Center on Aug. 2.
“We’re going to call it ‘Summer Thunder: Taking Bangor by Storm,’” said Wyman, who added that the event has been sanctioned by the Combat Sports Authority of Maine and USA Boxing New England.
Several of Young’s MMA fighters have sparred at Wyman’s boxing club as part of their mixed martial arts training, which led to conversations between Wyman and Young’s owners Chris Young and Ernie Fitch earlier this year about collaborating on a Bangor show.
An agreement fell into place quickly, not just for a single show but a longer-standing relationship.
“This is not a one-and-done thing,” said Fitch. “This is something we’d like to do a couple of times a year.”
Fitch said plans call for the Bangor show to include appearances by “Irish” Mickey Ward, the former junior welterweight champion from Massachusetts and subject of the 2010 film “The Fighter.” He and Young also hope to involve the Hollywood Casino Hotel & Raceway, based across the street from the Cross Center, in the event.
“Skeet and I have set some goals,” said Fitch. “We want to put a stamp on boxing in Maine.”
Both Russo and the Wyman-Young’s partnership plan to showcase top Maine and regional fighters at their upcoming shows, believing the grassroots approach works best in small- and medium-sized markets.
“In places like [North Anson] and in Portland and so on, I’ve always said it depends on the locals and who the characters and personalities are in the sport,” said Russo, whose June show will be the 99th boxing event he’s promoted at the Expo over several decades. “We’ve got some now in Maine and it’s set for a good wave of popularity.”
Berry, a former Northern New England Golden Gloves amateur champion, fought in Maine’s first professional fight since 2005 last May at Skowhegan Area High School. He now is 5-0 in the pro ranks after Saturday’s four-round unanimous decision over Skowhegan’s Josh Parker and is scheduled to return to the ring in Portland come June, then fight again in Bangor.
Also expected to appear on both cards is undefeated middleweight Russell Lamour Jr., a native of Haiti who fights out of the Portland Boxing Club and already has emerged as a top regional contender.
Plans are in the works to have both Lamour (6-0) and welterweight Chris Gilbert (11-0) of Windsor, Vt., to fight for New England championships on June 14 in Portland, Russo said.
“I hope to have 4,000 people there for that one, then we’ll come back in November and do it again,” he added. “We’ll do a couple of shows a year. People thought when we did the Expo show last November that I was going to re-create the old days and do it every Thursday night. That’s not going to happen, but we just had such a great response to that show. We had 104 sponsors and a 70-page program, everything worked so good.”
Boxing at the Expo was the place to be for southern Maine sports fans for much of the 20th century, but big-time professional bouts had been absent from the scene since Lewiston’s Joey Gamache was a world champion during the early 1990s.
So far from the state’s sports mainstream did the sport fall that pro boxing became illegal in 2007 upon the demise of the Maine Athletic Commission in a cost-cutting move.
But the legalization of mixed martial arts in Maine in 2009 prompted the creation of the Mixed Martial Arts Authority of Maine, which evolved into the Combat Sports Authority of Maine as it broadened its base to include developing standards to restore professional boxing in the state and subsequently overseeing the sport’s rebirth.
Pro boxing in Maine regained legal status in 2013.
“Boxing sometimes get lost in the bigger cities because we’re up against Showtime and HBO and MMA and there’s only so much money to spend on entertainment,” said Russo. “But I just love the fact that it works in towns like [North Anson] and it works in Portland, Maine.”