LEWISTON, Maine — When Matt Peterson, a Democratic representative from Rumford, helped push a bill through the Maine Legislature to legalize mixed martial arts in 2009, it wasn’t specifically with bringing the sport’s premier organization — the Ultimate Fighting Championship — to the Pine Tree State in mind.
But last week’s announcement by UFC president Dana White that a nationally televised UFC Fight Night show will be held Aug. 16 at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor came as welcome news to Peterson. He’s still a legislator but now also is co-owner and matchmaker for the Lewiston-based New England Fights MMA promotion.
“I couldn’t be more excited, I’m beyond ecstatic,” said Peterson on Saturday night just before NEF staged its 13th mixed martial arts show in the state since February 2012.
“It’s been a personal dream of mine to see the UFC bring a show to the state, and we’ve literally seen over the course of the last five years the development of this market in Maine to the point of bringing in the biggest show in the world. It’s just incredible.”
Bringing the UFC to Maine, and Bangor in particular, also has been a personal dream of White, a 1987 Hermon High School graduate who owns a home in Levant and frequently visits the area with his family.
When making last week’s announcement White acknowledged Bangor is a tiny market for the UFC, which is based in Las Vegas and typically stages its shows in major North American cities and other larger venues around the world.
But he said his connection to the area, as well as the presence of the 5,800-seat Cross Insurance Center, which opened last September, and the neighboring Hollywood Casino made the Queen City an attractive location for a UFC card.
White also acknowledged the presence of two successful MMA gyms in the area, Team Irish MMA Fitness Academy in Brewer and Young’s MMA in Bangor, as reflecting the popularity of the sport in the region.
For mixed martial arts insiders such as Peterson and Nick DiSalvo, a Massachusetts lawyer who is NEF’s other co-owner and promoter, having the UFC come to Maine should provide direct and residual benefits not only for the sport in Maine, but for the state at large.
As a result, NEF has rescheduled its next show, NEF XIV, from Aug. 9 to Sept. 6.
“We knew the UFC was coming and we wanted to clear the way for them,” said Peterson. “We’re excited about this. We’re supportive of this, and to take off my promoter hat for a minute and put on my hat on as a legislator, this is going to have a massive economic impact on the entire state of Maine, not just Bangor where they’re bringing the show, and that’s what I’ve always dreamed of.”
DiSalvo believes the UFC’s Maine appearance may open the gates to a wider audience for NEF’s already popular regional cards, which have averaged nearly 3,000 fans.
“You always want to pull in more of the general public to your shows, you want the sport to be more mainstream,” he said. “That’s what we’ve been trying to do with NEF, to bring in the general public more and not just the friends and families of the fighters.
“At other shows that’s what the promoters rely on, the friends and families of the fighters to buy tickets. NEF is different. We’ve gone out and developed our own fans, but if there are a few more fans that come over to us from the UFC show, that’s all the better.”
Peterson said the UFC’s stop in Bangor should have an even more universal impact on Maine’s MMA community.
“I think long term it’s going to be good for all martial arts business in the state of Maine, all combat sports, schools, fighters, fans and NEF,” he said. “I think it’s going to cast a brighter light on the sport that we know is already developing. We know this is a fighting state, it’s been proven, and in the end it’s going to take us all to the next level.”
That may include the best of NEF’s stable of fighters, primarily from Maine.
“It’s exciting because the main thing we try to do at NEF is build these guys up to hopefully send them off to either a Bellator or the UFC,” said DiSalvo. “And where the UFC has focused now on Maine and wants to come to Maine they may have their eyes not only on the market here but the fighters here, too. There are several guys maybe one or two wins away from maybe getting to the next level with the UFC or Bellator.”
Among those hoping to earn his way to a larger promotion is Bucksport native Ray “All Business” Wood, who is undefeated in four pro fights and the NEF Maine featherweight champion.
“It’s a dream come true to have (the UFC) right in your hometown,” said Wood, who is back training after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee last July. “It’s what we all want and what we all reach for, and to see it in your hometown gives you hope that maybe you could fight for them in your hometown one day.
“That’s my ultimate goal, to make it to the UFC, so to have it right there live in my back yard makes my mouth water.”