It’s been a big year for mixed martial arts across the country on two fronts: The Ultimate Fighting Championship was sold for $4 billion, and New York became the final state to legalize professional MMA.
Maine was linked to both situations.
Dana White, the 1987 Hermon High School graduate and 10 percent owner of the UFC, is reported to have received $400 million through the sale of the company to media-talent conglomerate WME-IMG, and he remains that organization’s president.
Two Maine-born fighters, Tim Boetsch of Lincolnville and Milford’s Bruce Boyington, were or will be part of their respective promotions’ New York City debut. Boetsch scored a first-round TKO of Rafael Natal at UFC 205 in Madison Square Garden’s main arena, and Boyington awaits his New Year’s Eve bout against undefeated Andre Harrison at the World Series of Fighting 36 show in The Theater at MSG.
Both Boetsch and Boyington are looking ahead to 2017 with great optimism, as is Bucksport High School graduate Ray Wood, who is living and training in Amarillo, Texas, and fighting for Bellator MMA, and recent UFC signee Devin Powell of Wells.
Boetsch’s 2016 began with a second-round loss to Ed Herman in Boston that jeopardized his nearly decade-long presence on the UFC roster. But the four-time wrestling state champion from the former Camden-Rockport High School returned to middleweight after fighting Herman at light heavyweight. He collected two straight impressive victories, a second-round stoppage of Josh Samman in July preceding his win over the 14th-ranked Natal last month in New York City.
The back-to-back wins not only have eased Boetsch’s concerns about his UFC status, but the veteran is back in the middleweight rankings (14th) with an eye toward moving up the charts.
“It was my 20th fight with the UFC, and finally I feel like that sword’s getting nice and sharp, so I’m ready to see what I can do with it in here and see how far I can go,” said Boetsch (20-10 overall, 11-9 with the UFC).
Boyington, who trains at Young’s MMA in Bangor, was 2-0 with the WSOF before signing a multi-fight deal with that promotion this summer. His first fight under that deal will not be easy, as Harrison takes a 14-0 record into their New Year’s Eve featherweight clash.
Boyington is 14-9 overall but has won eight of his last 10 bouts.
Wood (8-3, 1-2 with Bellator MMA) has dropped his last two Bellator contests. Earlier this month, he became the first fighter to go the distance against undefeated featherweight prospect A.J. McKee at Bellator 166, so he should get additional opportunities with that organization.
Powell (8-1) awaits his UFC debut against Jordan Rinaldi on Jan. 15, 2017, in Phoenix. The former New England Fights lightweight champion earned a UFC contract with his first-round win over Jon Lemke when White brought his web-based reality show “Dana White: Lookin’ for a Fight” to the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor on Aug. 5.
The more recent departures of Powell, Boyington and Wood from the in-state MMA scene has left a void at the top for the Lewiston-based NEF. Its efforts to fill those gaps by developing new main-event attractions for its cards will be one of the organization’s primary tasks in 2017.
NEF had a busy 2016 with seven cards, including the short-notice “Dana White: Lookin’ for A Fight” show that drew a sold-out crowd of 1,200 and a May 14 event in Hyannis, Massachusetts.
“We’re coming off of the most active year in our history after staging seven shows in 2016. We did the most shows, in the most states, in the most venues, since our inception,” said NEF co-owner and matchmaker Matt Peterson of Rumford.
But a planned cooperative venture with Rhode Island-based CES MMA this fall that would have brought AXS-TV cameras to an NEF card in Lewiston fell through, and some of the 2016 NEF shows blended MMA and boxing, which sometimes drew a mixed response from fans of both sports.
If NEF’s next show, NEF 27, is any indication, the promotion plans to re-establish its men’s lightweight division that has produced the likes of Powell and Boyington as well as working to build its women’s ranks.
Two lightweight semifinals scheduled for NEF 27 on Feb. 11 at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston will match Ryan Sanders (12-8) against John Ortolani (8-10) and Jesse Erickson (9-5) against Lemke (5-7), with the winners to meet at NEF 28 in the spring to determine a new 155-pound champion.
“Some naysayers might try to poke holes in the fact that two guys in this mix have upside-down records, but anyone in the know is aware that all four of these guys are perennial contenders for top honors in the New England and Northeast lightweight division,” said Peterson.
“Guys have to be willing to fight,” he added. “And that’s what we have here — four guys who are proven fighters. They show up, they make weight, and they compete against the best. Their records reflect the consequences of constantly fighting top guys, but they all have the respect of the fight community and fans alike for their warrior spirit and commitment to the fight game.”
At least two women’s fights already have been scheduled for NEF 27, one involving 18-year-old Katie Baker of Gardiner, who will be making her amateur MMA debut but already is well known within the state’s martial arts circles.
Baker began training in combat sports at age 5. She won the Isshinryu World Karate Championship in 2009 and 2013, and she has been a practitioner of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for seven years, regularly taking part in local tournaments. Earlier this year, Baker began competing in amateur boxing, and she trains with Young’s MMA.
Baker and promising Young’s MMA pros Josh Harvey (2-0) and Aaron Lacey (4-0) may have the most potential to advance to NEF main-event status while they pursue even loftier individual goals.
That’s the ultimate dilemma facing regional promotions such as NEF around the country that provide opportunities for younger fighters to thrive, only to risk losing them to bigger shows such as UFC, Bellator and WSOF.
“Harvey has the athletic pedigree to go far in the sport if he continues to remain focused in his training and keeps competing and winning regularly,” said Peterson. “He likes to fight — that’s obvious in his performances.”
Harvey, 5-1 as an amateur before turning pro last spring, acknowledged his personal ambitions in a press release announcing his NEF 27 featherweight fight against New Hampshire’s Richie Collingham (3-3).
“I’m training for the fight I want, and this opponent is just one more step closer to where I am going,” he said.
Peterson and NEF co-owner and promoter Nick DiSalvo understand Harvey’s goal of advancing beyond regional fight cards. They see the successes of Powell, Boyington and Wood as advertisements for NEF’s product even as the process of developing new talent is at its roots an inexact science.
“We’re stronger than ever as an organization and excited to kick off 2017 with some of the biggest fights, both literally and figuratively, that we can put together for the NEF community,” Peterson said.