The Ultimate Fighting Championship was the first major sports franchise to resume operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, initially with fanless shows based mainly in Las Vegas and on an island in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.
The world’s top mixed martial arts promotion — whose president Dana White is a 1987 Hermon High School graduate — could afford the lack of ticket revenue because of its five-year, $1.5 billion television deal with ESPN.
Smaller, regional mixed martial efforts without such resources have not been as fortunate and 16 months after being shut down are now just starting to reemerge as mass-gathering and social-distancing limits have been eased.
That includes New England Fights, a Maine-based promotion that has relied heavily on Pine Tree State competitors since debuting at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston in February 2012 but has been silent since hosting NEF 42 at Portland’s Merrill Auditorium on Feb. 20, 2020.
NEF will hold its first show since then on Aug. 21 at the Hampshire Dome in Milford, New Hampshire, then hopes to follow that up soon after with a return to Maine, where it hosted 41 of its first 42 shows before NEF 43 was postponed indefinitely in June 2020.
“It’s definitely been challenging for everybody,” said Matt Peterson of Rumford, a former state legislator and co-owner of NEF with Massachusetts attorney Nick DiSalvo. “I certainly had my share of naysayers who thought [the coronavirus] would result in the death of the sport here, who thought a regional promotion like ours would never come back.
“I didn’t know when, but I knew eventually it would come back. I wish it had been a lot sooner, but we can only work with what we’re allowed and hopefully it’s smoother sailing from here.”
What had been a vibrant mixed martial scene throughout New England before the pandemic has been slow to rebound.
The only shows held since the pandemic’s arrival to date have involved empty arenas and connections with major television or live-streaming outlets.
A show promoted by Classic Entertainment & Sports, better known as CES, in Warwick, Rhode Island, last October was live-streamed on UFC Fight Pass, while Bellator — considered the sport’s second-biggest MMA promotion — has hosted nationally televised shows at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut.
But that’s beginning to change. Bellator has announced it will open its events to at least a limited number of fans beginning with Bellator 261 at Mohegan Sun Friday night, and the Massachusetts-based Cage Titans Fighting Championship has scheduled a July 10 show in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
“It’s not lost on me that every business was touched by this in some capacity, every person was affected in some way,” Peterson said. “I know we’re just one small piece of it but we were certainly in the trenches with everyone else.”
NEF 44 will be the promotion’s first card in New Hampshire and that state’s first MMA show since COVID-19 arrived, though the Granite State has hosted several boxing events since last fall.
“Fighters and fans have waited long enough,” said DiSalvo in announcing plans for NEF 44 on June 7. “With Maine not fully open for combat sports events yet, the Hampshire Dome and the New Hampshire Boxing Commission presented the perfect opportunity to get fighters back in the cage and active again before summer was over.”
Peterson has been communicating with state officials and the Combat Sports Authority of Maine in an effort to get approval to resume shows in Maine, and while he said that has been frustrating at times he is confident NEF will return to its home turf soon.
“We’ll be back in the fall, for certain,” he said.
Among those eager to compete again is Josh Harvey, who trains at Primo Bellarosa’s Vision Quest Muay Thai and Fitness in Newport and will take a 7-1-1 professional record into his return to the cage at NEF 44.
“This couldn’t have come at a better time or at a worse time considering my last fight was my first loss and I’ve been able to stew on that ever since,” Harvey said. “But it’s been good because instead of just training for fight after fight as if I were fighting every two or three months, the time off has allowed me to actually grow as a martial artist and not just be getting into shape for a fight.”
Harvey has been training regularly since Vision Quest opened to a limited capacity last November, and he plans to spend time in July at South Tampa Jiu-Jitsu in Florida training with the likes of UFC regulars Calvin Kattar and Rob Font.
Another Mainer set to appear at NEF 44 is Lewiston’s Brandon Maillet-Fevens, who will battle Nathanial Grimard of Exeter, New Hampshire, for the vacant NEF amateur featherweight championship in a matchup originally scheduled for NEF 43.
“It’s been a long year and a half,” Maillet-Fevens said, “but we never stopped working, never stopped perfecting our skills because we knew this day was coming.”
One question that awaits promotions like NEF is whether the hiatus from competition will prompt other mixed martial arts competitors to give up the grueling sport.
“I’ve been in touch with a lot of people throughout the entire quarantine period and had a lot of people expressing what a challenge it was to stay motivated and stay in shape when gyms were closed down, to continue to develop their skill set without the framework of competition throughout the year,” Peterson said.
“I think what COVID ultimately is going to do in that sense is find out which people are really serious and hungry and want to excel and accelerate to the next level, while others probably are going to fall by the wayside.”