LEWISTON, Maine — When Matt Peterson introduced legislation in the Maine House of Representatives several years ago to legalize mixed martial arts in the state, the Rumford Democrat saw the chance to fulfill a teenage dream.
Peterson, who grew up amid the rich wrestling tradition of Rumford and Mountain Valley high schools, saw a void in the competitive market for local athletes trained in wrestling, boxing, jujitsu and other combat sports amid the fading era of professional boxing that had shaped some of his earliest athletic interests.
He also saw the economic potential in bringing a sport with a young, vibrant demographic to the untapped market of his home state.
It was a bit of a risk, to be sure, but one he believed was flush with opportunity.
And Peterson was not just interested in working to help make that possible legislatively — the law legalizing MMA in Maine was enacted in 2009 — he wanted to play an active role in developing what that law enabled.
“I knew I eventually wanted to move from the consumer role to more of a production role,” said Peterson, who watched his first pay-per-view MMA card — UFC 8 — with some high school buddies back in 1996.
“I saw sponsoring the bill as one little place where I could contribute because I felt that the sport could be an economic driver for the state of Maine.”
Now, barely a year after joining forces with Massachusetts native Nick DiSalvo to create New England Fights, Peterson has found their joint creation of the first MMA promotion to call Maine home to be everything he thought it could be.
NEF hosted five mixed martial arts cards between February and November 2012, averaging more than 2,500 fans per outing.
While that number may pale in comparison nationally to the 10,000 to 20,000 fans that turn out for events staged by the top-tier Ultimate Fighting Championships (UFC), it compared favorably to the first MMA fight card held in Maine in April 2011. That attracted 2,000 fans to the Stevens Avenue Armory in Portland and was co-promoted by Massachusetts-based Cage Fighting Xtreme and Brewer’s Team Irish MMA Fitness Academy.
NEF’s average attendance also compared favorably to nearly all of the current MMA promotions currently based in the Northeast, according to Denny “Old School” Siggins, a Massachusetts-based consultant to various MMA promotions and the owner of NortheastMMA.net, which publicizes the sport’s news and rumors as well as publishes rankings of the region’s top professional and amateur competitors.
Siggins said only the Reality Fighting promotion based at the Mohegan Sun Casino in Uncasville, Conn., regularly drew bigger crowds during 2012 than the NEF “Fight Night” cards with an average 4,000 to 6,000.
“Most shows in New England draw about 800 people and then it’s a break-even thing for the promoters,” said Siggins. “They do no marketing and they get used to running it that way, it’s a part-time business for them. With NEF, Nick and Matt are busy doing other things, too, but they work at this full time.
“They’re already second (to Reality Fighting) in putting fans in the seats, and they’ve only been doing it a year. I’ve been impressed.”
Crowds for the NEF events in 2012 peaked when 3,300 fans turned out for the Fight Night IV card in Lewiston on Sept. 8, with the smallest crowd of a near-capacity 1,600 for Fight Night II in April at the Biddeford Ice Arena.
“2012 was like a blitzkreig,” said Peterson, NEF co-owner and matchmaker. “When I look back at how the last year unfolded, I can’t believe we put on five cards in nine months.
“It was a magical year in a lot of ways, but especially in starting to lay the foundation for what we want to do in the future.”
That foundation largely has been based in grooming homegrown talent, Maine-based fighters who can attract their own fan bases while honing their MMA skills without having to travel out of state to find fights.
“It’s a retail, grass-roots effort,” said Peterson, “trying to build relationships, trying to support the training that the competitors do by providing them a chance to compete.
“Maine is the only state to produce two organically produced world champions in (former two-time UFC heavyweight champion) Tim Sylvia (of Eastbrook) and (ex-WEC featherweight champ) Mike Brown (of Portland), but the fact is they had to go out of state to develop their careers.”
As a result of that emphasis on local talent, fighters like Jesse Peterson, John “First Class” Raio, “The” Ryan Sanders and Ray “All Business” Wood have become household names within the fledgling Maine mixed martial arts world while making regular appearances on NEF cards.
“Having the chance to fight in Maine has been good for me and good for my family and friends who want to see me fight,” said Sanders, a Brewer resident who fought in the pro welterweight (170-pound) division on all five NEF cards in 2012 after previously having to travel to western Massachusetts to find bouts. “Now I get to talk with people before and after the fight who are really behind me, and it just makes you want to fight the best fight of your life every time out.
“Before I started fighting in Maine, I fought in some small venues that were really like in the back of a restaurant and you might get a couple of hundred of fans there. In Lewiston we’re fighting in front of 3,000 and, for a guy from a small town just looking to improve, it’s a huge step up.”
If there is any complaint about the first year of NEF’s “Fight Night” cards it’s an overabundance of fights resulting in cards that have stretched as long as six hours.
Overscheduling is one way to guard against the tendency for many bouts to be scratched after competitors are injured while training.
“If you book 15 fights probably eight of them will come to fruition,” said Siggins.
“Matt starts out with 30 fights, and six or eight weeks out it’s down to 27 and it usually ends up with 18 or so, although they had one card in the 20s.
“It’s a tough part of the business, but they’re learning as they go along.”
Peterson sees that scheduling dilemma as a necessary tradeoff for providing opportunities for up-and-coming fighters as well as giving NEF’s customers, who pay between $25 and $75 per seat, the most value for their entertainment dollars.
“There are pros and cons,” added Sanders. “As a fighter you have to get there a couple of hours before the event starts, and for pros like me who fight near the end of the card you could be there six or seven hours before you fight.
“But you are able to get more fighters onto the cards.”
And as the fighters have gained more opportunities to compete, the quality of their individual and collective products has improved.
“People who have been to more than one of the cards come up and tell us they can’t believe how much better the fights have gotten over the last nine months,” said Peterson. “And I tell them that’s because they’re getting to fight more, they’re training harder with that in mind, and they’re getting better.”
Peterson wouldn’t give specifics, but he did say that thanks to the fan turnout that the first year of staging NEF cards has been profitable.
“But nobody’s quitting their day job to do this,” added Peterson, who still represents House District 92 in the Maine Legislature as well as working as a manager of programs that promote independent living for citizens with a disability at Alpha One.
“The big thing about that is that Nick and I got into this for the right reason, and that’s for the pure passion for this sport. I love working with Maine athletes, their discipline, their commitment, their resilience. That’s the gift for me.”
Siggins estimates fixed costs of between $25,000 and $30,000 per card, with additional costs for the promoters based on the number of competitors brought to Maine from out of state who must be housed the night before their fights and the related travel costs.
Peterson said all purses for MMA professional combatants are negotiated individually based on a number of factors, including the fighter’s record, opponent, location and credentials in the cage. A new fighter might command a few hundred dollars for a win in his debut while a UFC veteran might be guaranteed several thousand dollars.
Fighters also may receive a percentage of ticket sales by fans who purchase tickets in their favorite fighter’s name.
Some of those earnings go toward paying for bloodwork that is required every six months as well as annual physicals and eye exams. Such tests also are required of the amateur fighters.
“Some people do this for a hobby,” said Sanders, “and it can get expensive because of having the bloodwork done every six months.
“But this is one of the best promotions to fight for. I’ve fought for a handful of different promotions, and New England Fights really takes care of you.”
NEF officials and those who fight in Maine abide by rules established by the Combat Sports Authority of Maine, a seven-member committee of volunteers established in 2009 to oversee mixed martial arts as well as boxing in Maine.
“They do a good job, and we’re very appreciative of their work,” said Peterson. “They’re integral to what we’re doing.”
The panel’s responsibilities include ensuring medical clearances for all the competitors as well as fighter safety at the venues, post-fight medical care and rulemaking for the sport.
“We feel it’s been a phenomenal success,” said Peter Bouchard, chairman of the Combat Sports Authority of Maine. “We had five events with New England Fights and have had zero issues to speak of.
“MMA is something that brings in tax dollars for the state of Maine and provides another exciting event for people looking for something to do entertainment-wise.”
Bouchard said the growth of MMA in Maine has represented a learning experience for all, though he added that authority members have extensive individual backgrounds in combat sports and are well prepared to handle any issues that arise.
“There have been 12,000 to 15,000 people at the five (NEF) events and there were really no issues, no altercations in the crowd and minimal issues with the weigh-ins or anything else involved in making the fights go,” he said.
Bouchard said as the competitors have become more familiar with the rules and paperwork they are required to file before each fight, that part of the process has become more refined.
“It’s been a gradual process, and now everybody’s much more on the same page,” he said. “For the last event I’d say we had 99.8 percent of all the paperwork in 10 days ahead of the fights.”
Bouchard said just one fighter faced disciplinary action from the authority during 2012 with another suspension pending against a cornerman. Both cases involve unsportsmanlike conduct, a point of emphasis for the panel.
“We’re really looking for good sportsmanship because we really want this to be a family event,” he said.
Enhancing the fan experience at future MMA events is one of the major goals shared by the Combat Sports Authority of Maine, New England Fights executives and the rest of the state’s mixed martial arts community.
“I think one thing I’m happy we’ve been able to do is to create more of a family-friendly atmosphere,” said Peterson, whose promotion’s first card of 2013, Fight Night VI, will be held Feb. 2 at 6 p.m. in Lewiston. “Now fighters are coming up to me afterwards and talking about how they’re being asked to sign T-shirts and sign autographs, it’s cool to see.
“We want to promote a family-friendly environment and really celebrate what these athletes are accomplishing.”
That celebration eventually may involve expanding the NEF brand beyond its Lewiston comfort zone.
“We’re looking forward to having sellout shows in 2013 at some of the larger venues in the state,” Peterson said, “which we really believe is going to happen.”
And it may not stop there.
“The key now is to be able to branch out,” said Peterson of a promotion that’s named after an MMA podcast he started in 2006. “There’s a reason we’re called New England Fights. It’s important to give these athletes the opportunity to branch out beyond state lines, and I see that coming in 2013.
“We want to continue to develop fighters and help them get to the next level of opportunity. We want to see some guys who made their bones with New England Fights have the opportunity to make it to UFC or Bellator, some of the upper-tier productions.
“If they can do that, then it’s a credit to where they started and also lets other fighters know what’s possible out there.”
Brand enhancement may help the NEF withstand what is expected to be increased competition from other MMA promotions in the region that see the healthy attendance numbers in Maine and want a piece of the market.
“I think people see a lot of potential for mixed martial arts in Maine,” said Bouchard. “We’ve definitely reached out, and we also have received inquiries from out-of-state promotions expressing their interest in coming to Maine.
“I think you’re definitely going to see other promotions coming in.”
Siggins, who has seen the number of MMA promotions in New England and New York grow from a handful just a few years ago to 18 to 20 in 2012, also expects increased interest in the Maine market. Though given general economic conditions, the state’s small population base and the additional travel costs related to staging more northern-based cards he’s unsure of the ultimate level of that interest.
“A number of other promotions are looking favorably at Maine,” he said, “but they don’t know the amount of marketing work Nick does and the amount of PR that Matt has done to get these guys where they are.”
“Those costs all add up, and that’s what a lot of the smaller and upstart promotions down here don’t fully comprehend about MMA in Maine.”
Peterson and DiSalvo plan to focus on self-improvement.
That includes crowning additional NEF Maine champions in 2013 and upgrading such elements of their Fight Night cards as the showmanship involved in fighters’ cage entrances.
Siggins, for one, is confident Peterson and DiSalvo have the wherewithal to keep NEF on an upward track.
“Some things that Nick and Matt have learned during the first year they’ll improve upon because they’re smart businessmen,” said Siggins. “They’ll fine-tune their approach so they won’t have 20 fights on a card again, they’ll have 14 or 15 and they’ll put on a great show in 3 or 3½ hours.
“They’ll also crown one or two more new champions this year. I’m sure Nick and Matt would like to always have a couple of Mainers fighting for their Maine championship, but I also think the fans mostly want to see great fights.”
And as for the specter of increased competition?
“We expect that at some point,” Peterson said, “but we will be prepared.”