LEWISTON — Boxing promoter Joe Gamache Sr. is reluctantly throwing in the towel and calling off his June 19 fights — for now — to avoid going a few rounds with the law.
Last week, Norman Croteau, district attorney for Androscoggin, Oxford and Franklin counties, sat down with Gamache Sr. and informed the veteran promoter that holding the fights in Maine would be illegal due to a change in state law. Croteau suggested that Gamache immediately stop promoting the fights and cancel the event.
Gamache was surprised to learn that his show could not go on in June because the law had been changed in 2007. Stephen Gamache, retired boxer Joey Gamache Jr.'s son, was to make his professional debut at the Lewiston Multi-Purpose Center.
"Right now, if it's wrong, we are not going to do it," Gamache Sr. said. "We are not going to do something that's wrong.
"It hurts us," he said. "The whole thing is a mess. I am getting all kinds of calls for tickets. If this, right now, doesn't go off, I am going to give back every sponsor's money. I am hoping we can find some kind of loophole."
Croteau was contacted last week by the state Attorney General's Office to handle the matter because the issue came under his jurisdiction.
"I think the AG's Office had been contacted by a legislator who had simply read about the fight in the paper and had simply contacted the AG's Office and said just, well, who is going to be regulating the fight schedule for June, and frankly what is all this about?" Croteau said. "He was probably aware of the change in the statute. So I don't think it was someone who was necessarily contacting to complain about it or did not support it, (but) was just wondering who was going to regulate it."
Old as the hills
That statute, which criminalized prizefighting in Maine, has been on the books since 1873, and states that "unlawful prizefighting is a Class E crime." Gamache and anyone associated with the fight, including boxers, could have been prosecuted by Croteau's office.
But there were two exceptions that allowed prizefighting to be legally held in the Pine Tree State. One was oversight by the Maine Boxing Commission, which later became the Maine Athletic Commission. The other was that an event's proceeds must go to a nonprofit organization.
In 2007, however, the Athletic Commission was abolished by the Maine Legislature as a cost-saving measure, making it impossible to hold professional fights in Maine, unless the 1873 statute is amended.
Croteau wasn't sure why the Athletic Commission was abolished.
"It could be at that time, there wasn't that much prizefighting going on in the state," he said. "I think at that time there was a concern that the commission was running a deficit and there were fewer and fewer fights and that as a cost-saving matter, it probably made more sense to abolish it. Probably at that time, the Legislature wasn't all that aware of what the commission did in terms of promoting the health and the safety issues that went along with the commission's work as it was originally put together, so it was eliminated."
New game in town
Gamache Sr. was stunned to discover that mixed martial arts competitions could be held in Maine: The same statute that made boxing illegal was amended on March 1, 2010, and the Mixed Martial Arts Authority of Maine was formed.
"I say mixed martial arts is part of boxing," said a frustrated Gamache Sr. "You get in there and throw punches and get knocked down. It is boxing. That's part of boxing when you knock a guy down."
But Assistant Attorney General Andrew Black said a mixed martial arts event cannot be held until the Mixed Martial Arts Authority adopts its own rules, which has not been done, yet.
But pro boxing still has no leg to stand on with the abolition of the Maine Athletic Commission. Gamache Sr. is trying to work around the statute. He is exploring other ways to hold the fight — such as bringing in another boxing commission, but it appears that is wishful thinking.
"Not in Maine," Black said. "It would still be illegal under the statute."
Gamache approached Greg Sirb, executive director of the Pennsylvania State Athletic Commission, and requested that his commission regulate the Maine event. But Sirb said he would abide by Maine law and stay out of the matter.
"The state prevails in those matters," Sirb said. "I always defer to the states."
Croteau said some people may be under the impression that even though the Maine Boxing Commission is gone, they could get a sponsorship under the National Boxing Commission Association, "that somehow that would satisfy the state's concern about who is going to regulate it. The criminal statute doesn't say that."
Gamache, however, went ahead with his fight promotion because he was under the impression that if another boxing commission was brought to Maine to regulate the event, there would be no problem.
Croteau said he didn't want anybody being charged with a criminal violation over an issue that could easily be resolved.
"They can engage the next legislative session to make appropriate changes to the law so that they can become promoters and do all this stuff that so many people have done for so many years," Croteau said.
State Rep. Matthew Peterson, D-Rumford, said he got curious when he read about the upcoming boxing matches in Lewiston and sent an e-mail to the Attorney General's Office, asking who would be regulating the fights.
Peterson wasn't aware of the 1873 statute and was amazed that his e-mail had stirred up controversy.
"I asked the question," he said. "It was a simple and innocent question. It was a curious thing."
Peterson believes there must be a way to include prizefighting in a new amendment.
"In hindsight, it’s a shame that the boxing community didn’t get involved two years ago when the Mixed Martial Arts Authority was discussed and created by the Legislature," he said. "We could have made the authority more inclusive then — but there was just no interest expressed. I hope we can find a good way to sanction boxing in Maine again, and I would love to work with the Gamaches or anyone else to get the changes in law to accomplish that."
Bill Condon, the last head of the Maine Athletic Commission, was disappointed that the Gamaches won't be allowed to put on a fight in Maine. He said pro fighters — despite the 1873 statute in Maine, have been stepping into the ring for years thanks to the Maine Boxing Commission. He believes federal laws should supersede state laws when it comes to boxing in Maine.
"I think (Joe Gamache Sr.) is getting raked," Condon said.