The Hot Corner: City, sport still pack wallop together

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Boxing is alive and well in Lewiston.

I admit, I had my concerns, if not doubts. When Matt Peterson and Nick DiSalvo of New England Fights announced in August that they were bringing the prize ring to Androscoggin Bank Colisee in October, it wasn’t completely unlike Five Finger Death Punch declaring its intentions to put out an album of yacht rock cover tunes.

What a fool believes, indeed.

NEF built its brand name upon mixed martial arts, unleashing the modern art of the cage fight at the venerable hockey rink in quarterly doses. Largely on the broad shoulders of local men in the 18-to-35 demographic engaging in combat sports as a nights-and-weekends diversion, those cards attracted an average of 2,500 witnesses every time the doors were unlocked.

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But boxing? The uninitiated would tell you it has gone the way of the rotary phone, rabbit ears and “Frankie Says Relax” t-shirts.

At the spry, silver-haired age of 41, having grown up with a subscription to Ring Magazine and living and dying with every move of “Marvelous” Marvin Hagler, Julio Cesar Chavez and Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, I was pretty much riding the caboose on boxing’s train. On its best days, the sport had grown more stale and static than Don King’s ‘do. On its worst, it was a laughingstock.

In a world where there’s an audience for everything, however, common sense dictated that the dormant, faithful congregation was out there. We’re not all dead yet. Nobody had reached out to us in a while, that’s all.

One thousand-and-change of us showed up for this social and business experiment. What gives me even more long-term hope – although it’s puzzling in this era of social media saturation – is the inordinate number of people late Saturday night and Sunday who said to me, “Oh, shoot, I didn’t know/forgot that was happening. Are they going to have another one?”

The answer: Probably. For all its overnight success, NEF is an organization with a smart business model, a measured approach, and two co-promoters who get it.

It wasn’t five years ago that I sat in an Augusta conference room and listened to Peterson, a state representative from Rumford, testify on behalf of the sport that was our childhood obsession. Pro boxing had quietly become illegal in Maine. Not by the work of politically correct, do-gooder, fun-police types, but simply because state resources were consolidated and nobody was engaged enough in the sport to translate the fine print until it was too late.

We got a combat sports commission out of the deal, but the natural, obvious entrepreneurial target of the novel NEF venture was mixed martial arts’ rabid and growing audience. Pay-per-view buys, cable television deals and the basic ability to read pop culture all dictated that. Even we boxing lifers had to concede the point.

A funny thing was happening here in Maine, though. In musty, dimly lit basements in Lewiston and Portland, and in such you-can’t-there-from-here enclaves as West Forks and Stockton Springs, the sport began growing its talent pool again. Teenagers and 9-to-5ers alike flocked to the ring. Some of them seeking a cardiovascular workout. Some of them seeking an escape. All of them with a dream.

Not many things in sports or life are more painful than a dream deceased. I’d been privy to Steven Gamache and James “Boxcar Willie” Carville’s dreams since they were locker room tagalongs, grabbing at the hem of Steven’s dad Joey’s robe, hoping that his championship greatness was contagious.

Now in their early 30s, both men had abandoned those dreams. Gamache hadn’t fought in two years. Carville, four. Perhaps they had gone through the stages of grief, reaching acceptance and acknowledging that both the sport and a small part of the world had passed them by.

Reports of that death, as evidenced the roar of the crowd and the colorful spectacle of Gamache and Carville’s triumphantly raised fists Saturday night, are startlingly premature.

They fight on. For the first time in more than a decade, a Twin Cities fight crowd has new stories to tell. For the first time in their lives, children at ringside had the chance to hatch their own dreams.

Carville called it a “silly dream.” I respectfully disagree. Boxing is a game in which the combatants fight for a variety of reasons. Their supper. Their self-respect. Their family. Their freedom. Their lives.

Nothing silly about any of that.

And of course it’s dangerous. Leaving your home is dangerous. Giving away your heart to a significant other is dangerous. Trying to hold a job in this economy is dangerous.

Life is dangerous. It’s a contact sport and an adventure. That’s what makes it rewarding. That’s what connects us all and helps us identify with each other, even as tastes and generational interests change.

Certain experiences and celebrations transcend time. The sweet science, for all its sanctioning body silliness and corruption at the highest level, is one of those.

Especially in Maine. Especially in Lewiston.

The bell tolled Saturday night. Let’s get it on.

Kalle Oakes is a staff writer. His email is koakes@sunjournal.com. Follow him on Twitter @Oaksie72.

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