LEWISTON — Big brothers can be heroes or tormentors, and Rumford's Jesse and Matt Peterson are quick to acknowledge that Matt, three years the elder, has played both roles to perfection.
"I try to take credit for some of his toughness with some of the beatings he took as a kid, but no, he's my hero in a lot of ways," Matt Peterson said. "I've been very inspired by him. He's faced some adversity, but he's found his way back. He's doing great things in the cage right now."
Yes, it's funny how life's twists and turns change the dynamic of our closest relationships.
The cage Matt mentioned is the octagon-shaped mixed martial arts prize ring. It's a place that has become a haven for Jesse, now a 30-year-old professional in the sport. And OK, perhaps indirectly an escape for Matt as well.
Jesse Peterson (7-2) is the Maine MMA middleweight champion. He'll step up in weight class dramatically Saturday night when he scuffles with Greg Rebello (14-5) in hopes of adding the light heavyweight belt to his mantle.
The blood, sweat, discipline and risk are mostly his own, but in no small way Jesse owes much of his success to Matt, co-founder and matchmaker of New England Fights.
It's the upstart promotion that attracted more than 3,000 fans to Androscoggin Bank Colisee for each of four "Fight Night" cards in 2012.
"My brother has been a huge, huge influence. If it weren't for my brother, I probably wouldn't have done any of this," Jesse said. "He believed in me. I'm real passionate about things right now. I want to capitalize."
True to the hard-nosed, sports-crazy roots of the mill town in which they were raised, Jesse and Matt are comfortable as underdogs. They're also overcomers.
An accident at 18 paralyzed Matt below the waist. He performs his staggering number of day-to-day duties — day job with Alpha One, helping handicapped adults achieve independence; seat in the state legislature; co-owner of a growing sports enterprise; father — from a wheelchair.
"There's a lot of history there. It's kind of deep. My brother had his accident back in 1998, and we weren't very close until then," Jesse said. "First it was wrestling and then it was this, and we just stuck together."
Jesse was a champion wrestler and football standout at Mountain Valley High School, graduating in 2000.
"I sustained my spinal cord injury at 18 years old, and I almost think I was lucky, because that was the point where Jesse could have started handing me out beatings, where it had been the opposite to that point in my life," Matt said. "I got out lucky in that regard. He really came into his own at 14, 15 years old."
The younger brother continued his mat career at the University of Southern Maine but struggled with the demands on a student-athlete. By his second year, low grades cost him his eligibility.
One of his USM coaches, Mike Brown, introduced Jesse to the new discipline of mixed martial arts in 2003. He didn't see himself competing at first but eventually tried six bouts over a three-year period.
"In 2008, I went into a little hiatus or whatever you want to call it. Then I had a daughter," Jesse said. "I hadn't been making the best decisions for my life. I got a little lost."
The lost is found. Whatever can't be credited to Matt's promotion of the sport should be ascribed to Jesse's tireless work ethic.
Outside the cage, he works as a logger while taking courses part-time to complete his criminal justice degree. Inside it, Jesse, who flaunts a 7-2 record, is notorious for fighting anybody who comes along.
Matt projects that Rebello will outweigh his brother by 20 to 30 pounds by the opening bell. And by comparison, that's nothing.
"By no stretch do I get any breaks from this organization," Jesse said of his relationship to the co-promoter. "You can look at last April when I fought a guy who was 100 pounds heavier, or else I wasn't going to be able to fight because my opponent got injured. I wanted to fight. I had a lot of people coming down (to watch). I was knocked out on my feet. That was the hardest I've ever been hit. But I feel like a public servant in a sense. I have my fans, and they want to see a show."
It was Matt's work in the legislature that helped make combat sports legal again in Maine after a brief period of inactivity. But while most of the state's fighting tradition was confined to the boxing ring — notably Muhammad Ali's knockout of Sonny Liston and Joey Gamache'e two world titles — MMA was new to many.
The first card in February 2012 essentially packed the Colisee, a venerable ice arena that recently had lost its primary tenant, the Lewiston Maineiacs major junior hockey team, due to declining attendance and revenues.
"I always knew it was possible. Maybe in my wildest dreams I guess it could have happened this quickly," Matt said of New England Fights' success. "I grew up with amateur wrestling, and I knew if those guys had a chance to do something past that in a dynamic sport like mixed martial arts, they would do it."
Jesse is only one of the fruits of that labor. When told that his brother viewed him as a hero, he quickly acknowledged that the feelings are mutual.
Soft-spoken and humble in conversation, the fighter may owe some of that demeanor to his big brother, as well.
"My fights are small in comparison. Everybody fights," Jesse said. "My brother fights every day to go to work in the mornings when it takes him an hour to get dressed. He's a fighter. One of my teammate's fathers is an ultra marathon runner and a head surgeon at Central Maine Medical Center. That guy is 10 times the athlete I'll ever be. I have a lot of respect for people from all walks of life."
Both brothers consider Jesse Peterson the underdog Saturday night against Rebello, a veteran who has national experience fighting with the Bellator promotion and in "The Ultimate Fighter" reality series.
That's fine with Peterson, who rallied to beat highly regarded Cody Lightfoot of Berwick in his previous title bout.
"People were saying I didn't have a chance, and that kind of fueled me. If I'm a 90 percent underdog, whatever," Jesse said. "I condition my body to be able to withstand a lot. I'm not going to go out and get kicked in the head and knocked out like everybody's saying. That's not going to happen."
"He was down, he was getting pounded, but his conditioning and the work that he's put in pulled him through," Matt recalled. "It's one of the proudest moments I've ever had for my brother."
Matt is careful to maintain professional dignity, but he isn't ashamed to cast aside the matchmaker hat and put on the brother cap once in a while.
Saturday night, for instance.
"He wants to test himself against the best and that's what he's going to do," Matt said. "Rebello is an incredibly proficient striker, which is the antithesis of Jesse's wrestling. But I have faith. I want to remain objective, but my heart strings are pulled in this one."
Heroes will do that to a person.