AUGUSTA — Mixed martial arts attracted a sold-out, standing-room-only crowd to Maine’s first official fight card last weekend in Portland.
Joe Gamache Sr. doesn’t need to dig far into the archives to recall a day when boxing — more specifically, his son, two-time world champion Joey Gamache — played to a captive audience five times as big.
“At one time, Joey held the record for the two largest gates at the Cumberland County Civic Center. The second time it was over $240,000, and the state got a five percent gate tax,” Gamache said. “Isn’t that $12,000? And that doesn’t count the hotels, the restaurants, all that money into the local economy.”
Professional boxing has been not only dormant but illegal in the state for several years. The last bell tolled in 2005.
Both halves of the Gamache father-son tandem and many other former fighters and current trainers spoke on behalf of the sport at a public hearing Tuesday.
At issue was LD 889, a bill sponsored by Rep. Matthew Peterson, D-Rumford, aimed at permitting traditional prizefighting to resume in Maine.
“Thirty-four years ago, I had the good fortune to experience my first boxing match here in Augusta,” said Chris Albee of Vassalboro. “It’s an absolutely incredible sport, and the people in Maine deserve to have boxing be part of the environment again.”
The fight game disappeared quietly.
After losing his world title bouts to Tony Lopez in 1992 and Orzubek Nazarov in 1994, Joey Gamache began his comeback before diminished crowds in his home state prior to taking the show on the road. That journey ended with a vicious knockout in 2000 at the hands of Arturo Gatti.
Gamache and his father continued to train fighters in Maine and New York, including Joey’s son Steven and nephews Jeff and Ryan.
Last spring, the elder Gamache announced that Steven Gamache would make his professional debut at a card in Lewiston, only to learn that promoting the event would violate state law.
“If we could have held our card with Steve, I know we would have sold it out, and the state would have gotten 5 percent of the revenue,” Gamache Sr. said.
The bouts were moved to Somersworth, N.H., just across the state line from Berwick.
In what was retroactively characterized as a cost-cutting measure, state lawmakers disbanded the Maine Athletic Commission, which previously sanctioned boxing in the state, due to a perceived lack of interest in promoting pro fights.
But amateur boxing has continued to thrive.
Men and women from the Portland Boxing Club challenge for national titles each year. Gamache Sr. runs a bustling gym where both boxers and mixed martial artists train.
“From my experience of almost 20 years, boxing is important for young kids to have people they can look up to like Joey or Chris,” said Mike Leary of Waterville, head coach of the Augusta Rec boxing club. “They need to know they’re training for something instead of nothing.”
Mixed martial arts have emerged as the fastest growing spectator sport in the country. Peterson was a central figure in creating a Mixed Martial Arts Authority to oversee those endeavors, leading to the successful April 30 card. Another is scheduled in Portland this weekend.
Peterson now proposes bringing boxing under the auspices of that board.
The bill calls for a subtle name change to Combat Sports Authority. An amendment would call for a nominal increase in the board members’ stipend to cover the extra duties, paid for by licensing and gate receipts.
“These individuals should be able to practice their sport in their home state,” Peterson said. “It has the potential to generate revenue for the state, for communities and small businesses.”
Reps. Kerri Prescott, R-Topsham, and Bruce Bickford, R-Auburn, co-sponsored the bill and spoke on its behalf Tuesday.
Each touted the long history of boxing in Maine. Bickford recalled growing up less than a mile from the Auburn hotel where Muhammad Ali stayed prior to his 1965 title fight at what is now Androscoggin Bank Colisee.
“Joey Gamache sold out the Cumberland County Civic Center. You know who else sold out the civic center? Sugar Ray Leonard in 1978,” Bickford said. “Boxing is alive and well in Maine. We need to take care of these folks.”
Dr. Robert McAfee of Portland was the only speaker opposed to the bill.
McAfee, a vascular and renal surgeon for more than 40 years, described himself as a former boxer who was ringside physician at countless Portland fight cards.
He cited the increased awareness of post-concussion syndrome in all sports as a reason for upholding the abolition of the sport.
“I’ve heard references to Muhammad Ali. I ask you to look at the gentleman today,” McAfee said, alluding to Ali’s long battle with dementia. “I’ve heard references to Sugar Ray Leonard. He had bilateral retinal detachment. He darn near went blind because of boxing.”
McAfee pounded his left fist into the palm of his right hand repeatedly for effect. “We’re dealing with a delicate brain suspended by little blood vessels,” he said. “Every time the brain is hit, nerve cells are lost permanently.”
Several of the lawmakers questioned McAfee’s testimony. Rep. John Tuttle, D-Sanford, participated in the most lively exchange.
“Couldn’t we say (there is a risk of serious injury) about any sport?” Tuttle inquired.
“In no other sport is the object to injure your opponent,” McAfee said.
Tuttle suggested football, to which McAfee replied that the object is to score more points.
The doctor objected to reviving the sport solely for economic reasons.
“There’s a reason they’re selling out MMA. It’s the same reason they sold out the Colosseum to watch the Christians and the lions,” McAfee said.
Prescott, who spoke of her background in martial arts, stressed that the sport is highly regulated.
“It is a chance to expand the economic base that Maine so desperately needs,” she said.
Bill Whitten, formerly a trustee of the Cumberland County Civic Center, recognized the value of boxing in the ongoing discussion of possible new civic centers in Portland and Bangor.
Joey Gamache recalled the glare of national television cameras following his every move.
“I support pro boxing for what it’s done for me, my family and all my good friends. I felt that we did a lot for boxing and for the state. We brought in a lot of revenue,” he said.
Portland’s John Webster, who slugged it out on the undercard of Gamache’s Portland fights, described an impact on his life that money couldn’t buy.
“Boxing gave me a lot to look forward to, and hope,” Webster said. “Portland, Maine was the biggest fight town in the United States in the 1970s.”
Sen. Chris Rector, R-Thomaston, co-chair of the Labor, Commerce and Development committee, said that the work session for House discussion of the bill is scheduled for next week.