Full disclosure: I’m a mixed martial arts convert.

My longtime colleague and esteemed editor Justin Pelletier assigned a project two months ago.

Dig into the local MMA scene, he said. Figure out why it gained popularity around here in 2012 as quickly as backyard fireworks displays. Give our readers the good, the bad and the ugly.

With my built-in objectivity, I was a perfect candidate. I had maintained a safe distance from the multiple, nearly sold-out shows at Androscoggin Bank Colisee, going out of my way to point out how much else we had going on each of those Saturday nights. Surely we couldn’t afford to have me immersed in such trifling matters.

But addictions start with baby steps.

I gradually got to know Matt Peterson, co-founder of New England Fights and frankly one of the most genuine public servants you could ever meet.

Met his brother, Jesse, and other local fighters in the process of penning features, and found them to be some of the most honest, engaging interview subjects to enter my atmosphere in a long time.

Even broke down and attended a weigh-in. And despite the fact that it was part meat market, part circus, if the hair on your arms didn’t stand up from the electricity in the room, you would have to be pronounced dead.

A week passed. Then a month, and doggone it, somewhere between a phone interview with approachable, articulate native son Marcus Davis and the throaty roar that accompanied his arrival in the Colisee cage a few nights later, I had officially paid my security deposit at Fan Central.

There goes the neighborhood. There goes investigative journalism.

OK, a little more background. I came to this party a boxing fanatic. Well, I’d identify myself as such, in the same manner that I declare myself a born-again Christian. That is, I love the sport despite what the people who are the face, the voice and the international power of the sport have done to destroy its good name.

My earliest boxing memory is five days before my seventh birthday. I was supposed to be in bed preparing for a trip to Boston the next morning. Instead, I tiptoed out of my room to peek through the crack in the door as my father and grandfather watched a Marvin Hagler-Vito Antuofermo and Sugar Ray Leonard-Wilfred Benitez world championship doubleheader.

Yes, on Friday night and on free TV. There was nothing greater than Howard Cosell’s call as those warriors strove to smack the snot out of one another. Both fights were epic, long before the word “epic” was sapped of its meaning by being used to describe everything in the world that is better than average.

That love of a sport grew as I did, living vicariously through Alexis Arguello, Ray “Boom Boom” Mancini, Leonard, Hagler, Michael Spinks, Mike Tyson, and yes, eventually, Lewiston’s own Joey Gamache.

All the while, the sport began to eat itself. Numerous deaths that could have been prevented. Alphabet soup organizations that multiplied like gremlins from the kitschy 1980s comedy-horror movie, each with its own scandalously flawed ratings system. World championship fights that went the distance ending in highway robbery on the scorecards. Tyson being convicted of rape.

The list could go on, but nearly every fan of adrenaline and combat sports younger than I has spoken for me over the course of two decades. Boxing disappeared from network television eons ago. Cable ratings have dropped through the floor, reducing ESPN’s coverage of the sport to the impossible-to-find bare minimum.

To watch a truly “big” fight, you must shell out for either pay-per-view or a premium channel. Honestly, other than the prospective Floyd Mayweather Jr.-Manny Pacquiao fight that was wrapped in red tape until it was no longer in demand, I can’t name a scrap that I felt was worth that investment in over a decade.

While I didn’t go looking to divorce boxing, MMA pursued me. It hooked me with quick fights that feature nearly constant action and almost never end in dispute. It wooed me with its athleticism and persuaded me with its passion and sincerity. It showed me that my love of combat sports wasn’t dead but merely in self-defensive hibernation. And it floored me with the radical concept of having its biggest stars actually fight one another.

No worries: I’m fully capable of balancing my admiration for the sport by taking an honest look at its blemishes.

It’s bloody to a fault. I’m not sure some of the 7- or 8-year-old children I witnessed in the front row at Bellator needed to be there, any more than they needed to be home playing shoot-’em-up video games.

There’s hardly a limitless audience. Just as millions of people won’t ever get a thrill out of watching cars turn left or guys hitting approach shots to the 18th green at Augusta Country Club, large segments of the American populace aren’t going to connect with guys rolling around on a mat kicking and swinging and clutching and grabbing.

To each his or her own. It’s an acquired taste and doesn’t need to be an exclusive one.

Look, I’ll always love boxing the same way I’ll always love Pac-Man, yacht rock and Ronald Reagan. I’ll relish every opportunity to indulge those interests through the magic of evolving technology.

But the games change, the tunes change, the times change, and I have changed.

You win, MMA. You win big.

Kalle Oakes is a staff columnist. His email is [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @Oaksie72.

MMA: Maine’s Caged Craze

Sunday: A look at the growth of the sport in Maine and a look at the dangers.

Coming Wednesday: The evolution of safety in the sport has helped it expand and maintain.

Coming April 28: Reasons for the sport’s popularity abound; and a look to the future.



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