It has given year-round life to a struggling hockey arena and entertainment venue.

Pumped ticket, concessions, restaurant and lodging revenue by the hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy.

Taken Lewiston/Auburn into living rooms in more than 100 countries.

Mixed martial arts is its name, and yes, hearing or reading that name evokes much the same reaction as the mention of the New York Yankees, Dallas Cowboys or Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

The listener either grits his teeth and pumps his fist in celebratory appreciation or rolls his eyes and recoils in disdain. There is no middle ground.

Call it polarizing if you wish, but call it wildly popular. No sport in America has seen such exponential growth since Ultimate Fighting Championship first introduced the hybrid of boxing, wrestling and martial arts to bright lights and cameras 20 years ago.

“Boxing has taken a back seat to mixed martial arts in every category, whether it’s pay-per-view buys, cable TV viewers, live attendance or advertising,” said Bjorn Rebney, CEO of Bellator Fighting Championships, second only to UFC among mixed martial arts sanctioning bodies in the world. “MMA has taken over from boxing in all those key driver categories, and the sport continues to grow.”

And likely growing nowhere faster than in Maine, where it is barely a year old.

State Rep. Matt Peterson (D-Rumford) sponsored the bill that made professional combat sports — essentially mixed martial arts and boxing — legal in Maine. The state’s athletic commission had been disbanded as a cost-cutting measure several years earlier.

Peterson’s push began in 2009. It finally became law in 2011, resulting in the creation of the Combat Sports Authority of Maine.

His involvement didn’t end there. Peterson co-founded New England Fights with Nick DiSalvo of Massachusetts. The duo co-promoted its first show in February 2012.

The venture has been nothing but a bonanza for aspiring fighters, fight enthusiasts and the local economy. Five NEF cards have attracted an average crowd of 3,000 each night to the Colisee. Buoyed by that success, the group was a driving force behind bringing Bellator to town for an internationally televised fight night in March.

“I have that moment at every single event when I look around and think, ‘My gosh.’ I mean, I preached it. This was my bedrock belief that Maine was the place for this,” Peterson said. “We’re a fighting state. We’re fight fans, and we’ve seen that come to fruition.”

Mixed reviews

Like any sport with inherent dangers or just about any activity in life that is new and different, MMA isn’t universally accepted.

New York and Connecticut still do not sanction the sport at the pro level. The most vocal opponent in New York, state assemblyman Bob Reilly, described MMA in an interview with the New York Times as “a violent sport not worthy of our society.”

At the public hearing to consider Peterson’s bill in 2011, Dr. Robert McAfee of Portland spoke vehemently against combat sports, citing the many cases of permanent brain and eye damage among retired boxers. He pounded the back of one hand against the palm of the other as he delivered his points, as if to simulate the concussion of the human brain against the skull when absorbing a punch.

Even Lewiston’s Joey Gamache, a two-time world champion in the boxing ring who addressed the legislature on behalf of the combat sports bill, noted recently that he is no fan of MMA.

“That’s crazy, dangerous stuff,” Gamache said. “I could never picture myself doing that. I think about all I put myself through in the ring, just the punches. Now you’re talking about getting kicked and choked out.”

A notable five-year study by Johns Hopkins University painted a far more favorable picture of MMA, however.

Only 28 percent of the fights studied ended because of a blow to the head. A mere 3 percent concluded with one of the fighters being treated for a concussion.

And while no fewer than 129 boxers have died in America since 1960, the all-time U.S. death toll in professional MMA is three, none since 2010.

Possible reasons? Fights are shorter. While boxing referees are instructed to give fighters every opportunity to recover from punishment, MMA officials are trained to step in at the first sign that a fighter is defenseless and halt the proceedings.

There is also the tradition of the “tapout,” or submission. While quitting is considered a sign of weakness in the ring, surrender has more noble connotations in the cage.

Maine’s sanctioning body has adopted the unified rules that govern the sport through the country, further strengthening the safeguards.

“The Combat Sports Authority is completely professional,” Peterson said. “There is a detailed medical procedure that every fighter has to go through.”

Fearless by nature, most mixed martial artists accept the sight of their own blood and the stretching of their limbs beyond their normal limits as an everyday occupational hazard.

They even approach it with good-natured gallows humor.

“It’s like a car accident,” said UFC veteran Travis Wiuff. “You don’t want to watch. You know you shouldn’t watch. But you can’t help turning your head.”

“Some people don’t like it. They think it’s too primeval,” added Marcus Davis of Houlton, one of Maine’s most acclaimed MMA competitors. “I don’t like golf. If they let me swing a club and hit the guy with it, I might feel differently.”

‘It saved my life’

To others, the significance of MMA in their lives in no laughing matter.

Brent Dillingham doesn’t know where he would be if MMA had not been authorized in Maine. Or at least he doesn’t want to think about it.

“I was a troubled kid. I had a lot of problems,” he said. “I dropped out of school at a young age. You could say I had a troubled upbringing.”

His discovery of the sport led him from Lewiston to Florida, where he trained in a pair of nationally renowned gyms before the opportunity to fight in his home state surfaced.

He was victorious in four consecutive amateur fights before turning pro as part of the Bellator card. Dillingham lost via submission but is adamant that MMA helped him win his life back.

“This sport for me has taken my life and helped me make a 180-degree turn. It’s taken me from a child to a man. I started training as a child and I’ve literally grown into a man,” Dillingham said. “This sport helps prepare you for life, to become a better person. MMA combines all those things. There’s peace you find when you’re training hard and achieving your goals. You’re doing everything within your power that day to become a better you. It saved my life.”

Earlier this month, Dillingham, 23, began the process of giving back, teaching the sport to newcomers at First Class MMA. One of his partners in the venture is John Raio, a 36-year-old former high school and college wrestling star.

Raio, a postman by trade with a degree in social services, had given up competitive sports to start a family. He watched with envy as former teammates and friends such as Mike Brown, Jesse Peterson and Jamie Harrison climbed into the cage and enjoyed success.

“A couple years ago a friend of mine mentioned there was an MMA gym in Bath. MMA Athletix. I said, ‘I’ve got to go in there. I’m 200 pounds, way out of shape. I’m going to go in there and just get in shape.’ The first night I was in there I was addicted to MMA,” Raio said. “The trainer there, Ryan Cowette, was my age. He had already fought three times. I thought, if he could do it, I could do it.”

Raio has fought seven times since the launch of New England Fights in February 2012.

Matt Peterson said that the number of objections he hears about MMA have subsided. When one of the uninitiated does express concerns about cage fighting, he uses the anecdotal evidence of those men and others as his defense.

“People sometimes say, ‘Yeah, but it looks so violent.’ I say look at the transformation in the people who are training for this. Some people really change their lives because of it,” Peterson said. “I say, ‘Let me get you to a show. Come to a live event. Meet some of these guys and discover how committed and dedicated they are.’ “

Dillingham wonders how his childhood might have been different if there had been an MMA gym available in Lewiston or Auburn when he was a boy.

He balances those thoughts with the understanding that the sport is not appropriate for children of all ages, at least not without proper adult supervision.

“There are a lot of skeptics out there who see the violent side of it. For kids, just to see the end result itself, I’m sure it can have a negative effect,” Dillingham said. “There should be a certain education involved with it. Anybody who thinks they want to do it should have to immerse themselves in it for 30 days and really see what it’s all about. If they do that, I don’t see how people could ever disrespect it or abuse it.”

Age-old questions

Wes Littlefield, a longtime trainer and former high school football coach, said he has seen the benefits of teaching the sport to students as young as 13.

The owner of Littlefield’s Gym in Oakland has been an MMA instructor for six years. His current roster includes 18 prospective fighters, most of them teenagers and young adults.

“It gives them discipline, especially in today’s world, where it is needed so badly,” Littlefield said.

UFC and Bellator veteran Davis believes that fighting is in some children’s blood and that the MMA cage, or boxing ring, is a healthy place to harness it.

Davis cited his own childhood, only half-joking that his mother claims that her son was throwing punches before he could walk.

“Some people always know they’re going to be a certain thing when they grow up. I always had that mentality,” Davis said. “I was 8 when I started boxing. Had my first official match at 14. Turned pro at 18. This is all I’ve ever done. It’s my business. Some people are carpenters. I’m a fighter.”

Perhaps more dangerous than the physical risk of MMA, said Minnesota pro Wiuff, is the televised sight of the flashing lights and the golden belts.

Like any other sport, kids may walk away from the TV or the arena not understanding the overwhelming commitment and discipline, combined with talent, that are needed to reach that level.

Wiuff, a college dropout and veteran of 85 pro fights, has seen countless fighters jump into his profession without a backup plan.

“If I see a kid who is good enough, I would tell him to pursue it and give it everything he has,” Wiuff said. “But it’s tough. I’d tell them to go to college and get a degree before they start fighting. I wrestled in college for four years and as soon as it was over I started fighting.”

For all his world travels, culminating with a stint in UFC, Wiuff has never taken home more than $50,000 from a single fight. Other times the pay was barely enough to cover his travel expenses.

“Financially, fighting at this level, you’re definitely not going to get rich,” he said. “We’re not living high off the hog.”

But even the remote possibility of such riches and glory has given young men —and yes, a few women — a new outlet for their dreams in isolated, economically downtrodden Maine.

And that outlet is a thrill-a-second, adrenaline-rich shared experience for the family, friends and curiosity seekers, living vicariously through them by the thousands.

“I think (MMA is) consistent with what we experience in Maine,” Peterson said. “We live through the four seasons, the economic situation, the energy costs. So all of that gets let off in the 15 to 20 minutes of a title fight.

“Just today I saw a T-shirt on the UFC website, and the slogan was ‘I fight every day.’ I think that’s everybody.”

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MMA: Maine’s Caged Craze

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


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