Rumford’s Chris Smith enters the arena.

LEWISTON — Time flies when you’re having fun. Even faster, perhaps, if you’re busy accomplishing great things.

Five years to the night that it debuted as somewhat of a curiosity at Androscoggin Bank Colisee, amid the ghosts of hockey championships, thunderous concerts and legendary prizefights past, New England Fights is back where it all began for “NEF 27: Resurgence.”

The anniversary celebration of seven pro and 11 amateur mixed martial arts fights tolls the opening bell at 7 p.m. Saturday.

NEF is a bold idea that stood the test of time in a challenging economy and in a time of myriad entertainment options. Making new local heroes in the arena that once hosted Muhammad Ali, Joey Gamache and Sidney Crosby was merely the beginning.

Founded by lifelong fight enthusiasts Matt Peterson of Rumford and Nick DiSalvo of Billerica, Massachusetts, NEF branched out to Bangor, Biddeford and Cape Cod and ultimately put Maine cage fighting on the world stage.

“It’s humbling to step back for a moment and look how much the sport of MMA has grown in Maine since NEF I,” DiSalvo said. “We’ve had the world’s two largest MMA promotions, UFC and Bellator, come in to run events. We’ve had NEF alumni sign contracts with those two companies as well as other national promotions. Many fighters have even gone on to open their own gyms or found their own teams. We like to think NEF has played an integral role in all of it.”


Mixed martial arts had significant Maine roots before NEF arrived on the scene. UFC president Dana White attended Hermon High School and owns a summer home in the Bangor area. Tim Boetsch of Lincolnville and Marcus Davis of Bangor were pioneering greats in White’s fighting ranks.

Peterson’s efforts helped solidify the sport in the tri-county area. First, from his seat in the Maine House of Representatives, he sponsored a bill to revive combat sports in the state after a brief lapse in state sanction.

That led to the now-quarterly MMA nights in Lewiston, which awakened the fight culture in such communities as L/A, Bangor, Portland, Rumford-Mexico and Lisbon. Proud, blue-collar locales with rich histories in amateur boxing and wrestling made the 21st-century transformation to the now-familiar NEF hexagon.

John Raio, a Gardiner native, ended a lengthy retirement and worked his back to the fighting shape of his high school championship wrestling days after the NEF was born. He now operates First Class MMA, a Brunswick training center.

“We wouldn’t have had the opportunity to grow so quickly and become so successful if it wasn’t for Matt Peterson and Nick DiSalvo at NEF,” Raio said. “They have given my students opportunities to compete in front of their fan bases, and for some, the opportunity to check an item off their ‘bucket list’ and experience the adrenaline rush that MMA provides.”

Raio will have five fighters represented at NEF 27. Another upstart stable, Berserkers MMA out of Greater Rumford Community Center, features four combatants, as will Central Maine Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu of Lewiston.


Eight amateurs are scheduled to make their debut and two fighters will move into the pro ranks for the first time, evidence of NEF’s upward growth spiral.

“Five years is a long time,” Peterson said. “In this business, however, where the vast majority of fight promotions fold after their first event, five years is an eternity. NEF has stood the test of time, but we’re not resting on our laurels. We’re looking forward to the future and developing the next generation of talent.”

NEF mainstays appropriately anchor the milestone card. Jesse Erickson (9-5) of Auburn will battle Jon Lemke (5-7) in a heavily anticipated 155-pound pro bout. Ryan Sanders (12-8) and John Ortolani (8-10) also lock up at 155.

Berserkers’ Mike Hansen (5-4) and CMBJJ’s Matt Denning (3-5) will tangle with pro newcomers Ras Hylton of First Class and Ricky Dexter of Bangor’s Team Irish, respectively.

Despite its statewide and international reach, NEF is fiercely loyal to the venerable building where it all began and continues to blossom.

“The Lewiston-Auburn community has been so supportive of our efforts these past five years,” DiSalvo said. “From the fans to the local businesses, I feel like we have been welcomed with open arms. In particular, the Ramada Inn of Lewiston has been such a fantastic partner. George Gendron and his staff have stood by us since day one. They have lent a big hand to us in our efforts to grow this sport in the L/A community.”

Tickets for Saturday’s fights start at $25 and are available at or by calling the Colisee box office at 207.783.2009, extension 525.

Auburn’s Jesse Erickson, right, puts a foot into the face of Bangor’s Jon Lemke during Thursday night’s Bellator MMA fight at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston.

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