July 31--LEWISTON -- Professional boxing in Maine appeared to die five years ago, without the dignity of a wake or an obituary.
The license to promote such events effectively lapsed when the state commission that oversaw all prize fistic pursuits was eliminated in a cost-cutting measure. In truth, however, the sport was in such a state of dormancy that almost nobody noticed.
When the time came for second-generation boxer Steven Gamache of Lewiston to make his pro debut, he had to take his show on the road five minutes over the southern border in Somersworth, N.H.
Four fights, one key piece of legislation and a baker's dozen mixed martial arts cards later, Gamache gets to play a home game. The same state representative who resuscitated the sport now heads up the promotion that will bring an all-pro boxing docket to the Twin Cities.
New England Fights, the upstart organization that has helped develop the talent pool and fan base that lured two worldwide mixed martial arts promotions to Maine, is going old-school and branching out into boxing. NEF co-founder and matchmaker Matt Peterson announced plans Thursday for a nine-fight card on Saturday, Oct. 11.
Brandon Berry (6-0) of West Forks will headline the card, with Gamache (4-0), son of two-time lightweight world champion Joey Gamache, fighting at the top of the undercard.
"I am excited to be part of the first pro boxing show in Lewiston in 10 years," Gamache said. "Especially fighting for NEF. The Gamache name is back."
Peterson (D-Rumford) worked with the Gamache family and other Maine boxing gymnasiums to promote a bill that successfully created a new Combat Sports Commission.
Shortly thereafter, he joined forces with Massachusetts lawyer Nick DiSalvo to launch NEF, an organization that exploded from the starting blocks with a mixed martial arts event before a standing-room-only crowd at the Colisee in February 2012.
While the rampant popularity of mixed martial arts has been a driving force behind NEF's growth, Peterson said that cage fighting's old-school cousin was part of his vision from the beginning.
"What got all this started for me was my parents taking me to a movie theater to see 'Rocky IV' when I was 8 and me staring at the screen without blinking for an hour-and-a-half," Peterson said. "It always has been our intention to grow a full plate of options for the combat sports enthusiast."
Lewiston's boxing culture dates back more than a century. The first recorded prize fight in town took place in 1883.
Next May marks the 50th anniversary of the heavyweight championship fight between Muhammad Ali and Sonny Liston in the city. Peterson said NEF already plans a card in conjunction with that date.
Ali's legendary, controversial first-round knockout, achieved with what many observers considered a "phantom punch," has furnished Lewiston a measure of immortal infamy in the sports world.
"This gives us a great opportunity to ramp up leading into what should be a star-studded event," Peterson said.
Joey Gamache won a share of the world lightweight belt for the first time with a 10th round technical knockout of Jerry Ngobeni in June 1991 at the old Lewiston Raceway.
"He was the man when I was in high school," Peterson said. "That made such an impression on me. To be able to work with him and his son in bringing this together is an honor. I've had a lot of great conversations with Joey and Joe Sr. about this. They've really helped weigh in."
Ali made an in-person appearance at a nationally televised card in the late 1990s.
The most recent pro card featured former heavyweight contender Oleg Maskaev at the Multi-Purpose Center on Feb. 15, 2003.
"It's great to see the history of the facility come to life," Colisee general manager Mike Cain said. "I could only imagine boxing of this magnitude returning to the floor. What a great partnership we have with NEF."
Berry attracted more than 1,000 spectators to his most recent fight at Carrabec High School in North Anson.
NEF's quarterly promotions at the Colisee since 2012 have averaged more than 2,500.
"Needless to say I am very excited to headline this event," said Berry, who trains out of a gym in Stockton Springs, near Belfast. "I hope to bring a big crowd of people to help make this a successful comeback of pro boxing to the Lewiston area. I've been training very hard and look forward to showing all of the locals that pro boxing is alive and well and that Brandon Berry is here to stay."
Official matchups have yet to be announced.
Brandon Brewer (11-0-1) from Fredericton, New Brunswick, the Canada Professional Boxing Council light middleweight champion, will appear along with Josh Parker of Skowhegan, a cross-over from MMA.
"This won't be a one-and-done thing," Peterson said. "We chose Lewiston for a reason. It's a city with a very active boxing fan base. I can't think of a place in Maine that is more synonymous with boxing."
NEF has promoted mixed martial arts events in Lewiston, Biddeford and Bangor. Its 14th card is scheduled for Saturday, Sept. 6 at the Colisee, featuring former UFC heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia.
Influenced by the organization's success, Ultimate Fighting Championship will hold its first-ever Maine promotion in August at Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. NEF also helped bring Bellator Fighting Championships, the No. 2 sanctioning body in the world, to Lewiston in March 2013.
Both men say that mixed martial arts fans shouldn't worry about boxing stealing any of the newer sport's thunder.
"We have the same schedule planned for MMA. We'll probably supplement it, add to it, tweak it, possibly adding some smaller amateur shows to develop more fighters," Peterson said. "There are a lot of opportunities for cross-pollination. I think we will draw in a lot of mixed martial arts fans for this one, and in turn I think it's possible that we will see some of the boxing fans come out for mixed martial arts as well."
"We always intended this promotion to be multi-faceted when it came to putting together different combat sporting events. With pro boxing once again legal in Maine, we felt this was the perfect time to make our move into the boxing arena," DiSalvo said. "For the MMA fans, do not fear. We will still be doing just as many MMA events as we've always done, if not more."
Nine bouts are planned for the boxing card, with a bell time of 7 p.m.
Tickets will go on sale to the general public Monday, August 4, with prices ranging from $55 for the first two rows at ringside down to $25.
There is a special online presale beginning Friday at 10 a.m. Fans are instructed to use the keyword 'NEFBOXING' to unlock the site at www.TheColisee.com. For more information, call the Colisee box office at 783-2009 ext. 525 or go to www.NewEnglandFights.com.
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