POWER PUNCH AJ Davis ultimately beat Tim Grovo of Team Headstrong with a rear naked choke.

"I always knew Maine was full of fighting fans," Rumford state representative Matt Peterson says over lunch one day in March. "We're a fighting state, anyway."

That's why, more than two years ago, Peterson sponsored legislation that helped Maine become the 41st state to legalize and sanction mixed martial arts (MMA) fighting, in which combatants may use both striking and grappling moves from a variety of martial arts including jujutsu, Muay Thai, karate, boxing, and wrestling.

Since then, the state has hosted a handful of well attended MMA events; the most recent one, February's Fight Night in the historic fight town of Lewiston (in 1965, Muhammad Ali knocked out Sonny Liston at a hockey rink there), saw more than 3100 fans come through the door — more than any MMA show thus far (and more than watched the Ali-Liston fight, incidentally).

With another, smaller event (Fight Night II) coming up on April 14 at the Biddeford Ice Arena, which has a capacity of about 1600, and still more scheduled for the rest of the year, it's evident that MMA is here to stay — and it's growing.

"Every event gets bigger and bigger," says Bill Bouffard, chair of the recently established, seven-member Combat Sports Authority of Maine. "We have over 100 fighters licensed in Maine now and we are drawing fighters from camps all around New England and beyond. They are coming to Maine because the opportunity is right, the competition is great, and we are doing a good job of promoting the sport."

A Different Kind of Fight

Matt Peterson became "the de facto combat-sport guy in the legislature" (there have been worse sobriquets) not only because he loves these types of athletic contests, but because he saw them as potential economic drivers.

An MMA fan for about 16 years — he recalls that the first time he saw a fight, he thought to himself, "these are real-life superheroes" — Peterson started following the sport when his younger brother, Jesse (who is now 30, and who is on the fight card for the April 14 event), transitioned in college from wrestling to mixed martial arts. Peterson began managing him, which led to match-making (creating fights) and promotional work. He learned that Maine has produced two MMA champions: Mike Brown of Standish (World Extreme Cagefighting featherweight) and Tim Sylvia of Ellsworth (Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight), both of whom left the state seeking fight opportunities.

He cites competitors' athleticism and courage as reasons to respect the sport, pointing out that MMA fights are "more realistic" and reflective of real life. "You have to be multi-dimensional," he says of those who choose to enter the cage (MMA rings are often enclosed by metal fencing).

Perhaps that's why MMA aficionados — who represent a coveted demographic — are so enthusiastic. A 2009 study by the national firm Scarborough Sports Marketing found that MMA fans are young (51 percent are between 18 and 24), male (67 percent), and relatively well-off (15 percent more likely than the average American adult to have a household income of more than $75,000). The firm also found that among men ages 18 to 34, the sport is fourth in popularity (trailing only the trifecta of baseball, basketball, and football).

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