They are "passionate fans that spend money," Peterson says, pointing out the rarity of having full hotels and eateries in Lewiston in mid-February.

"All the businesses related to this sport are thriving, too," Bouffard adds, "like gyms, vendors, venues, restaurants, hotels. It's far-reaching." He adds that the events gross between $70,000 and $90,000.

This is the argument Peterson used when trying to convince the state legislature to approve his MMA bill: Not only would the smaller events serve as economic boosters, but legalizing mixed martial arts in Maine could mean that eventually, the hugely popular UFC league could bring an event the state; such an occasion would net millions, Peterson said then and continues to claim.

Some lawmakers were reticent at first — unsurprisingly, given that the sport has been called "human dog-fighting" (New York State Catholic Conference) and "barbaric" (US Senator John McCain). Maine physician Ronald Blum, who practices in Patten and helped both the Maine Academy of Family Physicians and the Maine Medical Association form their positions against mixed martial arts, notes that the state is currently discussing how to protect student-athletes from head injuries on the soccer and football fields, "yet we're turning around and legalizing a sport where the goal is giving your opponent a concussion." (Actually, that's not always the goal; MMA bouts can also be decided by submission — called "tap-out" — or referee stoppage.) He calls mixed martial arts "a public health abhorrence."

"It's not for everyone," Peterson admits. "It's not everyone's cup of tea. The biggest piece that people really didn't understand was how unfathomably talented these athletes really are."

But eventually doubters were won over (it helped that most other states allow such sporting events); the legislation passed unanimously in the state senate and overwhelmingly in the state house.

The next step was to establish rules and regulations, as well as a board to oversee such logistics. So launched the Mixed Martial Arts Authority, comprised of Bouffard (who works by day as a systems analyst at Unum); Malinda McKinnon, who is a nurse; police detective Paul Fenton; and Jon Pinette, who owns a landscaping and property-management business.

As the rules were being established, Bouffard shadowed regional experts — John Hagopian from the New Hampshire Boxing and Wrestling Commission and Kevin MacDonald, of Massachusetts, who is a longtime MMA referee and offers referee-training seminars throughout New England — to learn what worked and what didn't. He was warned, for example, that he would have to hound fighters for their medical approvals before fights; he has created a system to keep track of promoters, their fighters, and their medical status. Bouffard says he still consults with these experts regularly "as this sport is still growing here. [W]e keep streamlining our processes to make it a smooth running machine."

Then, late last year and also at Peterson's urging, the state commission's purview was expanded to re-encompass boxing, which was made illegal when the legislature eliminated the Maine Athletic Commission in 2007 to save money. Now, the Combat Sports Authority of Maine, with members appointed by the governor, oversees all rules of competition and eligibility for mixed martial arts and boxing in the state.

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  Topics: Lifestyle Features , Maine, Boxing, mixed martial arts,  More more >
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