MMA’s Maine Man

By Jack Encarnacao Apr 4, 2012
Perhaps if it had not been for a tumble out of a five-story window his freshman year in college, the one that left him a quadriplegic, there would not be a mixed martial arts event like this in Matt Peterson’s home state.

A crowd of 3,146 turned out February in Lewiston, Maine, for the latest New England Fights show, nearly doubling the MMA attendance record in the vast, spottily populated state. One could give a fair amount of credit to Peterson, the promotion’s wheelchair-bound matchmaker who, wearing his other hat as a state legislator, sponsored the bill that sanctioned the sport in Maine.

“Greetings from my hospital bed,” Peterson wrote in an email to two days after the event, as he responded to a request for a photograph for this story. “Major apologies, but I won’t be able to produce the photo of me from Fight Night because I wasn’t able to attend. I was forced to go directly to the ER after weigh-ins on Friday with a 104 temp. It’s Monday night and I’m still here in the hospital. I quite literally ran myself ragged working on the show, but by all accounts it was worth it.”

MMA is a labor of love and chance for the 34-year-old, for years a fixture on the New England fight scene. While a fan, he was not headed for a career in the sport when he enrolled in college. Party, graduate, probably law school: that was the plan. However, two weeks before the end of his first semester, during what he termed a “wild night doing the college thing,” Peterson fell out of a window and injured his spinal cord.

“It set me on a different path,” Peterson said of the accident, which he recounts with a fatalistic humor. “[MMA] just became an obsession. I don’t really follow football. I don’t follow basketball. I don’t really follow any other sport, but this stuff, I can’t live without it.”

In 2006, Peterson’s younger brother, Jesse Peterson, asked him if he would serve as his manager in negotiating his first professional fight. It was not much -- a couple hundred dollars to show and a pretty good percentage from ticket sales, which came relatively easy. Local fans were keen to see Jesse, with his noted wrestling credentials, give MMA a shot. On the high school mats, Jesse locked up several times with current UFC middleweight contender Tim Boetsch, a four-time state champion in Maine and high school All-American.

“They had some great matches, some really razor-thin matches,” Peterson said. “That was definitely his nemesis.”

Jesse was successful in his MMA debut. Future UFC fighters Josh Grispi and Ricardo Funch picked up wins that night, as well. Peterson was there, watching his brother notch a unanimous decision and resolving to get more involved in the sport.

“Everybody came together for that first fight,” Peterson said. “I think that’s part of what really blew me away about the sport, how it can really be a catalyst for people coming together.”

The UFC’s earnest campaign to get MMA sanctioned state-by-state was still very much in the future. California had not even legalized the sport yet. Maine could not be further away in mind or geography, but by the time the UFC got around to it, a big fan had become a political ally. In 2008, Peterson was elected to Maine’s 151-member House of Representatives, representing a rural district with a mill town in the center and populated by blue-collar, conservative Democrats. He brought to the office a longstanding curiosity about why he always had to schlep across the state line to see live mixed martial arts.

“I was getting all worn down by all the travel, and I was, like, ‘Why can’t there be a show in Maine for once?’” Peterson said. “And somebody said, ‘Well, it’s illegal in Maine.’”

As the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s vice president of regulatory affairs, Marc Ratner has led the charge that has resulted in the sanctioning of MMA in nearly every U.S. state. Of them all, Ratner said Maine was on the short list of states that lobbied the UFC, not the other way around. Guess why.

Special Photo

Peterson helped legalize MMA in Maine.
“Just a great advocate for MMA,” Ratner said of Peterson. “We were talking with the secretary of state in Maine, and then we heard from Matt. He flew out to a fight, I believe in Sacramento, somewhere in California. He was the right guy to push it and got it right to the legislature. We’re still fighting to even get a vote in the New York legislature, so Maine was very, very well done by Matt in pushing it. We had absolutely no problems, and it just sailed through.”

Even before he was elected, Peterson was talking to legislators to figure out what it would take to get an MMA bill passed. There had been talk about it but not much energy behind it. This would take a retail effort, a sales job: let me tell why sanctioned MMA makes sense for you.

Of course, Peterson pushed the economic upside of allowing and taxing the sport, but he also handed out copies of the Sam Sheridan book “A Fighter’s Heart,” hoping a perusal would dispel negative notions about fighters and what the sport was about. He spoke about his history as a fan, the podcast he hosted about the regional scene and his experience managing his brother. He talked about Mainers like Tim Sylvia and Marcus Davis, along with the local ties of UFC President Dana White, who lived in Maine as a youngster and still owns a home there.

A seat in the House was the extra bit of juice Peterson needed. Maine has a part-time, somewhat casual legislature. There are term limits, so it is not the domain of career politicians. Legislators make short money, about $10,000. The House’s webpage looks like it was designed in 1996. The philosophy is that each member brings his or her particular expertise to the table and advocates for it. Working teachers who serve, for example, routinely propose changes to the education system, Peterson said. As a result, there was no conflict in Peterson’s unabashed advocacy for MMA and the fighters he says are “like super heroes to me.”

With help from a UFC attorney and a bill passed in neighboring New Hampshire, an act legalizing MMA in Maine, sponsored by freshman legislator Matt Peterson, was crafted. In 2008, it passed in the first regular session. It was a fertile time for the local scene. That same year, Peterson attended current UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones’ first professional bout in Massachusetts. The budding phenom notched a first-round technical knockout over Brad Bernard, who was looking to rebound from a loss to Peterson’s brother.

“I knew instantly when I saw [Jones]. I’m, like, ‘My God, this guy’s unbelievable,’” Peterson remembered. “Brad leaned into him, and he did one of those crazy salto tosses. I was just was trying to drink up anything I could about him. He immediately had that charisma. You’re, like, ‘There’s something special here.’”

Later that year, Peterson took the call to work as matchmaker for the premiering No Boundary promotion. “Ultimate Fighter” alum Karn Grigoryian was scheduled for the main event against Georgia’s Brett Chism but pulled out due to illness. Chism had already been booked to fly in from Georgia, and Peterson was tasked with finding a replacement. Contact was made with the New York-based Team Bombsquad camp, where Jones trained and had worked out with another blue-chip prospect named Phil Davis. Peterson sold the promoter on Davis’ potential and booked “Mr. Wonderful” in his first professional fight.

Peterson continues to put together MMA cards with the enthusiasm of a kid playing with action figures -- he beams that last month’s card “smashed” the attendance record. His brother returned to action that night after a nearly four-year hiatus, picking up a first-round technical knockout victory. The next NEF card falls on April 14. If he can stay out of the emergency room that night, Peterson will eagerly work the venue, a key cog in the wheel of MMA in his home state. And if you happen to be in the arena the night the UFC holds its first event in Maine, look for the guy in the wheelchair with the proud, ear-to-ear grin.

“That’s where it will kind of feel full-circle for me as a fan,” Peterson said. “That’s where I’ll kind of sit back and say, ‘Wow, this has been a hell of a ride.’”


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