May 6, 2011

Bill begs for return of boxing to Maine

By Susan M. Cover
State House Bureau

AUGUSTA -- Joey Gamache, the former boxing champion from Lewiston, told a legislative committee Thursday that state law should be changed to allow professional fights in Maine again.

"I support professional boxing for what it's done for me," he said. "We need our fighters to have a chance."

Gamache, who won the World Boxing Association's super featherweight title in 1991 and its lightweight title in 1992, was one of several boxers and gym owners who testified in support of L.D. 889, which would expand the state's Mixed Martial Arts Authority so it can oversee boxing.

The state disbanded its boxing commission in 2007. Renewed interest prompted Rep. Matt Peterson, D-Rumford, to sponsor legislation to bring it back.

"Combat sports like mixed martial arts and boxing have many fans in Maine," he told members of the Legislature's Labor, Commerce, Research and Economic Development Committee.

The only opposition to the bill came from Dr. Robert McAfee, a former president of the American Medical Association, who said injuries caused by repeated blows to the head often don't show their full effects until later in life.

"When we first began to peer into the brain with a CAT scan ... we began to see the tremendous damage done," he said.

He pointed to Muhammad Ali, who has Parkinson's disease, as an example of what happens to boxers as they age. He spoke of "pugilistic dementia" and concussions. He noted that it's illegal in Maine for dogs and cocks to fight, and urged the committee to reject the measure.

McAfee said there is no other sport in which the sole object is to injure the opponent. He also said large crowds are drawn to such events "for the same reason the Roman Coliseum filled up."

In response, Rep. Frederick Wintle, a Republican committee member from Garland, defended the sport of boxing.

"This is a love of mankind and, yes, the Romans did the same thing," he said. "They were proving they were men."

Throughout the hearing were were references to major fights that were held in Maine, including Ali's deafeat of Sonny Liston in 1965 in Lewiston, when Ali was still known as Cassius Clay.

The lawmakers were particularly impressed with Gamache, with Rep. Dana Dow, R-Waldoboro, telling him it was "a privilege to be this close to you" and Rep. Kerri Prescott, R-Topsham, asking for an autograph after the hearing.

Supporters emphasized the economic benefits -- particularly income from hotel rooms and meals -- that would come with professional bouts. Bill Whitten, Cumberland County's assistant manager, said boxing would help bring more events to the civic centers in Portland and Bangor.

To counter comments by McAfee, Ken Wyman, a trainer from Stockton Springs, told the committee that he fought 36 amateur fights and never suffered a serious injury. But one of his hands had to be amputated after he was injured bird hunting. He said people get hurt all the time in a variety of ways.

After the hearing, Jon Webster, former boxer from Portland, said boxing is a way out for kids who live in tough neighborhoods. "It kept me out of the drugs and the gangs on the streets," he said.

The committee is scheduled to vote on the bill next week.

Susan Cover -- 620-7015

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