PORTLAND – The cheers from the crowd drowned out the sound of his name. Trevor Kell didn’t care. He was a winner in his very first amateur fight, on the first night Mixed Martial Arts fighting came to Maine.

Some 18 months after Maine’s legislature gave promoters the green light to bring the sport to the state, Linda Shield’s Cage Fighting Xtreme staged the Maine Event at the Stevens Avenue Armory on Saturday night. Shield and her co-promoter, Marcus Davis, believed their sport would find an audience. They got one.

Fans were waiting at the armory’s main door more than an hour before it opened. By the time Pat Walsh of Stoughton, Mass., and Boston’s Wai Kru club won the first of 11 amateur and professional bouts, it was standing room only on the arena floor.

“I never had a crowd cheer that loud for me,” said Kell, a wrestler at Kennebunk High seven years ago. “Never. I had dreams about it.”

He wasn’t the only one. The sport, with its elements of boxing, wrestling and forms of martial arts with a bit of street brawling thrown in, has worked to change an early image and earn acceptance. Its critics call it barbaric. Its fans call it an extreme form of competition that challenges all the definitions of toughness.

“Being the first means everything to me,” said Davis, a 38-year-old Bangor native who tried a career in boxing before switching to a successful professional career in cage fighting. He worked with state legislators to draft rules for a commission that would regulate the sport in Maine. He pushed. He may have twisted a few arms, figuratively speaking, of course. And he won.

“These are the people who will be remembered for being part of the beginning,” he said, nodding at Shield’s staff, the fighters from his Team Irish MMA Fitness Academy in Brewer. “Two of my goals in life were to fight in Ireland — and I did that twice — and to be part of this.”

Five of his fighters were on the card. Kell, now a house painter living in South Portland, was one. Steve Desjardins of Brewer was another. Two hours before the first bout, Desjardins walked around the empty arena dominated by the eight-sided cage in the center. A Brewer High graduate, one-time wrestler and just 20 years old, he was making his debut as well. Davis has taken some members of his team out of state to compete, but Desjardins was not one. Was he nervous? No, he said. He had spent three years preparing for this.

Don’t try to paint cage fighters with the same brush. They can be college graduates, like Mike Brown, the professional lightweight champ and Bonny Eagle High and Norwich University graduate. They can be working men. They share the desire to challenge themselves by walking alone into the cage to test their survival instincts.

“You can teach fighting,” said Gary Foreman, who has spent 30 years in this world. “You can’t teach toughness. You find out how tough you are very quickly. The good ones find out they can be better and commit themselves to this.”

Foreman is Shield’s husband and her partner in this business, based in Massachusetts. They spend a lot of time on the road, taking this level of cage fighting from city to city. At Friday’s weigh-in, they worked quickly and efficiently. Unlike some weigh-ins in professional boxing, there was little in-your-face testosterone.

Muscles were flexed and chests expanded for the cameras, not each other. When photographers gave a thumbs up, opponents faced each other and embraced. Such a violent sport, such a show of respect when the cameras turn away.

“It takes two to fight,” said Desjardins. “We respect that. It’s all good blood outside the cage.”

Inside, it’s very bad blood. Call it mayhem, call it barbaric.

For Kell, Desjardins and all the others, it was a simple test. That hundreds of fans Saturday night watched to see if they passed or failed did matter.

“I’ve never felt like this before,” said Kell, as he waited for his beating heart to slow down. He had won, paid his respects to his opponents and walked out of the cage and into the embrace of friends and family. He’ll do it again.

 

Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at:

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