Close to 18,000 fans are expected to file into Maine venues in 2013 to watch what Sen. John McCain once called “human cockfighting.”

Mixed martial arts fighting has come a long way since its bloody style vs. style debut in 1993 and has seen a sudden explosion of interest in Maine since legislation made the sport legal in 2011. Matt Peterson (D-Rumford), a promoter and state legislator most responsible for its rapid in-state growth, knows who to thank.

“We wouldn’t even be having this conversation without Dana White, let’s face it,” said Peterson, co-owner of Lewiston-based New England Fights (NEF) promotion, which is planning seven fight nights of its own in Maine in 2013.

To those who know the sport on a worldwide scale, White needs no introduction.

White — the president, CEO and promotional front man for the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) — is in Boston for tonight’s UFC Fight Night 26, and along with his international reputation brings with him a deep connection to Maine.

A 1987 graduate of Hermon High School, just outside of Bangor, he has helped turn a fiscally failing organization in a fringe sport derided for its brutality into an entertainment juggernaut that has become the global standard of a sport. White is candid, blunt and at times profanely combative. He is the de facto commissioner of the sport who uses Twitter (@danawhite) to voice opinions, wears jeans and sneakers to a press conference, and has no qualms about calling a Boston city councilor “a typical lying politician.”

You want a fight?

Dana White will give you a fight.

He has elevated UFC to the major league of mixed martial arts fighting, with fighters from around the globe that have fought their way up through smaller, regional promotions like NEF. In 2012, UFC signed a seven-year television rights deal with Fox Networks that includes tonight’s show at Boston’s TD Garden, which is the premier live event on the new 24-hour all-sports Fox Sports1 channel.

Maine: His place to relax

While in high school White lived with his grandparents in Levant. He now has a vacation home on the same site with several additional dwellings spread over 100 acres.

“Basically my grandparents lived in a trailer on a piece of property they rented. ?I bought the whole street,” White said. “I bought all the people out. I knocked on their doors and said ‘I want to buy your house.’ I bought the houses. Some I knocked down and others I kept, a couple of guest houses, some barns, and made it my ultimate incredible playground.”

So why did a guy who has a home in Laguna Beach, Calif., and digs in Las Vegas want to build a home in Maine?

“First of all, Maine is the most beautiful state in the country. Period,” White said. “The other thing is, it’s the one place where I can truly relax.”

White said that when he was attending Hermon he had no interest in school sports but was always interested in boxing and fighting.

“I was cool. I got in a few fights. Got into some trouble,” White said.

White began his MMA odyssey shortly after high school when he went in search of a man named Peter Welch.

“He was a legendary street fighter type guy and I literally sought this guy out. He was like a (expletive) myth. Finally I caught up to him and said, ‘Hi, I’m Dana White and I want to get into the fight business,’ ” White said. “I told him my whole (expletive) story and started training with him and boxing and fighting with him.”

White said he always had ideas about how fights should be promoted and “a lot of my ideas were right.”

With the financial backing of brothers Frank and Lorenzo Fertitta, the trio bought the rights to UFC in 2001 for a reported $2 million.

The organization was far from a money maker for the first three years.

“The reason we’re still here and the reason it did work was my partners had the (guts) to stay in this thing when they were $44 million in the hole,” White said. “The Ultimate Fighter (reality television show) was our last shot. If that didn’t work, it would have been over.”

Or would it?

Echoing White himself, Peterson said there is something elemental to a mixed martial arts fight that cuts across race, language and ethnic lines.

“It’s the whole metaphor that if you’re on a playground and there’s kickball in one corner, football in another and tag in the third, if a fight breaks out in the fourth corner where does everyone immediately gather?” Peterson said. “MMA speaks to something primal but it’s been perfected to the evolution of sport.”

MMA huge in Maine

And there is still plenty of action at the grassroots level with hundreds of aspiring fighters training at dozens of MMA gyms that have popped up around Maine. A rare few, like Marcus Davis of Bangor, four-time Maine state wrestling champ Tim Boetsch of Lincolnville and former Standish native Mike Brown have already tasted professional fame in the UFC octagon. Brown is fighting on tonight’s UFC undercard and Boetsch is on the UFC 166 fight card on Oct. 19. Davis is extending his career with Bellator MMA.

Others like Ray Wood, 24, of Bucksport — with a 4-0 professional record and fast-growing fan base — aspire to get there.

“That’s the ultimate goal, to make it to the next level,” Wood said. “That’s my ultimate goal, the end of the tunnel.”

After Peterson, 35, saw a few Massachusetts-based promotions failed to spark much interest in the state, he saw a need for a better show. He had done some matchmaking, produced a mixed-martial arts podcast (also called New England Fights), and served as a manager for his brother Jesse, a professional fighter.

Nick DiSalvo, a lawyer in Billerica, Mass., also had a desire to start a New England fight program. DiSalvo had already targeted Lewiston as the right place to establish a new MMA brand, due to its history of supporting boxing and pro wrestling, when he called Peterson.

“You get a call from a Massachusetts lawyer you’re definitely going to be suspicious,” Peterson laughed.

They quickly found they shared a vision of how to produce local MMA fights and strong cumulative collection of regional contacts, but also knew they would have to combat the negative image of a cage fight.

“It is a spectacle,” Peterson said. “I can appreciate that to some people it just looks like two guys who fell off a bar stool and got in a cage to hammer it out. Where in fact it’s the furthest thing from the truth.”

In Maine, Peterson and DiSalvo will promote seven shows this year, six under the NEF banner including NEF X at the Colisee in Lewiston on Sept. 21. NEF also co-promoted and made several of the matches on last March’s nationally televised Bellator MMA show at the Colisee. Bellator is generally regarded as the world’s second largest professional MMA organization behind UFC.

The fight cards in Lewiston have drawn an average of 3,000 fans. Other shows have sold out the Biddeford Ice Arena. This summer NEF put on its first outdoor show on the Bangor waterfront.

NEF highlights have appeared nationally on the AXS TV’s Inside MMA and Spike TV’s MMA Live.

“I believe they are one of the big three (MMA organizations) in the Northeast,” said Denny Siggins, a rival promoter and operator of the website “Their crowds are good. They market well. They spend money on marketing and advertising and they really try to put on good fights that Maine people are interested in. And, they put on an event.”

Even White is impressed with the growth in his home state.

“Seven MMA shows in Maine? That blows my mind,” he said. “It’s so huge. It’s great for the state.”

Taking the next step

DiSalvo, 36, said NEF hopes to see three growth steps in the next year.

The first is having an NEF-groomed fighter sign with Bellator or UFC. Right now the most likely candidate is Wood, who is 4-0 as a pro after a 5-1 amateur mark.

“With Ray, I’m confident within his next three fights he’ll be at the next level,” said Ernie Fitch, Wood’s manager.

Second would be taking the promotion out of state, perhaps even out of New England. Third, and perhaps most important, is getting signed by a national network for a TV show, similar to Friday Night Fights boxing.

Peterson added a fourth key: To continue to be active with promotions to give the growing legion of Maine fighters a place to perform.

White reiterated Tuesday that he’s trying to get the UFC even closer to home for Maine’s fight fans. Earlier this summer he said he would like to put a show in the new 8,000-seat Cross Insurance Center in Bangor if he can find supporting sponsors.

“I have set costs. Whether it’s a Fight Night on television or pay-per-view, my costs are my costs. I have to offset some of my costs to make it work,” White said Tuesday. “I’m really trying to make Bangor happen because it’s personal to me and if I can make it work in Bangor I can definitely do it in Portland.”

And if those shows arrive, there will be Maine fighters ready to put their names alongside Davis, Brown, Boetsch and other top competitors. At Young’s MMA in Brewer, where Wood trains, 14 fighters have been submitted for consideration for NEF X. A little more than a year ago, the gym was still operating out of a basement.

“The first-ever event in Maine we had one guy on the card and maybe two others who could have fought,” Fitch said. “Now we have about 20 guys on our active roster.”

For years Davis was an outlier, a Bangor native who stayed in Maine and made it to the top of the MMA ranks. He participated in the UFC’s organization-saving reality show “The Ultimate Fighter,” and parlayed that exposure and subsequent victories around the globe into a 14-fight career in the sport’s biggest cage.

Davis will turn 40 on Aug. 24 and is still an active fighter. He will be in Bellator’s Lightweight tournament beginning Sept. 27 in Portland, Ore. He is also owner of two Team Irish Gyms with 17 active fighters training in the Brewer location and another “eight or nine,” working out in Westbrook.

“I started training guys in 2005 and had only eight students total,” Davis said. “Absolutely it’s grown and it’s grown in such a way where it’s not even just the hard core people. I’ve got another 50 students that are just trying to get in shape, or do something different, or change lifestyles. I’ve got 20 little 8- to 12-year-olds involved and a teenage class. It really has become this sport, like any other sport, where people will do MMA.

“They aren’t necessarily taking punches. I like to say, they like to get fit without getting hit.”

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