After a successful showing in Boston last year, the Ultimate Fighting Championship will be returning to New England for a pair of exciting cards this summer.
Before heading to Foxwoods in September, the promotion will be making its first ever trip to Maine on Aug. 16, as rising light-heavyweight contenders Ryan Bader and Ovince Saint Preux headline the night of fights at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. The event will also feature a middleweight clash between Maine’s own Tim Boestch and former “The Ultimate Fighter’’ reality series participant Brad Tavares.
UFC Hall of Famer and former light-heavyweight champion Forrest Griffin was in Boston last week to preview the upcoming Fight Night card, and he seemed pretty pumped about the UFC’s debut in the Pine Tree State.
“It’s the first time the people in Bangor have gotten to see fights live,’’ Griffin recently told Boston.com. “There’s a lot of showmanship into it live, as far as the stuff they play, the hype. Just being at a live event with anything, I’ll tell you, is better than watching it on TV. So, for a lot of people, it will be their first opportunity to see a fight live.’’
While the card is still being fleshed out, there are already a number of interesting bouts scheduled to go down in Maine. Heavy-handed middleweight Tom Watson will welcome newcomer Sam Alvey to the UFC, while heavyweights Shawn Jordan and Jack May will both be looking to get back into the win column. The event will also feature a featherweight showdown between Thiago Tavares and Robbie Peralta.
However, for Griffin, the main event battle between No. 7 ranked Bader and No. 13 ranked Saint Preux is the fight he’s looking forward to the most.
“One of those guys will be a top five guy,’’ Griffin said. “Bader’s faced, I think, four champs. [Jon] Jones, [Lyoto] Machida, Tito [Ortiz], and Quinton [Jackson] – he’s had a tough go of it.’’
Griffin also had high praise for Saint Preux, who recently took home a submission victory by breaking Ryan Jimmo’s arm at UFC 174.
“Ryan Jimmo was actually a guy that I’ve had my eye on for a while,’’ Griffin said. “The length of OSP, Jimmo just looked helpless.’’
When Bader and Saint Preux do face off, the bout will be televised live on the recently launched Fox Sports 1. The channel debuted last August with a stacked Fight Night card in Boston, headlined by a light-heavyweight fight between former champion Mauricio “Shogun’’ Rua and Chael Sonnen.
Griffin knows just how important a headlining bout on free television can be, as his battle with Stephan Bonnar at the first “The Ultimate Fighter’’ finale on Spike TV helped launch mixed martial arts (MMA) into the mainstream in 2005. Reminiscient of the famed boxing match between Marvin Hagler and Thomas Hearns, the bloody scrap earned both men a six-figure contract with the UFC, and eventually a place in the promotion’s Hall of Fame.
Next year marks the 10th anniversary of this historic bout, however, Griffin doesn’t have anything crazy planned to celebrate the landmark event.
“I celebrated plenty right after that fight, so I’m good on the celebrating,’’ Griffin said. “It was a big fight for a lot of reasons, you know. For me, I knew at that moment that my life had changed. Not only would I be able to pay back my student loans, but I wouldn’t work a job again. I would work the job of fighting. Fighting was my job, and that’s what I always wanted.’’
While Griffin and many of the cast members from the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter,’’ including three-time title challenger and Brookline native Kenny Florian, are now retired, the Hall of Famer believes that the UFC’s next generation of stars will take the sport to the next level.
“The athleticism has picked up a notch. Guys do things as far as jump kicks and spin kicks and spin elbows that I did when I first started, but people discouraged me from doing,’’ Griffin said. “You just see a big change in guys like [Anthony] Pettis and Jones, who do things that you wouldn’t think you can necessarily do in a fight. They look kind of like video game moves.’’
So who knows, when the UFC makes its return to New England this summer, you might end up seeing the start of the next great champion.