Matt Remillard leaves prison in the past, returns to comfort zone
It is a phrase he repeats every so often, but not too often, because he knows that looking backwards too much, dwelling on the wrong routes taken, will not serve him as he works toward a redemption of self, a reclamation of his being as a professional, as a person.
Why didn’t I walk away?
So Matt Remillard tries to balance – as he explains what brought him to that jail cell, to where he’d count down the years, to the months, to the weeks, to the hours, to his release – a clear-eyed analysis of why he went from promising pugilist to what he is today, a man working all the angles to get back on a productive and fulfilling track, with understandable digressions into rumination.
Why did pride take over, and why did I react with emotion … let circumstances dictate my behavior, instead of allowing character to form a response that wouldn’t escalate conflict into a nightmarish quagmire?
He’d drift, and I wanted him to, as we talked about the roads that took him to prison instead of title fights and the spoils that come with being a world-class prizefighter who has beaten the odds to surpass the masses of talented strivers yearning to attain places on those podiums.
Then he’d pull himself back, talk of the present, of putting one foot in front of the other, of having found substantial friendships, spiritual bonds, with other persons who know what it is like to be locked up with your fears, doubts, insecurities and a knowledge that time is no friend of yours, that your existence has been kidnapped, and your liberty is severely constrained.
We started with a subject that made sense to start with, to a time and place that no, wasn’t idyllic and uncomplicated, but was a simpler stage before the arc of his life’s passage took such a shocking turn.
Remillard got into boxing like so many youths do, because he was hanging out with the wrong crowd. OK, maybe “hanging out” isn’t the right term. Throwing hands with them is a better way to say it.
A local cop saw Matt in action with those bad-side-of-the-track types and took him under his wing, to a gym, in Manchester, Connecticut: the Manchester PAL. A judge had not-that-gently suggested after another fracas that the kid do some community service at the PAL, where he might figure out that there was a place to learn what to do with the fists instead of throwing them in anger.
These sorts of places, they exist and do more good by changing the routes that so many of those kids like Remillard were headed down – fighting all the time, fighting schoolmates and neighborhood rivals, fighting persons and unease, fighting to make sense of an unsettling home life, or maybe man’s propensity to too often choose inhumanity to his fellow being over kindness and decency.
“I liked to fight when I was little,” Remillard explains.
Trainer Paul Cichon did his thing at the PAL, and he saw promise right away in Remillard. He put him to work – doing apprentice chores, cleaning windows, cleaning spit buckets – making sure he was truly committed. Only then, after the kid pestered him a few months, did he let him put on some gloves and start learning the trade.
“I fell in love with it and never looked back,” Remillard says.
The boxing became his thing. He moved out of his house at 18, got a condo. He’d found his way, his reason for being. Boxing, by the way, so often gets that bad rap for being “savage” but many critics don’t understand minds not like their own. Many boxers are more derived from personality types better accepted and comprehended in centuries past: warriors.
These ones have a need to test themselves, by fighting, by matching will and skill and strength against rivals. Not everyone is built to devour books in a dorm covered with ivy.
In 2000, Remillard was fighting almost every week as the amateur program was cooking. He was in the PAL tourney every year, did the Silver Gloves, worked his way up the ladder. “I wasn’t the best amateur, but I trained hard,” he says. “I had Floyd Mayweather-level dedication.” If he lost, he hit the gym the next day, eager to work on a deficiency.
Years in, he’d climbed the ranks, and was traveling to England, Korea, and he accumulated about 160 amateur fights.
Remillard turned pro in 2005, April. He’d signed with Jackie Kallen, who’d overseen James Toney. That was some big deal. Jackie had an impressive run as a true marvel, a feminist icon within a sphere that often didn’t tolerate female involvement in the moving and shaking of the sport, unless it was the moving and shaking done by a come-hither round-card girl sashaying around the ring between rounds. Kallen, immortalized in the 2004 big-budget film “Against the Ropes,” with Meg Ryan portraying the fight game deal-maker and career builder, came about because Cichon sent her a video of Matt in action. He was ready to leave the amateurs, because the rounds were short and the style he had better fit the pros.
“I met him, I watched him, and thought he had the goods,” says Kallen now. “I liked his family and I believed he had the skills to succeed.”
“I never had the goal, the fantasy of becoming rich,” Remillard says, when asked why he was pursuing this career path, which even a fool knows is unlikely to leave one unblemished physically, if not neurologically. “I didn’t fight for the money, I wanted to fight for fans, wanted to be in a Ward-Gatti fight, a Corrales-Castillo. I wanted to be in a trilogy, with fans begging to see another fight. I wanted to give back to the sport.”
Powers that be took notice. Influencers like Ron Borges, of the Boston Globe and then Boston Herald, who has won more Boxing Writers Association of America awards than any other keyboard tapper, was impressed upon seeing Remillard, nicknamed “Sharp Shooter,” go to 14-0 on a card in Hartford.
“Although often maligned by its critics, boxing has saved many more lives than it has injured and Remillard is among them,” Borges wrote on June 14, 2008. “Boxing became the outlet that would not only keep him out of the police station but also put him in position to make something of himself. How much that will turn out to be remains unknown at this stage but Remillard’s plans are big ones.”
Kallen and Team Remillard were building up to those big plans, where the stages would get larger, the spotlights brighter and hotter, the paydays beefier. “I’ve passed the point where I’m a club or hometown fighter,” he said after going to 17-0 in Maryland. “Nobody’s going to say the judges or referee is on my side. I have to fight on the road and would love to fight someday at Madison Square Garden, where so many legends have fought, and in Las Vegas. I’m improving every fight, taking everything one fight at a time. By the end of this year, hopefully, I’ll be in the top 20. I want to be fighting on the networks to showcase myself and build my name to get where I want to be – world champion!”
And but of course, he tasted along the way the usual elements of frustration and distraction. A hand injury bogged him down for over a year, disagreements with his promoter made him dislike some of the political interplay that is a constant in a frontier sport such as boxing, where there is no league commissioner and no front office making the schedule. But he kept climbing, getting to 23-0, and those stages, those paydays … the payoff concrete and intangible hovered. On Jan. 17, 2011, word dropped that Remillard had “made it,” to an extent, getting signed by the Top Rank promotional company. He was 24, maybe the best featherweight from America, rated No. 4 by the WBA.
“Matt is a tremendous, exciting fighter,” Hall of Fame promoter and Top Rank CEO Bob Arum said at the time. “We are very pleased he has joined our organization. Matt will get a lot of national exposure while fighting for Top Rank.”
But with progress comes instability, sometimes. He and Kallen had parted ways.
“We had a lot of great fights but for some reason he switched to someone else when the contract ran out. It totally caught me off guard,” Kallen recalls.
More changes; a new trainer came to the party. Paul Cichon was out, Mike Skowronski, Arturo Gatti’s best friend, was in. And the opportunity to really elevate, to graduate to big damn deal status, was on the table. Remillard, now 24, and 23-0 with 14 KOs, was paired with Mikey Garcia, 24-0, from a fighting family and with more pro experience tucked into his belt. He’d met and bettered a better brand of foes than had Remillard, and was rated No. 1 at 126 by the IBF.
Remillard had the belief in self that any world-class athlete has to have to get to that graduation fight, one in which they are not the favorite.
“We took that shot, but it was the wrong time,” says Remillard. “It was win-win for them. Garcia was favored, he’d been with them longer. In their eyes maybe it was a 60-40 fight. With what I was going through … it’s tough for a fighter to say no. I will never say no. That’s the job of the fighter, to take fights.”
With what I was going through…
Indeed, the fighter wasn’t just wrestling with an in-ring task two steps up from anything he’d wrestled. His personal life had spun out and he was furiously fighting an incident which was a culmination of a long spell of soap-operatic foolishness.
Before things got bad things they were good. Matt saw a young lady who impressed him, and being an old-school type, he reached out to her dad, who was actually like a father figure to him, asking if he could ask her out. The dad said yes. They dated, Matt and the girl.
“It was love,” he told me. Matt got closer as heck with the whole family. “D’s” younger sisters, Matt would take them to school, like big bro or uncle would. Her dad, though, got lung cancer, Matt relates, and dad relied on Matt to help with care.
“I’d drive 35 minutes and I’d open the fridge for him; he was too proud to ask his own son,” Matt says. The father died, and the glue that held the family together dissolved.
His daughter, Matt’s girlfriend, started drifting, started partying, Matt says. Within a year after her dad’s passing, she and Matt split up. He went his way, she went hers, his boxing career started heating up. Then, her mom called Matt.
She needs you – you help stabilize her.
So Matt let her stay at his place. As pals, not boyfriend-girlfriend, he says. She was seeing another guy. He was a college footballer, huge, like 6-8, 280 pounds, Matt says. “He knew I was in the picture and didn’t like it.” He would come to Matt’s place and harass him, the boxer says. They almost clashed physically one time, but the spat died down. “We kept seeing each other. But,” Matt says, “I was not the kind of guy to go to the police and allege harassment. I cared about the girl, about her whole family. I got a big heart and I let that speak and I shouldn’t have, in retrospect.”
One night, on Jan. 5, 2010, Matt was training at the Lion’s Den Gym in Marlborough, Connecticut. He left and he says the guy followed him to his ex-galpal’s place. “He confronts me, I get out of the car, I have groceries, he’s yelling at her,” Matt recalls.
“J” got very physical with “D,” and then Matt came in, and the footballer used his bulk to do damage on Matt. “He beat the hell out of me. My face was swollen like a watermelon. He did damage. He left, and then called her. ‘I just beat up the champ,’ he bragged. And my ego gets the best of me. I hadn’t lost a fight in five years. I was angry, I wanted to fight again.”
“D” and her sisters tried to calm things. Some time passed, maybe a half hour. “J” drove up to the house again. Matt went out to re-start the fight. “I’m getting the best of him,” and then more people entered the fray. The second round ended. “J” hung around, though, and Matt saw red again. He had a bat, went to “J’s” car, smashed it up, he admits. “I wanted to continue fighting.”
The cops came and people were separated. “I admitted we fought twice, I said I hit the car with the bat. I never hit ‘J’ with the bat,” Matt says.
Stories were relayed to the authorities, different versions from different points of view. The case went to the prosecutor office, and it went on, for a year, and various stories didn’t stay the same, Matt says.
The longer it dragged on, the more the story focused on him being the bad guy, the assaulter.
Matt wanted to fight the charge, wanted the truth to come out, that he wasn’t this badass boxer on a war path. He was warned he could get 20 years but he kept fighting for the truth as he saw it. Matt says the legal system there wasn’t on his side. He was more the outsider against a kid who had strong family ties to the region. The case went to trial and by then Matt knew that it wasn’t looking so sunny for him.
Matt and “D” and her crew sat on one side and “J” was on the other side. Starting off, there was talk Matt would face a charge of criminal mischief – maybe get a year, maybe get probation. Then, according to Matt, “D” and company started drifting. Stories were changing. “D” and her sisters agreed to cooperate after their charges – they were accused of helping set up the conflict – were dropped. It was all dumped onto Matt’s lap.
“I knew then they wanted me. So I accepted a plea. I took five years. I spent almost $100,000 defending myself, and I was told I’d do 3 1/2 years if I’m good. Then I was told no, I’d do five years, no time off for good time. I called lawyers, investigators … no one would deal with me.” He was the outsider, he maintains, up against a family in good standing locally. “I felt overwhelmed, and betrayed,” he says. “The biggest lesson learned, the police kept telling me: I should have called cops. So many things didn’t come during the case, stories kept changing. I admitted what I did; maybe I should have kept my mouth shut.”
Matt says material that would have helped his case, evidence that would have explained some damage done to “J” likely came from another source – not from their fighting – wasn’t factored in. “He got beat up; I felt horrible about it.” But the “victim” was responsible for behavior that led to the clash, Matt claims. “So, I guess I should have gone to the police, but I was not going to be rat or snitch. I had life by the balls, and I lost everything trying to help a family which I thought had my back.
“I was f—ed by the justice system. I lost everything I had. I struggled … five years, what I put my family through … I wish I’d never hurt them, financially, emotionally. I thought I ruined my life.”
This is how the Associated Press framed the events in a November 29, 2011, story: “Featherweight boxer Matt Remillard was sentenced to five years in prison Tuesday for fracturing a Connecticut man’s skull with an aluminum baseball bat last year in what police say was a fight over a woman.”
To this day, Matt maintains that characterization is not accurate. The passage of time hasn’t softened his declaration that he didn’t hit anyone with a bat.
Remillard faced doing time with a stubbornness that served him well in the pugilism sphere. He was in Hartford for a month, then MacDougall-Walker Correctional Institution, a high-maximum security facility, for two years. After that, Carl Robinson Correctional Institute, a level 3, medium security.
MacDougall, it wasn’t easy, not even for a “tough guy” with a boxer’s mettle. That was 23 hours a day of lockdown, out one hour, use the shower, the phone, work out. “That was a different atmosphere at first. It was like walking through the casino when you’re under age. I didn’t start any trouble, I didn’t hang with the wrong people, and so I knew I’d be fine. My case had been on TV, high interest, some inmates had seen me fight, had seen my case on the news.”
Some guys wanted to fight the champ, yes. “I had to hold my own, prove to everyone you can’t take advantage of me and I’m not going to go down easy … once they realized that, you earn people’s respect. After that, it got a little easier, I could stick to my routine, make the days go by. As far as being physically challenged, usually it takes one time, and word spreads: ‘He’s the truth.’ I learned so much patience in there … and showed that I was not this monster everyone made me out to be. I didn’t catch one disciplinary write-up. If I’m a monster, how can I go to this most dangerous place and not get in trouble? The corrections officers would say, ‘You don’t belong here.’”
Sure, his mind would drift. There’s too much time to ponder in there. “Did I play it the right way? I wish I would have taken it to trial to explain my side under oath. It maybe would have ended up a worse outcome, but I wish more people knew the truth. People on my team and the very few friends I surround myself with know the real me, know what’s really inside my heart … at the end of the day that’s what really matters.”
He won’t soon forget that first night in a cell. In Hartford County, in walked Remillard and people started singing the “Rocky” anthem.
“They had nothing to lose in there, they could get in trouble and there were no consequences. First night I saw a guy stabbed in the neck with a shank, blood everywhere. That was a wake-up call.
Those first days, I stayed to myself, learned the routine, before I stepped out of the zone.”
The routine, I wondered … what’s it like adapting?
“After a month I figured out how everything worked. I sank into my routine. Yeah, sank, like being in quicksand; there’s just enough struggle to keep your head above the sand. You have to psych yourself, forget about the outside world for awhile. And is it hard to crave things on the outside? In summer, you wonder what they are doing, and in winter everyone you know is at home. It can be like being in a nightmare, and you’re trying to survive, so you wake yourself up – you do that throughout the day to make it through the tougher moments. It takes a strength of will not succumbing. It’s mind over matter. It’s a mental strength needed and I feel like boxing got me ready for it. In boxing you have to be very patient, and in there you have to be the same. You have a thousand people there trying to get under your skin, because it’s recreation for them! It’s so easy to fall into that mentality, you’re almost willing to do almost do anything to make the day go by, even if that means putting someone else down. I went through depression, regret … some days were amazing, some days I couldn’t get out of bed.”
Do you have philosophical discussions in there, ponder that meaning of life, of why you were there?
“Honestly, a lot of people are ignorant, they just sit and argue, that’s their recreation,” Matt continues. “It’s hard to find good people while you are locked up. I’m lucky I found two people who I talk to today who I consider best friends. One guy did over twice as long as I did. I was in a year and a half with him, and I could have those conversations. Very few people you could open up to, because with many, the more you let them know about yourself the more likely they are to use it against you.”
I wanted to know more about the experience of being inside that bizarre planet that is the milieu of the incarcerated.
“In MacDougall, you are dealing with lifers. You walk into their cell that’s their home and you’re the visitor. So you have to be on your toes, be a little more respectful. You can be in there for someone who was sentenced to a thousand years. Each day there has to be motivation to pick yourself up off the ground, realize your life isn’t over.”
Remillard counts himself fortunate that he still calls a buddy made inside a trusted confidante today. His pal was assigned, as an inmate, to go through Remillard’s belongings. He saw some pictures, figured out what Matt did, the boxing, and said, “You are the kind of person I want to surround myself with.”
“He’s the kind of person I can talk to when I’m having a sh—y day, and he understands. He’s been there.”
In the “home stretch,” Remillard was in Carl Robinson Correctional Institution. That joint wasn’t set up with cells; instead there was an open area, dorm-style, with 90 bunks. It’s cramped, loud; in the warmer months it’s hot and can get fetid. He’d wake up between 6 and 7 a.m. and work out, then basically hang out, wile away the hours after that. He’d read, anything and everything, lots of psychology books. He’d do a job at 4 p.m., did intake work on newbies coming in. There’d be meals, and he’d work out again, shower, go to bed at around 11:30, fall asleep, and do it again. And again.
“It’s crazy, someone lives two feet away from you. It’s filthy, there were often ants everywhere – you had some sloppy people throwing everything on the ground. In my mind, I’d do a countdown. When I got to one year then I counted by months. With three months left, I’d count by days. I made a little sticky notepad. Ripped one off every morning. No, I didn’t keep any as a souvenir. Threw everything away, didn’t want want any remembrance. With one week out I was calling home, making sure things were in place … the anxiety was like getting ready for a big fight. I had trouble sleeping, I was nervous how I’d make ends meet. Not about how people would act toward me (but) nervous about normal things, about finding a job, working when I got out. Finding a job … oh my god it is crazy, man. I never had such a hard time trying to find something. The law in Connecticut says an employer can’t discriminate based on a prior criminal conviction, but it’s hard for employers not to. And what do I want to do? I would love to get into the Department of Child Services and Families. There are so many kids out there who have grown up without a father or mother and don’t have a mentor to rely on. Things I’ve gone through and much worse. I can relate to these kids. I’ve reached out to people in that department. It’s not impossible, they can’t ask you about your record on the application, so I just need one person to get that shot. I don’t have a Master’s but I have my experience.”
Then, after an interminable count down, D-day came. Or, “R” day. Release. Freedom. It came November 28, 2016.
“I woke up at 8 a.m., I was by 9 filling out papers to leave. I sat from 9 to 11 a.m., the longest two hours of my life. Technically, I was free but I had to wait to be escorted out. I had family there. My girlfriend, who I’d met through a friend, and got re-acquainted with. My uncle. My two friends from Robinson were there, too. I got out at 11, it was quite a feeling. My heart, my stomach were anxious. I was holding back tears. The sense of what freedom was affected me. It was being able to breathe fresh air. Being able to walk around, walk outside, have that peace without having to look behind your back, not having to make sure you walked correctly … it took my breath away. We went to eat at a little place in Manchester, a cafe I loved going to. I had waffles, eggs, everything. And were there mixed feelings, did I feel like maybe people were looking at me and stuff? Not there, but we went to a mall and it was a little weird seeing so many people around. I wondered if they knew I was fresh out. My first night out I went to my condo. I had trouble sleeping for a few weeks after. It was a weird feeling, I was almost too comfortable, it was too quiet. And could I enjoy life, or was I worrying about a job and stuff? A couple days later, December bills had to be paid, so there was almost no time to think about freedom. I had to make ends meet. I still struggle; I’m waiting for someone to give me chance,” Remillard told me in January. “And I’m boxing now. In the gym, in Manchester, Ring of Champions, with Paul Cichon.”
The fighter didn’t puff up in his time away, his superior self-discipline stayed intact. At 30 years old, he’s weighing in the low 140s, and will fight at 135. “I didn’t gain much weight. The food in there is slop, basically. It’s leftovers of leftovers – I often wouldn’t eat it. It would be moldy or there would be ants crawling on it and they still served it. We will see how I feel. I came out in decent shape. I’ve been sparring regularly; I did 12 rounds the day I got out. Why on the first day out? It weighed on me while I was in there … I wanted to make sure I could do it – it was an obstacle. It went great. I did 12 rounds with four or five different people. I made a lot of mistakes, it was more about going the distance. How do I feel emotionally? It’s day by day, I’m taking things slow. It is harder than I thought it would be. I thought I’d have a job by now, I thought paychecks would be coming in. The holidays are a hard time of the year, and winter is not a great time to find a job. I hope I hear something in a week or so.”
And does he face people judging him as he’s out and about? “It’s up and down. Sometimes I don’t give a s–t, other times it weighs on me. I’m more embarrassed than anything. But if I focus on negatives too much I fall back in that rut. I could care less about them, the people I feel wronged me. Karma is a bitch; hopefully they get theirs. But I can’t dwell on that. I can’t change the past.”
And the future is looking sunnier. Remillard found work, a place willing to take a supposed gamble on a guy with a record. He’s doing electrical work – a guy saw an article on him in the local paper and wanted to give him a hand up. “He wanted to help me out,” Remillard says. “He’s a real nice guy.”
And the boxing is back on track. Word is, Remillard will glove up again in April, April Fools Day, in Worcester, Massachusetts, an eight-round co-feature.
He is looking good in the gym, the grapevine says.
His face looks unmarked, basically, for a pro fighter. The time off kept him from taking punishment physically, but internally, to his spirit? There are scars, there have to be.
The stress of doing a bid, and being labeled as those reports did … the depth of the scarring can’t be measured.
Odds are against a return to form after a lengthy layoff, say old-timers who have seen this sort of story lived out before. Remillard is stubborn on that matter: He insists he will get back to where he was, and then some.
Someone named Vinnie Carita will headline the card that Remillard returns on. Matt will fight someone with just 10 pro bouts. And he will be, for a certain span of time, in control of his present and have proper perspective on his recent past.
“Inside the ring I feel the most confident,” Remillard says, in closing. “It’s a sense of belonging. No matter if I win or lose, it’s a place I feel like I belong. Boxing is a part of who I am and defines me in certain ways. If I can share my story and touch a few people along the way then I will feel like I have succeeded. I want people to learn from my mistakes and know that you can come back from anything.”
Follow Michael Woods on Twitter @Woodsy1069
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