PORTLAND, Maine — Crowsneck Boutin has been fighting virtually all of his life.

For much of those 29 years he has been punished — even incarcerated — for it.

More recently he found stability in it, and now Boutin is being honored as New England Fights Mixed Martial Arts Fighter of the Year.

“I’m pretty happy about the idea that people I don’t know are appreciating what I do,” he said recently.

Boutin, who went 3-0 in 2014 with two first-round knockouts, received nearly 36 percent of the fan vote for the award compared to 23 percent for runner-up Bruce Boyington, the NEF lightweight champion.

“He’s a guy whose fight performances are the product of nothing more elaborate than incredible hard work,” said Matt Peterson, a state representative from Rumford who is co-owner and matchmaker for New England Fights MMA. “He’s gone from a complete unknown, a guy literally off the streets, to fighter of the year as voted on by the fans.

“He’s a prime example of mixed martial arts transforming someone’s life. I don’t know if you can get a more textbook example of that than Crowsneck Boutin.”

Indeed, the mixed martial arts cage is a long way from the Washington County streets that were the backdrop for many of his earlier fights, violent encounters that led to numerous arrests and months of jail time on multiple occasions.

“I’m the kind of person, if I had a problem with you I would fight you anywhere, that’s just what I used to do,” said Boutin. “I’ve cleaned up my act now, but I had a lot of personal issues and I would take them out on people I disliked, and probably more times than not I took it out on people more than what they deserved.”

The 6-foot-1-inch, 200-pound Boutin has pursued those aggressive tendencies in a much more focused fashion since discovering MMA 2½ years ago.

“I just decided to take a couple of fights because I’ve always loved fighting,” he said. “Even when I was a little boy I always wanted to be like this little warrior. I’ve done plenty of fights on the streets, plenty of fights in bars, plenty of fights in jail. I just have a fighting spirit.”

No matter that he lacked formal training in any of the myriad disciplines that comprise MMA. His only preparation stemmed from the personal spontaneous combustion that had led to too many confrontations.

“I definitely had anger issues,” he said. “I grew up in a pretty tough situation.”

Those anger issues lingered even in the hours before his first bout in June 2012 at the Androscoggin Bank Colisee in Lewiston.

“The first time I met Crow was the first time he weighed in for a fight,” said Jon Pinette, a partner in the Choi Institute of Martial Arts and Science in Portland and a commissioner on the Combat Sports Authority of Maine, which regulates boxing and mixed martial arts in the state.

“There was a scuffle between he and the guy he was going to fight right at the weigh-in. They faced off and I personally broke it up and told them to keep it in the ring. The next night when they fought, Crowsneck got beat up pretty fast by the other guy, but he stuck out in my mind because he was all heart. He went in there with a lot of heart and not much skill,” Pinette said.

Boutin lasted just 75 seconds in his amateur debut and only 31 seconds in his next bout two months later. But not only was he undeterred by that lack of immediate success, he was drawn further into the sport.

“That’s when Matt gave me Jon’s number and told me to give him a call because he knew I was living on the streets in Portland and could use some help,” said Boutin. “Jon helped me.”

Pinette welcomed Boutin into the Congress Street training facility.

“He came in as a humble, humble human being willing to accept whatever fate was his,” said Pinette. “I worked him like I work everybody else, pretty hard, and he worked to the point of having to throw up during one of my early classes.

“But he immediately came back and jumped right back into the circuits, so what I had thought intuitively when I first met him that he was all heart I found out to be true in one of those very early classes.”

As Boutin immersed himself in training he began to experience success in the cage — and won his next three fights.

Then a step up in competition produced four consecutive losses over a five-month period in 2013, but the lessons learned led to an undefeated 2014.

First Boutin scored a three-round unanimous decision over Brandon Gibbs. Then came his signature victory to date, a one-punch technical knockout of Dan Connaughton 33 seconds into a June bout subsequently named as a finalist for NEF KO/TKO of the year.

“I just remember he was huge, he probably outweighed me by 20 pounds but I felt confident going into the fight,” said Boutin. “We banged for a few seconds standing up, and I can remember he came in real close and I spun off and gave him a roundhouse kick to the leg and he got super mad. He clenched his jaw and his muscles tightened. I could see it in his eyes and knew I had him.”

Boutin’s most recent victory, bringing his amateur record to 6-6, was a first-round knockout at NEF XIV in September.

“Sometimes it’s tough to get a guy who comes from a tough upbringing like he has to stick to something, especially something as difficult as mixed martial arts,” said Pinette. “But now he’s got scientific skills to systematically break down an opponent that he uses in the cage, and he’s developed them in less than three years.”

Roughhousing roots

Boutin grew up in rural Trescott, a Down East township situated between Whiting and Lubec off U.S. Route 1.

“There’s not a lot to do down there,” he said.

He was adopted by his grandparents at an early age, and it was his grandmother who named him “Crowsneck” after the Crows Neck Road between Whiting Bay and Straight Bay where Boutin — born Nicholas — spent his earliest years.

“She called me Crowsneck as a term of endearment,” said Boutin, who has the adopted name tattooed across his back. “It’s where I lived before I lived with them, a tiny dirt road in the middle of nowhere where only a few people lived.

“I was always Crow to my grandmother.”

The years spent with his grandparents offered a respite from an otherwise challenged youth Boutin said often involved fighting as a defense mechanism.

“I was probably 10 or so when I got into my first fight,” he said. “I was young, for sure, but everyone in my school scrapped. Everyone scrapped around me, and of course, I was the poor kid, the stinky kid, and I got picked on tremendously right up until I didn’t go to school anymore. I was picked on all the time.”

Things got worse after Boutin’s grandparents fell ill and eventually died when he was a young teenager.

He dropped out of school after the eighth grade, fathered a child at 17 and the fights and arrests grew more frequent — even after he earned his general equivalency diploma and began taking classes at the University of Maine at Machias.

“I definitely didn’t do what I was supposed to do,” he said. “I ended up drinking a lot, doing a lot of drugs and I started getting arrested a lot and it all kind of fell apart from there.”

Boutin estimates he was arrested “20-something” times over a decade, primarily for assault — “straight-up, small-town fights,” as he describes them — and violation of bail and probation conditions.

He seemingly couldn’t escape trouble until finally he did escape, fleeing to southern Maine.

“I moved down here to get away from some trouble I was in back home,” he said.

But leaving trouble behind wasn’t as easy as just leaving. His most recent arrest, which he said stemmed from restitution issues related to a 2009 assault conviction, came not long before his entry into an MMA cage.

“Down here I thought I could blend in and no one would find me, which was crazy,” he said. “My first few fights were so nerve-wracking. I’d see cops at the fights and I’d avoid eye contact and keep my shirt on as much as I could so they wouldn’t see my tattoos because my name is on my back.”

Boutin said today there are no outstanding warrants awaiting him, adding that he checks with law enforcement authorities regularly to make sure his record is clear.

Competitive visions

Boutin also has found a home and employment outside the cage, though it’s not far away.

He lives and works at the Choi Institute, as well as working for Pinette’s landscaping firm.

“Everyone here loves Crow, everybody supports Crow, and everybody’s behind him as a friend and a brother,” said Pinette. “He grew up having to fight for whatever he had, so it was very natural for him to fight, he was just fighting in a different way for different reasons with a lot of anger and heart.

“Now he’s got a good job and a good support system, he’s not alone any more. I’m proud to be his friend and his coach.”

And while any MMA combatant is an injury away from having career goals derailed, Boutin and his camp are optimistic on the competitive front.

“Right now looking at what there is to offer him in Maine and even pulling in guys from other states, I can’t speak for everywhere in the country, but seeing what I see, he’s at the top of the food chain right now as far as amateurs go,” said Pinette. “At some point he’s going to turn pro and he’s going to do very well.”

Boutin has thought about taking that professional next step, but knows more amateur preparation will only help.

“I’d kind of like to acquire the No. 1 rank for my division,” he said. “Then I could take a bunch of good fights all year long and maybe collect some hardware by fighting for some amateur titles. I don’t really care about [the titles], but it means the fights are going to be good opponents.”

Boutin is set to return to action on Feb. 7, 2015, against Bangor’s Nash Roy as part of NEF XVI in Lewiston

“I say [MMA] has saved my life, and I really believe that,” he said. “I was into some unsavory [stuff] before I came here, and even while I was here it took me a while to wean off all that, but with all the good energy here I ended up sticking around.

“It could have turned out a lot worse, and I still have to check myself because sometimes I feel like this really isn’t happening, but I can’t think of a better place I could have ended up.”

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...