John "Doomsday" Howard was born and raised in Dorchester, one of Boston’s most violent neighborhoods, building a mixed record on the Northeastern MMA circuit in the rare moments between working hours. Then in early 2009 he got a call: The UFC needed someone to fight Chris Wilson, a two-fight veteran of the promotion, on the same card as Georges St-Pierre and BJ Penn. It was a prelim fight (in the era before Facebook build-ups and multichannel broadcasts), so no one outside the MGM Grand Garden Arena would see it even if they wanted to. The money wasn’t particularly good, either: $3,000 to show, $3,000 to win-- the lowest single purse on a million-dollar payroll.
But the chance to fight in the UFC represents the possibility of a new life, no matter how few decimal places are attached to the contract, so Howard ignored his nerves and bit down on his mouthpiece. Five weeks and 15 minutes later, he’d won his first UFC fight. And at the end of the night, he had an extra $65,000 in bonus money he wasn’t expecting.
That extra money went toward debt and the other banalities, and Howard still calls Dorchester his home. After five years of ups and downs, he’s still somewhere in the middle of the UFC welterweight pack, but that could all change next week when he fights Siyar Bahadurzada at UFC 168--the same way everything changed for him that fateful January night in 2009.
John Howard: Dorchester is the most dangerous part of Boston. They call it the Red Zone because a lot of people have been killed down there; there are a lot of gangs. Even cops would tread softly around Dorchester back in my day. And that’s where I came from—rough times where I had to fight to survive, just to live. Some fights I had to fight were just to get home. Luckily, I didn’t fall into the crowd of the street, and I was able to go into my career and become a UFC fighter. Or just make it past 21.
I wasn’t, like, some punk kid who had a privileged life. My mother was a single mother, and she wasn’t able to take care of me as a teenager. At the age of 14, I wasn’t going out to parties—I had a job. As a matter of fact, I had to quit high school just to maintain a job. The only reason why I got my high school diploma is because I left Boston, went to Maine, and got my diploma in Job Corps. My life was a struggle.
I used to work six days a week on top of training. First, I worked for 1-800-GOT-JUNK, which is a junk company where we come in and pick up your junk and fill up a truck for you. Then I was with a TV company for a while—I was an electrician. I’d install TVs, run the wires and stuff like that. I was a plumber for a little while—basically, I was a maintenance man. And I was also a bouncer at night. That’s why I was working six days a week—the only day I didn’t work as a bouncer was on Monday because no one goes out unless it’s a holiday. But that was my life: work, train, fight.
My days for training were always Mondays, Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays. I’d train in the mid-day—after work at Got Junk, I’d go straight to training. I would train for two or three hours, take a nap at the dojo, take a shower, and then go to my night job.
What happened is [UFC lightweight] Joe Lauzon made a phone call for me. The UFC were looking for welterweights at that time—I guess someone dropped out, and he put in a word for me. It was a pretty good notice; I had a good five-and-a-half weeks. It was perfect timing—I was preparing for a fight anyway. If it wasn’t for Joe and his partner Chris Palmquist, I probably wouldn’t be here.
Usually, if you’re fighting on a Saturday, you leave the Tuesday before the fight. That Monday, I still went to work. Everybody wished me good luck, and I went to the UFC the next day.
Leading up to the fight, I was so nervous. I didn’t wanna fail my mother, I didn’t wanna get hurt, I didn’t wanna look stupid—there was so much going through my head. But when I first got in the cage and those lights came on, it was the weirdest thing. The lights in Club Lido (in Revere, Massachusetts, where I fought locally) were like the same lights in the UFC--nice and warm. Right then and there, all the nerves went out. I felt a little feeling of calmness, and it was all good, man.
[My opponent] Chris Wilson was a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and he was a pretty good striker. He threw a hard knee and off his knee I took him down. We got back up and we exchanged. I kept leg kicking him; we were exchanging pretty good. I got more takedowns, I showed that my grappling was good, and he was shocked. In the second round, he threw a hard shot; I threw a hard leg kick, I made him stumble over, and I chased him down and tried to knock him out. We go back and forth with a few exchanges, he took me down once, but I kept taking him down.
In the third round, it went back and forth: I went for a takedown, he went for a switch, and I re-switched him and took his back. And for I think three minutes in the third round, I was just beating him up. He finally escaped back mount, but when he escaped, I went for a kneebar, he defended it, and I swept him and put him back on his back. And I ended up back on top. The frustration in his face was crazy. I’ll never forget: [UFC heavyweight] Antonio Nogueira was in his corner, and he said, “Do something something.” He went for a footlock, we stood up, he went to knock me out, and I took him down again. I knew I won.
When the fight ended, I went back to my corner and they were so happy. But Nogueira was so mad at me he wouldn’t even shake my hand. Those guys were pissed, dude.
I watched the rest of the fights. I saw GSP beat BJ Penn. After that was over, I went into the lobby. It was crazy because no one recognized me at first, and I was like, “Alright, no big deal.” One fan said, “You’re John Howard. You fought tonight.” And I was like, “Yeah.” Then it was a chain reaction—I was in the lobby for about three hours doing pictures and autographs. Some guy was like, “I want your shirt. Can you give me a shirt?” We traded shirts. Some guy took my hat. It was the best feeling ever—I had all these people who didn’t know who I am, but they wanted my autograph because I had a great fight.
I get back to the hotel and go, “Alright, that was fun. It’s time to get ready to go home tomorrow.” I had to go back to work. Then my coach gets a text and says, “Doomsday got Fight of the Night!” I’m like, “Get the fuck outta here. Stop playing with my head. That’s not funny.” He went on a Web site, and we saw I got Fight of the Night. My coach was like, “Fuck work. Quit your job right now; you’re not doing that no more. You’re a full-time fighter.” And ever since then, I was, brother.
I paid bills with the bonus money. All kinds of child support—oh my goodness, I just kept paying it off. But life was looking better at the time. After we got back, I went to my work and said, “Thank you for the opportunity and everything you’ve done, but I quit. I’m done. I’m gonna go pursue my dream.”
Check out these related stories:
UFC Origins: Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.