John Howard admits that he felt bad for Tamerlan Tsarnaev after their sparring session a few years ago, one that saw the UFC fighter break the amateur boxer’s nose and give him a crash course in mixed martial arts at the Wai Kru school Howard called home.
That was until Howard, a middleweight fighter in the upcoming UFC Fight Night at the TD Garden, heard Tsarnaev’s name earlier this year and recognized his face. He wasn’t just a random sparring partner from long ago anymore. He was one of the terrorists that planted a bomb at the Boston Marathon on April 15, killing three people and injuring over 260.
“If I had any idea, I would have killed him with my bare hands,” said Howard of Tsarnaev, who was killed four days after the bombing. Tsarnaev’s brother and accomplice Dzhokhar is currently being held in Federal custody. “Me being from Boston, and being born and raised here, that really hurt me. It was personal. And then to find out that it was him, it was crazy. When I broke his nose I felt so bad at that time, but after that, I didn’t feel bad at all. I wish I could have kept hitting him. That’s some cowardly stuff to bomb innocent people. I don’t care what your beliefs are; I don’t think any God believes you should kill or hurt innocent people.”
Howard's thoughts largely mirror those of his neighbors when it comes to Boston. For them, it’s not just a city, but a community that was attacked in April. And after the attack, this community united. ‘Boston Strong’ they called it.
“Everybody came together and I was real happy about that,” said Howard. “It was a sad situation, but when there’s a time like that, we came together and showed how strong Boston can be. We stood up, and we don’t keep our heads down.”
Given the city’s fighting spirit, it’s almost fitting that the first FOX Sports 1 event for the UFC should be held there, in the TD Garden that Howard still considers to be the Boston Garden. And even better for him, it coincides with his return to the organization after a two year absence.
“I’m so happy to be in my backyard,” said the 30-year-old middleweight. “It was always a dream of mine to fight at the TD Garden, and being in Boston, it was always the Boston Garden, no matter what. And you’ve got to understand, a lot of Boston athletes are not actually from Boston. I’m a Boston athlete from Boston, fighting in the Boston Garden. It’s a dream come true.”
One that came out of the blue for “Doomsday,” who was called on short notice to replace the injured Josh Samman against Ultimate Fighter season 17 finalist Uriah Hall. Full notice, short notice, or no notice, you know Howard wasn’t going to miss this one.
“It was a surprise, but the UFC did tell me that if I came back strong, got some good wins and some good finishes that they’d bring me back, and they kept to their word,” he said. “It was perfect. I was happy, and I really appreciate the UFC doing that for me.”
This was no charity, ‘let’s get the Boston kid back in here’ deal though. Howard earned his spot by going 6-1 with five KOs, all in a return to 185 pounds after nine fights at welterweight. And not only does he look stronger at middleweight, his striking is even sharper.
“The John Howard of 2011 was a slugger,” he said. “I was a stupid kid who would just stand and bang. And looking back, that wasn’t the best strategy. I was just a kid. But right now, my boxing’s gotten better, I’ve been working with (former world boxing champion) Vinny Paz and a lot of good strikers now, and I went back to my roots and got a lot sharper. I’m moving better and I’m a lot cleaner. I used to swing for the fences and I was wild. Now I’m sharper, quicker, more steady, and I’m a lot smarter.”
That’s not to say he was a bad fighter at welterweight. In fact, he fought all of his seven previous UFC fights at 170 pounds. But after a 4-0 start to his Octagon career, he dropped three straight to Jake Ellenberger, Thiago Alves, and Matt Brown, getting cut after the Brown bout, even though there’s nothing to be ashamed of there, especially considering the recent success of Brown and Ellenberger.
“I say that all the time,” said Howard. “I can see if I lost to three bums, but I lost to three contenders. Matt Brown is on a tear. Jake Ellenberger lost to (Rory) MacDonald, but it was a decision, and before that he was on a tear. Thiago Alves is the best striker in the division, easy, and I went toe-to-toe with him. It was heartbreaking getting kicked out of the UFC, but look who I lost to. And now, they’re gonna see that I’m a force to be reckoned with and I belong and deserve to stay in the UFC.”
A Second Chance
He will have every chance to prove it, given the high-profile nature of his bout against Hall, who captivated the MMA world with his stint on TUF 17 before losing the final to Kelvin Gastelum in April. Now the New Yorker is hungry for his first UFC win, but Howard has no plans on giving it to him.
“He’s good, and I think he’s a good striker,” said Howard of Hall. “But I think he’s overrated and his first serious fight is against me. He fought Ultimate Fighter guys who were in the house, but never a legit, proven UFC fighter. And even though I was kicked out of the UFC, I’m a proven UFC fighter who beat other UFC fighters, knocking them out or beating them by decision. I believe I’m a tough matchup for him and now it’s time for him to prove if he’s really a UFC-caliber fighter.”
John Howard never stopped believing he was a UFC-caliber fighter, even when he wasn’t in the UFC. His fans felt the same way, lighting up social media outlets demanding his return as soon as this Saturday’s event was announced. This weekend, they get their wish, and this Bostonian couldn’t be happier.
“It feels good and it lets you know that Boston stands by its athletes, and I really appreciate that,” said Howard of the fan support he’s received. “They were pushing for me hard to get back in the UFC, the timing was right, and everything fell into place. I’m just happy to be back. I’m smarter, stronger, and a lot more educated in my field. I’m not a young, stupid kid no more. Everything fell into place, and I think it’s my time to come back and shine and do it right. I can’t wait.”
John Howard: Boston Strong
"I’m just happy to be back. I’m smarter, stronger, and a lot more educated in my field. I’m not a young, stupid kid no more." - John Howard