BOSTON, Mass. — In Dorchester, you have to find a way to survive.
John Howard’s run-down tenement building. Howard, now known as “Doomsday” in the Octagon, will fight Tim Means this Thursday night in Las Vegas at UFC Fight Night 80. Back in that diminutive apartment, however, he was just a child observing a chilly set of surroundings.
“I had a friend who lived in the house with his mother and his sister,” said Howard, recalling the dark apartments that did not have working electricity. “He was about 14 years old and was the only man in the house. Downstairs, there were all these thugs who sold drugs.”
Howard’s friend, he explained, did not seek out a gang life. But as he walked home from school, Howard overheard a gangbanger say, “You’re going to hang with us and join this crew.”
This was not an invitation that could be declined.
“Let me explain something to you,” Howard recalled the gangbanger saying to the boy. “If you don’t join us, we’ll go upstairs and rape your mom and then rape your sister. You’ll have to deal with that for the rest of your life.
“Or you can come with us, and we’ll protect you.”
As the color drained out of Howard’s face, he asked, “What was he supposed to do?”
The 32-year-old Howard, who still lives in Dorchester, calls himself “Doomsday,” after the comic book monster, for a reason.
“A white guy in tights named ‘Superman’ would not have survived in Dorchester,” said Howard. “Superman was perfect. He had a family, grew up on a farm, and worked for a newspaper. He would have given up in the first bad situation he saw in Dorchester.”
Howard used comic books as an escape, and he closely identified with Doomsday.
“I love Doomsday because we have the same story,” said Howard. “Doomsday was forced to be a villain in order to survive. He didn’t want to be a villain, but he had no choice. Yes, he did kill Superman, but if you’re a real comic book fan, you know that Doomsday realized the difference between wrong and right.
“I was forced to live a certain way to survive. I had no choice, I didn’t want to be born into that environment. Doomsday was created as a bad guy, but when he had the choice to be good or bad, he decided to be good. And when I was finally given a chance I had to do everything right, I did.”
Despite his role as a major underdog (+250 by the Las Vegas casinos), Howard has set his sights on defeating Tim Means.
“Means is dangerous, but I’m a more dangerous fighter than he is right now,” said the 5’7” Howard. “That doesn’t mean I’d ever count him out. He’s fought some of the best guys ever at the welterweight issue, but I’m stronger and have a better team in my corner.
“Means is a great fighter, and he’s great at Muay Thai, but I have the best Muay Thai coach in the world.”
Unbeknownst to the Vegas wise guys, Howard changed the direction of his career by switching to a new coach–Mark DellaGrotte.
DellaGrotte is one of the most respected names in Muay Thai, and he mastered the craft of cornering fighters during his countless trips to Thailand. His coaching at the Sityodtong dojo just outside of Boston has pushed Howard into the best shape of his life.
“I was always impressed with John Howard’s natural ability, but I knew he was capable of doing more,” explained DellaGrotte. “I knew there were things that he wasn’t doing to the best of his ability in training camp–diet, strength and conditioning, game plan and strategy, and having the right team behind him to cut methodically and re-hydrate properly after.
“A lot of camps overlook those details and think they can tough it out and get through it with bravado and athleticism. But John has excelled in all areas of the game. His striking has got better, his strength and conditioning, and he’s had a great training camp to take out Tim Means.”
The 31-year-old Means, known as the “Dirty Bird,” is six inches taller than Howard. He also holds a more impressive record (24-7-1) than Howard (23-11), but DellaGrotte is confident that even MMA experts will be surprised by Howard’s vast improvement.
“John is a martial artist, and that is exactly what sets him aside from most of these guys out there,” said DellaGrotte. “This new generation of mixed martial arts is what I call the ‘Burger King of MMA–Have it your way.’ They want a UFC contract overnight, and they want free gear and sponsorships. But John is dedicated to the martial arts, and he realizes that the martial arts provide for his family, they feed the mouths of his children. That’s a different athlete, that’s a different animal in that cage.”
UFC’s “Ultimate Fighter” television program helped the sport attain mainstream attention, yet DellaGrotte explained that there are no short cuts in mixed martial arts. Only hard work, dedication, and perseverance will allow a fighter to taste success.
“Doomsday’s had a troubled past, not only personally, but also a rocky path with his career, his training partners, and his camps,” said DellaGrotte. “He’s dealt with a lot behind the scenes that has plagued him in his training camps, but the last thing we do is look at him as a pay day. He’s a true martial artist by heart and soul, and that’s what motivates me to work with him.”
If you don’t do things the right way in the cage, DellaGrotte explained, then the cage will expose you. Howard has finally reached the point in his career where he is ready to expose the weakness of others in the cage, starting with Means.
“Means is dangerous,” said DellaGrotte. “He’s a dirty fighter, he’s a gritty fighter, he’s been in there with some of the best in the company, and that’s why we’re honored to fight him. This isn’t a grudge match. It is honor and respect to fight another great fighter, but we feel that ‘Dooms’ is going to be a lot stronger and is going to be able to impose himself on him. John’s been in battles, he’s battle-tested, and I guarantee that on Fight Night, he’ll come prepared.”
Howard could not help but laugh when he was asked if Means is his toughest opponent. He earned a high school diploma, but was placed in Special Needs classes as a student and always felt out of place at school. His mother always remained a positive influence in his life, but a true father figure never appeared in his life.
“My biological father didn’t want nothing to do with me,” said Howard, who is the proud father of three daughters. “He’s still in Boston, but I don’t want to see him. The man I call my father is actually my sister’s father. He was our crackhouse father.”
Home should be a haven, but that peace never existed for Howard. He was never introduced to the idea of hope in Dorchester, only a grim future and a vanishing past.
“Growing up in Dorchester was a very humbling experience,” said Howard. “It’s the roughest neighborhood in Boston. We used to find dead bodies in the parks. You could call the cops, but they wouldn’t come for two, three hours because they were scared for their own lives. When you live through that, it teaches you to be strong and keep going forward.”
Howard trains six days a week for eight hours a day. While the average person burns approximately one-thousand calories when working out, Howard burns five times that amount. But his true strength comes from his mother.
“My hero to this day is my mother,” said Howard. “I’ve seen the struggle she’s went through, and I’m a result of it. She taught me to be a strong man, even when times weren’t working in our favor. It was hard to get food, it was hard to survive. But she persevered and taught me that some things aren’t impossible, they’re just improbable. She showed me to always stay strong.”
Howard earned a master’s degree in survival.
“I’ve won bigger battles than Tim Means,” Howard continued, “but it’s only helped build my character. I don’t want people to feel bad for me, but I want people to look at me as an example. I always knew there was something better out there than the life I was given. That’s why I don’t mind killing myself during training. After the stuff I’ve been through, I have to find a way to go forward.”
Jon Sneider is Howard’s manager and best friend. Every morning, Howard texts Sneider, “Today’s going to be an amazing day.” Sneider texts back, “I believe in you.”
“We do that every single day,” said Sneider. “It may seem small, but that gets us through the day.”
Howard conceded that he would have quit fighting if not for Sneider. As incomprehensible as it seems, Sneider is one of the few people in this world who believes in Howard.
“Me and John work out together,” said Sneider. “So everything that he’s doing for his training, I’m doing, too, and he always pushes me to the extreme.”
Howard placed an emphasis on his cardio, so he and Sneider focused on treadmill interval training. One workout, as the two were sprinting, Howard looked over to Sneider and asked, “Do you believe in me?”
“We’re running and we’re breathing heavy, but I said, ‘Of course I believe in you,’” said Sneider. “After that, John put the treadmill up as high as it could possibly go for the last minute, then he went straight to puke in the barrel. He said to me, ‘I’ve never puked for anybody in my life, but I puke for you, and it’s because you believe in me.’”
In addition to the vomit, the taste in Howard’s mouth was gratitude.
“It just takes one person to believe in you,” he said. “I want to honor [DellaGrotte] for putting his name behind me, and honor Jon and my team. That is what drives me. Everyone thinks MMA is a selfish sport with just one fighter, but it’s a team sport. When you win, the whole team wins.”
Howard has dealt with injuries suffered in the Octagon–a cracked face and a broken arm, just to name just two–but explained that dodging an opponent’s strikes is far easier than avoiding gangsters, drug dealers, and cops. He also revealed his ultimate goal in the UFC.
“I want to be the first man ever with two UFC titles in two different weight classes,” said Howard. “I want to be the welterweight champion, and I also want to be the middleweight champion. I’m big enough and strong enough and talented enough to fight in both weight classes. It sounds crazy, and it’s going to be hard, but I think it’s possible.”
After winning his first four fights in the UFC, Howard dropped three straight and was quickly fired by UFC president Dana White. He earned his way back into the company, and currently has four fights remaining on his new UFC contract.
Howard scratched and clawed for his second chance with the UFC, but he remains frustrated that a novice like Phil “CM Punk” Brooks received a contract without first paying his dues in the world of mixed martial arts. After defeating Means, Howard wants the opportunity to fight Punk.
“Phil Brooks got a pass to the UFC because of his notoriety,” said Howard. “Maybe he is a legit caliber UFC fighter, but I want to be the guy he fights to prove he belongs in the UFC. I’m smaller than him. He’s a middleweight and I’m a welterweight, but I’ll come up in weight. If he whips my butt, I’ll eat my words–but let’s see him prove it against me.”
Howard rarely calls out an opponent, as fighters become like brothers-in-arms even during their violent and relentless assault against one another.
“It’s a weird bond when you exchange blood,” said Howard. “We’re not savages, and it’s more like fighting your brother. The sport of fighting is just a sport.”
There is a human side to the sport. During Howard’s last fight with Uriah Hall, the two fighters discussed video games during the middle of the match.
“No one knew what we were talking about,” explained Howard. “But we were talking about playing Tekken. During the fight, I said, ‘Yo, yo, Uriah–we should play Tekken after this,’ and he said, ‘Word.’ After the fight, we played for three hours.”
Howard will not be whispering with Means, however, as he is too focused on showing off his vastly improved striking skills.
“My striking has improved the most since my last fight,” said Howard. “I was this stubborn Muay Thai heavy-hitter, but [DellaGrotte] turned me into a fluid, smooth fighter. We see it in practice, and I can’t wait to show it in the fight.”
Means lost his last fight by submission, but Howard envisions a different ending to this battle.
“I’m going to call a knockout,” said Howard. “I’ve got heavy hands and he likes to bang, and if we exchange and he gets hit, it’s goodbye.”
A renewed appreciation for the mental aspect of fighting, Howard added, also adds another element to his arsenal.
“Anyone can be physical,” said Howard. “A good gym will help you be in shape. But mentally strong means you can control your emotions, your anger, your desperation, and your attitude. That’s the difference between a real fighter and a street fighter.”
Howard plans to celebrate his victory with endless amounts of Reese’s Pieces and Sprite.
“I have to win this fight,” said Howard. “I’m going to show the results of my new training and my new surroundings. If I can persevere through what I’ve already made it through, then there is no reason that I can’t do this.
“I’m from Dorchester, so I’ll find a way to survive.”