Sports were one way Howard kept himself out of trouble. At Jeremiah E. Burke High School and Madison Park Technical Vocational School, he ran track and field and, as a freshman, made the varsity football team as a running back, becoming co-captain by his junior year. He’s older now, with a neatly trimmed beard to complement his close-cut black hair, and he’s definitely in better shape, but he still possesses the gung-ho enthusiasm of a star high-school athlete.
“No tattoos, no piercings — I’m not a rebel,” he says. “You don’t have to look like a fighter to be a fighter. People do that because they want to look tough. The reality is it means nothing — what matters is what you can do in that fucking ring.”
My name is Doomsday
What is currently known as MMA emerged from a murky underground into the mainstream in 1993 with the first Ultimate Fighting Championship, a professional tournament born out of an age-old barstool question: in a no-rules environment, what fighting style would kick the most ass? But as the sport rose in popularity, and the UFC became its premier governing body, its no-holds-barred violence invited heavy criticism. Senator John McCain was particularly vocal, labeling the sport as “human cockfighting” and lobbying to have it effectively banned in all 50 states. Before long, fights were cut from pay-per-view TV, and the short-lived UFC was bankrupt.
The UFC name was sold to its current Las Vegas–based owners in 2001. The organization instituted new rules to comply with state regulations, and downplayed the term “no-holds barred,” instead pushing the concept of “mixed martial arts.” These changes helped the new UFC return to its original prominence atop the world of combat sports. While a number of smaller, regional MMA organizations have also come to market recently, only a few — such as the International Fighting League (IFL) and EliteXC — have made inroads to compete head on, nationally, with the new UFC.
It was the latter that recently hit multi-Zeitgeist-platform pay dirt when it ran the first MMA card on broadcast television (on CBS), with a headline match featuring former street-brawling Internet sensation Kimbo Slice. Slice has become a break-out MMA star, landing the cover of ESPN The Magazine and an appearance (with his mom) in a nationally broadcast TV commercial promoting his CBS fight, and becoming the object of discussions in such unexpected venues as Slate and NPR.
McCain has since changed his views on MMA, and was recently quoted in the Daily Telegraph of London as saying: “The sport has grown up. The rules have been adopted to give its athletes better protections and to ensure fairer competition.” (Many in the far-reaching MMA blogosphere, however, have expressed fears that a McCain presidency could bring more restrictions to the sport. His opponent, Senator Barack Obama, hasn’t expressed an opinion about MMA, and calls to Obama’s press office seeking a comment were not returned.)