Most of the organizations that put on MMA fights are not truly “leagues” in the traditional major-league-sports sense, but rather promotional groups that hold events with various non-contract fighters. Since most of the groups are not connected, communication between them is limited, at best. But the UFC, IFL, and others do tend to follow the same rules. A typical MMA match is broken into three five-minute rounds. Winners are determined by either a judges’ decision at the end of the match, by knockout, or by submission, when a fighter forces his opponent to literally “tap out.” The MMA style, as much as there is one, is built around Muay Thai kickboxing and Brazilian Jiu-jitsu, as these disciplines — when blended together — allow for a good balance between standup fighting and grappling. But most fighters also train in other skills, such as boxing, wrestling, or judo, to create their own mash-up styles.
Howard had his first brush with MMA in Maine, where he was studying to be an electrician at the Job Corps school after his junior year of high school. His plans changed when he met a freestyle submission grappler named James Stokes. “He took me under his wing and showed me the basic grappling techniques,” says Howard. “I loved it so much that, after [graduating], I came back to Boston and looked for a school.”
He spent two years training at the Brazilian Martial Arts Center in Somerville, and fought professionally for the gym. He also took on a new name.
“I was trying to be Superman, but that’s kind of lame,” he says. “Everybody’s Superman.” He was discussing it with his brother, who came upon a better option: Doomsday, the supervillain who killed Superman at the cost of his own life. “[My brother] said, ‘Anybody who dies, but kills Superman, gets the most amount of respect, because Superman’s the man.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah. I want to be Doomsday. I’m going to be Doomsday.’ My name is John ‘Doomsday’ Howard.”
He didn’t live up to his fear-inducing namesake, though, until 2005, in a 185-pound light-heavyweight title fight for the World Fighting League, which, despite it’s lofty name, mostly just promotes regional fights in New England. “I fought a guy named Mandela Kponou,” recalls Howard, “and he was, at the time, the toughest SOB in Boston. He was number one. Everybody was scared of him. He was beating guys, owning guys, and I was the only guy stupid enough to fight him.”
Howard was losing after the first round, taking 14 solid punches and breaking one of his front teeth. (It isn’t a pretty sport.) He came back angry, caught Kponou in a heel hook, and twisted until he broke Kponou’s ankle. Kponou tapped out, and Howard won the fight — and captured his first title.
“I realized then,” he says, “that if I can take a beatdown that severe, and still come back and win, maybe I can do this sport. I was taught that it’s about what you can take, and then give back. My perspective is: can you take more punches than he can, and give it back, and still win?”