“We were afraid that he was the more powerful striker,” he now admits. “I didn’t think that I could knock him out. We joked about it, but the plan was always to submit him.”

According to Allan, Howard broke Rodriguez’s jaw in two places. Injuries like that are a fact of life for fighters. In fact, Howard’s had his share, including a broken arm and the broken tooth. But for all the violence, serious injuries are fairly rare, especially judged against boxing. “We do see more injuries per fight card in MMA, but fewer major injuries,” says Keith Kizer, executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission. The most common injuries for Mixed Martial Artists tend to be cuts and bruises, with fewer of the concussions and cracked ribs boxers commonly experience.

Only one fighter has ever died from a sanctioned MMA match. Sam Vasquez, from Texas, collapsed after a fight in October of 2007. He slipped into a coma and passed away several weeks later. Another American grappler, Douglas Dedge, was killed in an unsanctioned match in the Ukraine. Now take boxing, which has had more than 100 deaths worldwide — in both professional and amateur fights — since MMA made its leap to mass popularity in 1993, according to statistics from the Manuel Velazquez Boxing Fatality Collection that were published in the 2007 Journal of Combative Sport.

“It is dangerous,” notes Howard. “I train as hard as possible to be as safe as possible. Every fight, I don’t pray that I win or lose — I pray that I don’t get any serious injuries.”

While the Rodriguez win was a major confidence boost, another knockout victory in his IFL trial at Mohegan Sun Arena against Nick Calandrino in May did more to help his career and reputation. Calandrino led the fight in the first round, with some big hits and stronger work on the ground. Howard did better in the second, asserting more dominance on the floor and generally taking the advantage.

By the scorecards, the two fighters were even going into the third. But then Howard landed a flying knee and some big punches, shaking Calandrino enough to get him to the floor. Both fighters were getting tired and the ref stood them up from inactivity. After going back and forth for a few minutes, Howard pushed Calandrino into the corner, landing quick punches and an uppercut. Calandrino fell, and his opponent dropped onto him, striking with a flurry of punches until the ref called the fight as a knockout 2:24 into the third.

“I’m happy I won, but my performance wasn’t as good as it could have been,” he says. “If I had to give it a letter grade, I’d say it was a C.” He pauses. “But I won, so I guess maybe a C-plus.”

The fight should help him pick up a contract with the IFL, which features a team-based format and offers its fighters regular salaries. This would also put him one step closer to reaching the ultimate goal of almost every professional MMA fighter: the UFC. In the meantime, Howard is prepared for this week’s return to Atlantic City for Ring of Combat XX, and his welterweight title bout against the undefeated Lyman Good. It should be one of the toughest fights of his career, but, according to the staff at Wai Kru, he’s fighting better than he ever has.

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