Like the rest of us, UFC middleweight fighter John Howard watched in disbelief and horror as the events of April 15 unfolded. A bombing? At the Boston Marathon? It sickened him to see innocent civilians in his hometown targeted for terrorism.
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A few days later when the FBI released the images of the alleged perpetrators, Howard had a glimmer of recognition, but the face didn’t truly register in his mind until he heard the name: Tamerlan Tsarnaev.
That guy? The memories came back in an instant.
A few years earlier, in the Wai Kru gym in the Boston area, Howard had trained with him several times, maybe more than 10. To him, Tsarnaev had just been a sparring partner, an aspiring boxer looking for good training. And now he was an accused murderer?
It didn’t make sense.
"He was always kind of distant. He always did his own thing and just came to spar with us," Howard told FOX Sports. "He wasn’t someone who wanted to make friends. He never came to my fights and I never went to his."
On the athletic food chain, the 30-year-old Howard was a few levels above Tsarnaev, anyway. At the time, Tsarnaev was a Golden Gloves champ, but Howard was already fighting in the UFC.
It was with that backdrop that Tsarnaev apparently tried to raise his local profile. One day when they were sparring, Tsarnaev suddenly turned up the heat, going forward with full intensity. Training partners generally go less than full speed in an effort to protect each other and avoid injury, but now Tsarnaev was throwing his best punches with bad intentions.
"I said to myself, ‘You want to go hard? Let’s go hard,’" Howard recalled. "And that’s when I landed a left hook that broke his nose."
Despite being right-handed, that left hook has always been Howard’s signature shot, his home-run punch. It’s won him fights at every level, including a Dec. 2009 UFC knockout over Dennis Hallman. When he landed it in that sparring session gone wild, Tsarnaev responded by covering his face, Howard recalls, and Howard followed with a body punch that put him on the canvas.
In the immediate aftermath, as the intensity of the session fell away and an injured training partner lay in front of him, Howard felt remorse and apologized repeatedly. Now, he wishes he would have went further.
"I wish I could have finished the guy," he said.
Four days after the bombings that killed three and wounded 264, Tsarnaev was killed in a firefight with police.
As fate had it, by that time, the UFC had already announced its intention to hold a Boston show, and Howard, who’d been out of the promotion for two years and competing on the regional circuit, had already been campaigning for a slot on the card.
After nearly a decade-long career in the sport, Howard had never fought in Boston proper. He’d been close, but this was the UFC. This was the Garden. This was his dream, and Howard became hellbent on creating an opportunity for himself, going so far as to decline other fight offers in hopes of receiving a late invitation. The card seemed full and he seemed out of luck when UFC rookie middleweight Josh Samman fell injured. Howard got the call, returning him to the promotion and the limelight.
Suddenly, he is back in the UFC in a featured fight against Ultimate Fighter 17 finalist Uriah Hall on FOX Sports 1 and his face is plastered on most of the company’s promotional materials below headliners Chael Sonnen and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua.
On Wednesday, he took part in the open workouts at the TD Garden floor, returning as a local hero. On Saturday, he said he expects "half of the city of Boston" to be there specifically to root him on. Win or lose, the experience is all he’s ever wanted.
The city is still healing from the events of April. The wound is still raw, and he’s not going to pretend that what he did or what he’s about to do will make any real difference in expediting that process. For him, it’s not about that anyway. Like all the people who ran the marathon on that fateful day, he’s just another person trying to accomplish a personal goal, just another kid out to prove he is Boston Strong.
"I still don’t believe it," he said. "This whole thing is unreal, like a movie. It’s been one crazy experience. I’ve gotten a lot of handshakes and thank yous, and now the best possible ending is me finishing with a win bonus and knockout bonus. It’s got to be the left hook."