How a surprising diagnosis at age 33 changed an MMA fighter's life

Howard wants to be an inspiration for kids with autism (0:41)

PFL fighter John Howard, who was diagnosed with autism at age 33, says he wants his accomplishments inside the cage to be an inspiration. Watch more PFL here on ESPN+ https://plus.espn.com/. (0:41)

"ONE. TWO. THREE. Four." John Howard snaps his fingers as his feet begin to move in time with his counting. He's in workout gear, positioned sturdily next to the boxing ring, his thick-legged physique crouched with fists in front of his face. But Howard is not sparring. He's dancing. His finger snapping stays in unison as the step-step-step-stepping picks up its tempo.


It's a brisk and sunny Friday in late September and Howard is putting on a demonstration at the gym outside Boston where he trains. The no-frills facility, tucked in the rear of a nondescript industrial complex in the 'burbs, is empty other than Howard, his coach, a visitor and the craggy mugs of fighter portraits staring down from the walls. It might appear at first that the 36-year-old mixed martial artist is showing off his footwork, but a deeper look reveals that the man known as "Doomsday" is going for something more existential. Howard is offering up insight into what feels natural for him and always has.

"To me, fighting is nothing but a dance, a repetitive dance," he says. "Once I realized that, it came easy to me, because it was just numbers." He gestures to his left. "If my opponent moves that way, I recalculate the number of steps needed to position me within range." Drilling the standup technique all by himself, he throws a straight right hand in front of him to allow his explanation to sink in. "I'm just doing the math."

"As soon as they told me what that meant, I realized this explains a lot of things about my past."
John Howard

Repetition. Mathematics. Solitude. These have been elements of Howard's approach for as long as he can remember. This often set him apart while growing up in Boston's scrappy Dorchester neighborhood, and on those streets such detachment could -- and would -- get a kid into fights. At school, being different in the way he thought, learned and problem-solved got Howard assigned -- relegated, as he saw it -- to special education classes and for years mocked as "stupid." And yet this same uncommon approach led him to a rare oasis of success and satisfaction.

Ultimately, Howard found enduring success as a fighter. No, make that as "a martial artist." A "fighter" is what he was forced to be as a kid trying to keep to himself on the combative streets. But once he took up martial arts as a means of self-defense, he began to embrace the discipline and equanimity embedded in the practice. It played into his personality, and it has served him well. Fifteen years into his professional fighting career, Howard faces David Michaud on Friday to begin a quest for the Professional Fighters League season-ending $1 million payoff. But even setting aside the possibility of life-changing money, Howard's time with the fight promotion has already enriched his life.

It happened during the neurological exam required of him as a fighter in his 30s, after he signed a contract in 2016 with the PFL's predecessor, the World Series of Fighting. During the exam, Howard was answering a series of questions that ended up zeroing in on his childhood -- how he'd stuttered growing up, how he'd struggled in classrooms and other group settings -- when the physician paused, looked at the notes she'd been jotting down and suggested he undergo specialized testing. Apparently, Howard was showing signs that he might be on the autism spectrum. This confused him. He was 33 years old; wouldn't this have shown up earlier in life? But he agreed to get tested anyway, and he says it turns out that he is indeed on the spectrum.

"As soon as they told me what that meant," Howard says, "I realized this explains a lot of things about my past."

HOWARD THRIVED WITH repetition from a young age. He played tailback in high school, and he recalls a junior varsity football practice where his coach yelled at him for failing, over and over, to execute a simple counter play. He was supposed to take a step to the left, then reverse course and carry the ball to the right, he says, "but in my head I kept telling myself to run to the right, run to the right. I just couldn't get it."

Frustrated and embarrassed, Howard stayed after practice to work on the move. For hours. "I kept doing it until I got it," he says. "I got it so right, in fact, that after the coach saw me running the play at the next practice, I got moved up to varsity."

This remembrance rings familiar to Shawn Graham, Howard's trainer at FAF Gym in Holbrook, Massachusetts. They've worked together for about four years, but Graham knew Howard long before that and had watched him bounce around between Boston-area gyms to varying degrees of success.

"I used to see coaches pushing John to do this or do that, and I could see it wasn't clicking," says Graham, a former MMA fighter himself with two professional bouts. "You can't force your way on John; he'll back off. He's not comfortable with it."

Howard acknowledges that working on his own, in his own way, has always felt right to him. And he has been around long enough to know that doesn't fly in some training settings. "Before coming here, I could never find a gym where I belonged, and I was never into the whole team atmosphere," he says. "I couldn't always connect with people because of the way I am. I was like, nope, I need to do it my way."

Graham recognized this in Howard even before the autism diagnosis, he says, but now that there's science to back up his observations, he has a better sense of what his fighter needs to succeed. He knows, for instance, that Howard will obsess over little things -- "stuff you or I would brush off" -- and that will throw him off track. It will mess with his fighting. It will mess with his life. "I realized early on," Graham says, "that John is at his best when he's doing his own thing."

People on the autism spectrum often work best on their own, according to Dr. Suraj Achar, a professor of Family Medicine and Public Health at the University of California San Diego who has conducted autism research. He attributes that quality to them not understanding innuendo and sarcasm, among other subtleties, in social settings.

They also, Achar says, tend to succeed more by doing the same thing over and over again. "It's comforting for them," he says.

Therein lies what Graham refers to as "the double-edge sword" of Howard's obsessive nature. He'll shadowbox for hours. He'll brood on the treadmill until he's running a mile in the time he has set as a goal. When he's obsessing over the right things, he's hard to stop -- even for his coach. Graham points to a back corner of his gym and says, "He'll go over there and -- I'm not kidding you, I've seen it with my own eyes -- he'll jump rope for an hour straight. I've literally had to come down the stairs from my office and say, 'Get the f--- out of here. Go home.'"

Howard listens to this and laughs, nodding his head. "He'll snatch the jump rope out of my hand," he says of his coach. "Sometimes he'll shut off all of the lights in the gym. I don't realize it's 2, 3 o'clock in the morning."

FRIDAY'S FIGHT IS not Howard's first $1 million rodeo. He participated in last year's inaugural PFL playoffs, which had much the same format as this year's: Fighters compete twice in a night to earn a spot in the New Year's Eve finale. Last October, Howard won his middleweight quarterfinal against Eddie Gordon before returning to the cage a short time later to face Louis Taylor.

Taylor controlled the first round in a big way, stunning Howard with a flying knee and getting a pair of takedowns, one leading to a brief submission threat. But Howard survived, and in Round 2 he came on strong, landing a crisp left hand that put a tiring Taylor on his heels. The momentum was shifting ... until the fight abruptly ended. In the midst of a grappling scramble, Taylor unleashed a knee to the face that rendered Howard unable to continue. It was an illegal maneuver against a grounded opponent, but because the referee judged it to be unintentional, there was no disqualification. The fight was declared a technical draw. Who would advance, then? According to PFL rules (which since have been changed), the tiebreaker was the Round 1 scoring, which had gone Taylor's way. He moved on to the final and ended up with a cool million.

"That was really hard to swallow," Howard says. "It's tough to have a million dollars dangled in front of you, then snatched away."

The PFL promised Howard a spot in the 2019 season. But the promotion didn't exactly do him any favors. First, the middleweight division was eliminated, meaning Howard would have to cut an extra 15 pounds to compete at welterweight. Then, for his first fight of the season, the PFL matched Howard with Magomed Magomedkerimov, who won last year's 170-pound tournament.

"You know what? I took up the challenge," Howard says. "I've spent much of my career in the big shows, where there's nothing but absolutely hard, devastating fights." Indeed, between 2009 and 2015, he made 14 appearances in the UFC, including fights with Thiago Alves, Jake Ellenberger, Matt Brown and Uriah Hall.

Howard lost that season-opening fight in May, choked out in the first round. His back against the wall, with one only one fight left to earn a playoff spot, he was matched with last season's welterweight runner-up, Ray Cooper III. "This guy put the fear in me. Ray, he breaks jaws and eye sockets," Howard says. "I knew I had to get him first." Which he did, as an underdog in July, landing a big left hook to drop Cooper and another to finish him in the first round. "Shout-out to Ray Cooper," Howard says. "He woke up 'Doomsday.'"

ABOUT THE NICKNAME: Howard would have been known as John "Superman" Howard if his brother had gotten his way. One of the things that had always bonded the Howard brothers was their shared love of comic books, and among all the superheroes, was there any as dynamic as Superman? But Howard thought adopting that name would give off an image of him as too perfect. His alternative: Doomsday, the DC Comics character known for defeating superheroes and villains alike -- and killing Superman.

"The reason I like Doomsday is that he's not a hero or a villain, he's his own pathmaker," Howard says. "I empathize with him, me being who I am. With all that I've discovered about my ability -- I don't call it a disability -- it makes a lot of sense why I could never connect with the good or the bad way of things. I have always been on my own path."

Howard travels on his own path, but he does not travel alone. By making a conscious choice not to keep his autism diagnosis private, he says he believes he is fulfilling a responsibility to shine a light on the path for children who are going through what he went through. "I want kids in special-needs classes, kids who get teased and bullied, to watch me fight or at least know about what I do," he says. "I want them to know there's someone out there who's just like them and who's doing great things."

These words are brimming with conviction mixed with pride when Howard speaks as a father. He has four children, and one of his daughters is on the autism spectrum. He sometimes brings her to the gym so she can watch him train. He wants her to see close up how discipline and drive can make anything possible.

"I've seen her here watching him," Graham says, "and she looks at him like he's a superhero."

Howard smiles at that. "I treat my different ability like a superpower," he says. "I want my daughter to know that what might seem like a curse can actually be a gift."