Posted by Elias Cepeda
@EliasCepeda
Elias Cepeda

As could be expected of any thoughtful parent, John Howard (24-13) wanted to learn more about autism after his daughter was diagnosed with it. “Where does it come from? What does it do,” the welterweight UFC veteran remembers wondering.

The father’s search for more information on autism prompted him to remember his own challenges as a school kid, and after a professional told him it was possible he might be on the autism spectrum, Howard decided to get tested himself. The result was his own diagnosis with autism, but more importantly, a lot of clarity and a decision to publicly stand with his daughter and other children with autism.

“When she was diagnosed, I got curious,” he tells Champions.

“Seeing my daughter grow up, I imagined what she might be going through because I remembered what I went through in school. It wasn’t easy. I’m not going to lie – it sucked.”

Once tested and diagnosed himself, Howard wasn’t so much surprised as he was empowered. “It wasn’t that surprising, man,” he explains.

“I had struggled growing up and some people didn’t really care. I had a real bad speech impediment and, I wouldn’t say a learning disability, but they never gave me a diagnosis as to what it was, then, so I had a difficult time in school. But, I found my way. I eventually found my way.”

Howard had no interest in his own daughter needing to struggle alone, as he did early in life. So, he continued to learn more about autism and began to speak publicly about it.

“The main reason I came out with everything was for her,” he says.

Howard also recently spoke with Jon Wertheim and 60 Minutes: Sports (above), for a segment on sports as therapy for children with autism on Showtime. Many children on the autism spectrum initially have difficulty with a number of things associated with sports – socializing, physical contact, loud noises – but some places, including a school featured in the 60 Minutes: Sports segment, are running towards sports to help children with autism deal with their challenges head-on.

Howard knows first-hand how sports involvement can help a child with autism develop confidence, learn to socialize and overcome obstacles. “I think it’s good, man,” he assures.

“Because through sports, the one thing I really learned, in addition to socializing with people, I learned my equal stature with people. I learned through what I did in sports that I actually could be as good or better than others at something.”

Developing competency as a child in something has shown to generally be a beneficial and necessary thing for any number of at-risk groups of children. Howard says that playing sports gave him a first glimpse at all he was capable of.

“I learned to communicate - sports helps your social skills, but it helps your confidence, too,” he continues.

“Through sports, when you show people that you can do the same things they can do, or maybe better, it opens up the spectrum a little bit differently. Sports also help you think better and express yourself, better.”

Of course, Howard went from enjoying sports and gaining confidence from them as a child, to becoming a world-class professional athlete as an adult. The 33 year-old has nearly 40 professional MMA fights, with a stellar record at the highest levels.

These days, Howard is moving into a second career. After 12 years of professional fighting, Howard is putting his nimble mind to use outside of the ring.

The Boston native has moved down south to become a fiber-optic installer for Google in Charlotte. The opportunity to put some of his other skills to use for a dependable paycheck without damaging his body was too good to turn down.

“My last fight, my left shoulder was out of its socket – I had no left shoulder. I fought that guy with one hand. I hate to be that guy and make excuses – it was a good fight, he won, congratulations, but on the real, I fought that guy with one hand. I don’t want to live like that,” Howard reflects.

John Howard loves fighting, but will do it only on his terms, now | Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
John Howard loves fighting, but will do it only on his terms, now | Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

“I thought, 'You know what, I’m smart – I did electrician training but I never did my journeyman work, but I still have this skill.' I have a friend who owns a company and he got a big contract with Google and now, technically, I work for Google.”

Howard has earned title belts in fighting, but now proudly wears his Google badge with his new work in telecommunications. Howard is happy to be able to provide for his family without depending on the brutal work of professional fighting, but he insists that he’s still got competitive goals.

The new Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt is intent on competing at that rank before he hangs up his gloves, for good. “Everyone thinks I’m done with fighting – I’m not done with fighting, man. I’m going to fight, but I’m going to do it on my time, on my comfort, and when I’m ready, now,” he promises.

“Fighting is a hard life, especially when you don’t have backing. That was my issue. I would have still been fighting now, but I don’t have the proper backing. I was taking fights just to make a paycheck. That’s not the way I want to live, man. I’m still going to fight, but it’s not my main priority anymore. I’m chilling.”

The fight world can breathe easy for a bit, perhaps, but future opponents aren’t free and clear of “Doomsday” just yet. Howard has at least one big swing left in him.

“Know this – I am going to fight at least one more time in my life, because I got my black belt,” Howard ends.

“I always wanted to fight as a black belt. I’m taking a break, now, but know I’m fighting as a black belt, for sure.”