UFC Vet “Doomsday” Howard on Neurodiversity, CJJ Ambitions, and Upcoming Bout: “My Autism Is a Superpower”

When it comes to MMA, John “Doomsday” Howard boasts an impressive résumé: he’s fought in both the UFC and PFL, among other promotions, and at age 39, has 49 professional fights under his belt – including Fight of the Night and Knockout of the Night performances in the UFC. More recently, however, he’s turned his athletic ambitions toward promoting a lesser-known, more grappling-focused sport: the discipline of combat jiu-jitsu, originally popularized by 10th Planet creator Eddie Bravo.

“I’m a knockout artist,” Howard explains to the Jiu-Jitsu Times. “I’ve had ten knockout wins in my MMA career. But people forget that I also have submissions!” He grins. “I’m a second-degree jiu-jitsu black belt. A lot of people don’t know that. People meet me, and think I’m a knockout artist who just has okay jiu-jitsu or whatever, but I have legitimate jiu-jitsu.”

Which is precisely what Howard hopes his upcoming combat jiu-jitsu match will prove to the world. “Selfishly, I want to expose how good my jiu-jitsu is,” says Howard. “Because I never really get to do that in MMA – and the reason is that when you start [a fight] standing, sometimes the knockout is just there. If you see the chance to take a knockout, you take the knockout. You don’t really plan it – I don’t like to plan my fight like, ‘Hey, I’m going for a submission’ – like if it’s there, I’ll take it, but if it’s not, you know, that’s what it is.” He chuckles. “And when I fight, sometimes, I find that it’s easier to hit somebody and knock them out.”

That’s where CJJ comes in. Often considered an intermediary step between pure sport jiu-jitsu and an honest-to-goodness MMA fight, the CJJ ruleset still focuses on submission grappling, with one key difference: it allows for open-handed striking. Those open-handed slaps, according to Howard, can give even elite black belts pause. “It really changes the whole style of gameplay,” he explains.

This Friday, September 9, “Doomsday” will be facing fellow jiu-jitsu black belt Gesias Cavalcante in a CJJ match at CES 70 via UFC Fight Pass, in Springfield, Massachusetts. “I really like coming from MMA into CJJ,” says Howard. “There’s a lot of correlation between the sports because they’re so closely related. CJJ brings me back to the days when we used to train jiu-jitsu with slaps to prepare for MMA – but doing it now as a competition opens up what jiu-jitsu can do, and I think it’s going to expose a lot. I think it’s going to expose people who do combat, who fight, versus people who do [more traditional] sport jiu-jitsu.”

“With CJJ, you don’t necessarily have to be a black belt – you could be a pretty good wrestler, and still do pretty well in CJJ,” Howard points out. “You could probably be a jiu-jitsu blue belt, and if you have good ground-and-pound, as I call it, you can probably take out a black belt.”

So what does Howard know about his opponent, Cavalcante? “I’ve been studying tape on him here and there,” says Howard. “I know he’s had a CJJ match before, but I’m coming at this from more of an MMA perspective because he has MMA experience. So it’s not like a guy who’s from pure sport jiu-jitsu coming into this [match] – this is a guy with experience in ground-and-pound. So that’s a whole different fight. He knows the game of using jiu-jitsu not to be hit. But that being said, I think I just have a little more experience, and a different combative level – and I think I have fought higher-caliber people who are better ground-and-pounders.”

Howard, who was diagnosed with autism in his thirties, is also deeply passionate about setting an example for other aspiring athletes on the spectrum. “I want to tell my sisters and brothers [on the spectrum] that you can do it,” says Doomsday. “Honestly, you can do it. I want them to watch my story, and I want to be the representation that shows them they can do it, because coming up, I didn’t even know that I had autism. I knew that I had certain things going on with me – for example, I had a speech impediment. Before, when I used to do interviews like this one, I’d have a whole dialogue with my mother, where we’d sit there for two to three hours, daily, days before the interview, to make sure that I’m not showing signs [of the speech impediment]. I’ve got a million things going on in my head, and I had to train myself to calm down, and chill out.”

He’s candid about the challenges that his autism presents: “I’m high anxiety, and I over-process things,” says Howard. “Let’s say a monkey wrench gets thrown into my plans – it messes up my whole day. I’ve gotta re-figure everything out, and I go overboard. I have particular things put together, where if it doesn’t go right, I get over-worked about it.”

However, the unique way that Howard’s brain processes information also, in some ways, gives him an edge in training. “Me being on the spectrum, there’s benefits to it, and there’s drawbacks,” he elaborates. “It’s like a superpower. The benefits [of my autism] are that it’s way easier for me to stay disciplined in the sport. I’ve had coaches tell me that I’m one of the only people that they don’t have to [push to train harder] – most coaches tell me that when I train, if anything, I overtrain.”

“I think it’s the way I process things,” he adds. “The way I process things is way different – and I recognize that. The way I train, and especially the repetition. Like, I don’t mind doing stuff a million times.” He laughs. “And that helps me out in my training, because when I learn a technique, I’ll drill it, drill it, drill it, get it into my head, and repeat it over and over again.” That tendency toward hyperfixation has turned Howard into a living example of the old jiu-jitsu adage that drillers make killers.

“I want to teach [other athletes with autism] that yes, it’s going to be hard, and there’s going to be a lot of things you have to do, but you can. We can do it. It’s possible,” Howard emphasizes. “The most important thing I want my brothers and sisters to know is that being autistic does not make us stupid. In a lot of ways, we’re a lot smarter, and a lot more advanced – yes, we do have disadvantages, but that’s true for all humans.”

He smiles. “We’re almost like X-Men! Every X-Man has a superpower – but with that superpower comes a disadvantage. We have to learn how to be disciplined when dealing with those disadvantages – but when it comes to our advantages, we should embrace them, and use them, because trust me, everyone else might tease us, but there are certain things we can do that they only wish they could.”

Tune into Howard vs. Cavalcante in their combat jiu-jitsu matchup at CES 70 on Friday, September 9, available to stream via UFC Fight Pass.

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