While the MMA world will be focused on the main event this Saturday at UFC 124, there's another pair of welterweights that could easily steal the show—two men that have a history of knocking people out and two men that both really could use a win.
If you listen to John Howard, you won't be disappointed with the results—regardless of whether it's in victory or defeat to Thiago Alves.
"This is something the fans will want to see. This is the fight to watch," Howard said. "We're going to be in each other's faces, stand in the pocket and bang. This is going to be like an old-school Muay Thai fight."
Howard (14-5) was on a fast rise in the UFC's 170-pound division after debuting in the Octagon in January 2009 (coincidentally another GSP-headlined show), ripping off four straight wins including two by KO.
Then Howard met hard-nosed prospect Jake Ellenberger at UFC on Versus 1 in August, losing by a Round 3 doctor's stoppage after his left eye swelled up, as if stung by 100 bees all in the same spot.
But to the 27-year-old, nicknamed "Doomsday," it was just another day in the life of a pro fighter. He learned that he needed to work on his wrestling, but otherwise, it was just one loss.
"It was no big deal. You win some, you lose some. If you can't take an ass kicking, you shouldn't be in this sport."
Fighting for a Simple Dream, Sharing a Hometown with Marky Mark
That mentality was forged by growing up in Dorchester, Massachusetts, known for being one of the rougher cities in the state. Martin Luther King, Jr. lived there while attending Boston University, and both Donnie and Mark Wahlberg were born there.
Howard didn't dance and lip sync, nor give riveting speeches, but he did play football in high school and is a diehard New England Patriots fan. He knew about the UFC, but it was while with the Job Corps in the frozen tundra of Limestone, ME, that he got his first taste of hitting the mat.
He joked, "I didn't know what grappling was. I knew boxing, but these guys would take me down and beat me up. I asked, 'Can you teach me that?'"
After getting his high school degree and learning the electrical trade, Howard returned to Boston and began training at the Brazilian Martial Arts Center, eventually moving to Wai Kru and becoming their most notable fighter in the process.
But in Dorchester, Howard is still trying to get to that level of Wahlberg notoriety, though the process has been a bit slower. Admitting that many in the area he grew up in aren't familiar with the sport of MMA, he is still recognized for his UFC accomplishments and takes pride in being an inspiration to those that have bigger aspirations.
"Through hard work and perseverance, you can overcomes the pressures of the street. You don't have to be what we were raised around," Howard said. "When kids come up to me and say they want to train and do something positive in their life, that's big to me. Do what you want to do. Live your dream. Try and at least go for it."
Howard still lives in the area (documented brilliantly in a FIGHT! Magazine video seen here), and while he is fighting in the world's largest MMA organization, he is still catching up on bills and has responsibilities, like his three young daughters and covering his training expenses.
But he has a dream, a simple dream that many of his fans share, which he wants to reach: buying a house in the suburbs.
"Trust me and believe that once things start happening, I'm going to do it."
But Thiago Alves stands in the way of Howard's white picket fence and two-car garage.
Stand And Bang
Alves (17-7) presents Howard's toughest test to date: He is a UFC veteran of five years that has wins over Matt Hughes and Josh Koscheck to his credit. But, Alves is coming off consecutive losses to GSP and Jon Fitch and desperately needs a victory Saturday, or else he will face the UFC chopping block.
He also has had issues cutting weight, which severely affected him in the Fitch defeat. Howard has planned for his opponent to be big and counteracted with an interesting strategic move that might backfire if not done correctly: a late weight cut.
"I'm trying to stay heavy for this fight because Thiago is a big boy. I'm going to stay big myself and cut at the last minute. I don't want to have to do it like that, but I kinda have to as I'd rather be safe than sorry," he explained.
Howard has shown a propensity to throw hard shots (ask Daniel Roberts and Dennis Hallman) and is expecting the same from Alves, a fighter that once ended five straight UFC fights by T/KO.
"I'm expecting him to hit heavy and hard. I don't know if he expects that or knows what type of power I possess in my hands. I can take a shot and keep going, but I want to see if he can take one of my power shots and keep going," Howard said. "If he's still standing, come back with it."
Coming off a defeat and with the impending WEC invasion threatening fighter jobs across the company, Howard could use a victory. He understands the importance of fighting a crowd-pleasing style, and with Alves likely to welcome his stand-up exchanges, he has something he wants fans that have never seen him to know:
"Expect fireworks, action and a big heart. My mindset is that if I lose and never fight again, I want it to be the greatest fight ever. That's the way I fight, and it's always something to watch. I promise you I will never fight in a boring fight, at least not from my end."
Howard faces Alves on the main card of UFC 124 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada, this Saturday.
Josh Nason is a New England-based freelance MMA journalist that covers live events, has written for FIGHT! Magazine and frequently does radio/podcast appearances. He asks for your "like" for ESPN Boston to cover MMA. Follow him on Twitter.