BOSTON – A sickening feeling rose in the pit of John Howard's stomach when the FBI first released photographs of the suspects in the April Boston Marathon bombings.
Howard saw a photograph of alleged mastermind Tamerlan Tsarnaev on his television and his heart dropped. Howard recognized Tsarnaev as a man who had trained at his mixed martial arts gym.
It led to some uneasy times for Howard, who, like nearly every Bostonian, was devastated when the bombs went off as runners were finishing the marathon on an otherwise glorious spring day.
"I have this very small connection with the guy, and it's not like I knew much about him or I knew him well or we were friends or anything like that," said Howard, who will face Uriah Hall on Saturday at TD Garden in a three-round middleweight bout at UFC Fight Night 26. "He came and trained at our gym. He learned his boxing somewhere else. He was just at our place to get some work.
"We have a good gym, and guys work hard here, and when it came out that this guy was there, everyone tried to associate him with the gym. That's not how it was."
Howard, UFC lightweight Joe Lauzon and UFC president Dana White all have connections to the Boston area and were touched in various ways by the bombings.
White flew to Boston a few days after the bombings to, as he says, "write some checks" in a bid to help the victims. What he found, though, was a devastated community still picking up the pieces from the tragedy and people not ready for an outsider to be in their midst.
"I wanted to do something to help those people, because I felt so horrible about what had happened," said White, a former Bostonian who was once a doorman at the Boston Harbor hotel. "I would describe it as the city was very weak. There was a mess of emotional damage.
"I came here with good intentions, but they weren't ready, man. They just weren't ready for it, yet. It was awful, just awful."
Lauzon, who fights Michael Johnson in a featured lightweight bout on Saturday, was in Las Vegas at "The Ultimate Fighter" tryouts with White when he heard the news.
At the moment he learned of the news, Lauzon briefly panicked. His fiancee, Katie, is a marathon runner. She didn't run in the Boston Marathon, but as Lauzon processed the news, he immediately thought of his girlfriend.
"Someone said to me, 'Did you hear what happened at the marathon?' " Lauzon said. "Instantly, my heart sank. My girlfriend, now my fiancee, she works at Children's Hospital in the city. She ran a marathon a couple of months prior. She'd run the Disney Marathon. In the heat of that moment, I heard 'Boston' and 'marathon' and 'bomb,' and it took me a second to process it and realize she was OK and wasn't in it. But it was very scary.
"I started texting people to make sure they were all right. One of my brothers was right around the corner from where it happened. One of my best friends, Brandon, was right between the two bomb sites and his hearing is still all screwed up. It's definitely so scary."
It was particularly difficult for Howard, who said he was grieving over the tragic events when he realized he had met one of the alleged bombers.
Howard was working to get back into the UFC, and fate dealt him an unlucky hand.
He had once sparred with Tsarnaev and thus had a connection to the alleged bomber. Howard at least took some solace in the fact that he broke Tsarnaev's nose when they sparred.
"To tell you the truth, I wish I had broken his neck," Howard said.
Things are slowly starting to return to normal for Howard. Howard was cut by the UFC after a loss to Matt Brown in 2011. Though it was his third loss in a row, following defeats at the hands of Jake Ellenberger and Thiago Alves, Howard was caught off-guard when he was dropped.
He'd opened his UFC career with four straight wins and was 4-3 at the time he was let go. He had been in a Fight of the Night and had a Knockout of the Night and thought he would get at least one more chance.
"I was totally shocked when I got the news. Totally," Howard said. "Look at the way I fight. They talk about the way they want guys to fight, and I was always a guy who would bring it. I never expected it. I was always in exciting fights.
"But I'm glad to get this chance. I'm fighting in front of my home crowd here, and this is going to be like the Red Sox against the Yankees, since [Hall] is from New York. But all of the pressure is on him. He's the guy they're talking about and he's the guy expected to win. I'm just going to show up and fight my [expletive] off."
A great win in front of a hometown crowd would be something Howard will never forget.
He'll never forget the bombings, either.
"When you live through something like that and see how many people were devastated and families were torn up, you can't forget," he said. "You get past it and move on with your life, but you never really forget."
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