The last time Matt Brown and John Howard shared a card was in Pittsburgh a couple of years back when they faced one another. It was a loser goes home affair between two always-game yet unevolved sluggers, each of whom happened to be on spiraling losing streaks. Heading in, Brown had dropped three in a row, and Howard a pair.
Brown ended up winning a decision. I remember they shared a hug backstage afterwards, and vaguely promised to train together at some point in Massachusetts. Howard was unceremoniously cut right after. Brown remained on the cusp himself, particularly as he followed that victory up with a loss to Seth Baczynski at UFC 139.
Neither would exist in two years. Not in UFC relevance, anyway. "Fun" fighters, who went in for the leather trade and crowd satisfaction, usually end up back on the regional circuit.
Funny thing, this fight game.
This past weekend both Howard and Brown fought again in the UFC. Howard came back after a seven-fight rebuilding project to defend the Boston turf against Uriah Hall - a fight he was vastly undersized for and meant to lose. Brown, on the other hand, is crashing and screaming into contention in a welterweight division that never saw him coming. He won his sixth straight fight. It was his fourth straight finish. If Mike Pyle was getting the better of him in the gym behind closed doors, the thing that goes down on public record is that Brown needed less than half-a-minute to draw up the little x’s over Pyle’s eyes.
"I really didn’t want to do that," he stated afterwards. "I love Pyle. He’s a great guy and a friend, but once you’re in there it’s either you are me."
But between March of 2010 and the fall of 2011, Brown was submitted four times and was getting used to life on the bubble. In summer of 2013, here he is saying things like, "obviously I’m in this sport for one thing, and that’s to beat [George St-Pierre]’s ass."
And Howard, an undersized welterweight who was reminded of the fact before every fight, is now fighting a class up. Everything that has happened from that night in Pittsburgh has been so counter-intuitive.
"It is funny—right now me and Matt Brown, we’re talking again," Howard told MMA Fighting. "It looks like it’s a possibility [that we’ll train together]. He’s doing good, and I’m real proud of him. He should get a title shot after his last performance. That was a good fight and I’m glad to see him doing it.
"But I hope that proves to the fans that the people I lost to are real topnotch fighters. After [our fight] Brown won six straight, and five of them finishes. The people I lost to are legit people."
In retrospect, he’s right. Howard had dropped fights to Jake Ellenberger and Thiago Alves before the Brown do-or-die match in Pittsburgh. Outside the UFC he won six of seven fights, and finished five of them. Still, Howard was set up as a five-to-one underdog against Hall, a physical specimen from the TUF franchise. In front of his home crowd, Howard helped convert Hall from "next big thing" to flash phenom.
"It happens all the time," Howard said. "Sometimes you deal in bad luck, and sometimes good luck. Hopefully I showed the world not only did I come back to the UFC, but I came back up a weight class. People used to call me the smallest welterweight, now I’m the shortest middleweight on the roster. And I beat Uriah Hall, and he’s a good fighter. I think the media overhyped him."
Howard also pointed to the media creating the perception of Hall’s invincibility, which took all the pressure off of him in his homecoming.
"It was awesome, man, a dream come true," he said. "I’m real excited to come back to the UFC, but I was also really excited to fight in Boston. To fight in Boston, that was my dream - I’d have fought for free. To get paid for it and win? That was a bonus. It was a good feeling."
Far better than back in Pittsburgh, when Howard’s first stint in the UFC came to an end, and Matt Brown was still a one-dimensional afterthought in a division he was about to reimagine.