By AMBER PAPPE
For The Union Democrat
Sixteen-year-old Anthony Howard wants to become a professional fighter.
Howard will take a step toward his goal on Saturday, Jan. 28 when he competes in “Bound by Honor” presented by Art of War at Chicken Ranch Bingo and Casino in Jamestown.
“My goal is to fight when I turn 18,” said the Sonora High School junior. “I want to do something pro in my life. A lot of the UFC fighters got their start at a later age, but I know that if I start young, I can go a long way into the sport.”
The martial arts are founded in discipline and respect, and the affable Howard exudes both. To the sport, the Sonora native brings drive and heaps of desire.
“What separates Anthony is his dedication,” said Bill Theofanopoulos, Howard's trainer at Sonora MMA. “What he has, he has worked for. He works hard to get what he wants.”
Howard came to MMA via youth wrestling. He began as a 5th-grader, took a season off after his novice year and found solid success in 7th and 8th grades. Instead of wrestling his freshman and sophomore years, he turned his focus to martial arts.
“I got my yellow belt in jiu-jitsu and then I got my blue belt a week after I turned 16,” said Howard. “A lot of people were asking me if I was going to compete in kickboxing, but I didn’t think I was ready. A year later, I had my first competition in Sacramento — I won and I have never looked back.”
With his eye on becoming a well-rounded fighter, Howard made his way back to the wrestling mat and currently competes at 106 pounds for the Sonora Wildcats.
“All the great MMA fighters right now are really good at wrestling,” said Howard. “It makes sense for me to be wrestling again, too. I like jiu-jitsu more, it comes naturally to me because of my wrestling background. I have learned to strike, but I don’t really like to get punched.”
Juggling high school athletics with academics while competing in kickboxing and jiu-jitsu leaves room for little else. His schedule is intense: school, wrestling practice, the gym, home. Though the routine is exhausting, MMA is the fastest growing sport in the world and the youthful Howard wants to be ready.
With an enthusiastic smile he explained, “After school I go straight to wrestling, then walk downtown to the gym and practice for one or two more hours. After that I go straight home. I shower, eat and go to bed. I really don’t have a lot of extra time.”
Daunting? Yes, but he loves it.
“MMA defines me,” said Howard. “I love it — it shows my personality.”
Though he is the one garnering attention, he is quick to acknowledge those who have impacted him and helped him grow as an athlete and a person.
“I would not be here without my parents,” he said. “They provide emotional support, and it is the most important thing. My training partners, Luke Nunes and Mike Thurman, are also key; I would not be here without them.”
Guidance is essential and Howard understands the crucial role it plays. His respect for Theofanopoulos, a black belt in kajukenbo and jiu-jitsu, is far-reaching.
“As a person, a friend, a coach and fighter, I have learned a lot from Bill,” said Howard. “He is my inspiration.”
Theofanopooulos, himself a champion in jiu-jitsu, runs Sonora MMA, the sister school to Oakdale MMA, home to Michael McDonald, the youngest fighter in the UFC. At Oakdale, McDonald, an up-and-comer at bantamweight, trains under Theofanopoulos’s father, Tom.
“I really look up to Michael,” Howard said. “To see what he has done really guides me in my goals.”
Howard wants to model his future after the likes of McDonald and former UFC champion BJ “The Prodigy” Penn.
One of only two fighters to hold championship titles at two different weight classes (lightweight and welterweight), Penn made a name for himself at 17, when after only two years of training, he promptly earned a purple belt and then a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu — and propelled himself into a distinguished MMA career.
With the explosion of MMA, the addition of the flyweights to the UFC in 2012 and his 18th birthday two years away, Howard has high hopes for the future and is doing what it takes to be the best he can be.
“I feel I will have a great base if I continue to train for my MMA career now,” said Howard. “I just want to be good at what I do.”