SYOSSET, N.Y.— John Gotti III is not one to pull punches. The No. 1-ranked mixed martial arts welterweight in New York doesn’t look forward to the questions about his famous name, but he won’t duck them either.
“My name is my name and I embrace it,” he says.
Gotti, 27, whose first four pro fights have ended in either a first-round KO or a TKO, says he’s proud to be a Gotti.
“I have the same name as my grandfather and my father, but I’m doing my own thing,” he says. “I’m going down a different path than that other stuff.”
The “other stuff” that he’s referring to is the gangster life led by his flamboyant and feared grandfather, John J. Gotti, who led the notorious Gambino New York crime family, and his father, John Angelo Gotti (a.k.a. Junior Gotti), who embraced and then renounced it.
On Friday, the young Gotti will fight Marcos Lloreda (7-5) at CES MMA 60 at Twin River Casino in Lincoln, R.I.
Be sure to be on time. His average fight lasts just 97 seconds.
So who is this third-generation Gotti?
“This is a kid that really has something that we’ve always said you can’t teach,” says his father, who is wearing a Team Gotti ballcap and jacket. “He’s got heart.
“This is a kid that’s got a lot of weight on his shoulders and you can see it. John’s always in deep thought. He’s a quiet kid, he stays off by himself, and he doesn’t go out and socialize. He’s never in a bar. He doesn’t drink. Ten weeks out of a fight, he doesn’t date. He doesn’t socialize. He’s just completely focused.”
The 6-foot, 170-pound fighter is ripped, and reminders of his fierce determination are tattooed on his arms. His left biceps has a quote from Irish Republic hunger striker Terence MacSwiney that reads: “It is not those who can inflict the most, but those who can suffer the most, who will conquer.”
Above his right glove is a quote from his grandfather, the infamous Dapper Don: “When I go to war with my enemies, I raise a black flag. I asked for no quarter, I give no quarter. You kill me, or I kill you.”
Gotti III smiles when asked if he has a killer instinct.
“Yeah,” he says. “I have bad intentions in this profession, [but] I wouldn’t hurt a [expletive] fly in real life.”
The Gotti name, he says, is more of a blessing than a curse.
“It can be a double-edged sword,” he says. “It depends on what you do with it. I’m doing something positive with my life. So it’s a blessing in that respect.”
Gotti fights are happenings, with fans arriving by busloads from Long Island, wearing Team Gotti T-shirts with a roaring lion logo that was drawn by his grandfather in federal prison. Fans chant “GOT-TI, GOT-TI” during his short fights.
“He’s a superstar in the making,” says promoter Jimmy Burchfield Sr. “Once in a decade, a fighter like this comes around.
“There’s a tremendous amount of enthusiasm and energy in the room. It’s like when Mike Tyson used to fight. It’s that kind of energy,”
Gotti’s lead trainer, Derek Panza, is a former ISKA World Kickboxing champion. He thinks Gotti can be an MMA champion.
“Why not?” he says. “He’s ferocious, he’s a consummate student, and he’s getting better and better,” says Panza, who along with retired UFC veteran Ryan LaFlare and his older brother Frank serve as Team Gotti coaches.
Gotti is decidedly low key. He doesn’t stare down his opponent in the octagon or trash talk.
“He’s a good, quiet person that carries a really big name,” says Panza, “and so he doesn’t have to walk around like Conor McGregor and scream and yell and embarrass himself in public in order to get attention. He has the attention already.”
Gotti barely knew his grandfather, who had throat cancer and died in prison in Springfield, Mo., in 2002 at the age of 61.
“I only got to touch him once,” says the younger Gotti, remembering a special compassionate visit he made with his family when he was in third grade and Gotti was dying. “At that point, he didn’t have his speech or anything.”
Gotti III is very close to his father, who served six years in prison between 1999 and 2005 for racketeering. When he came home, the two of them would bond by watching fights together.
“I was 12 and we watched the Chuck Liddell-Randy Couture second fight, and I was hooked,” says Gotti. “I was a fan. It was just very appealing to me watching all the different skill sets.”
Gotti played football (running back and linebacker) for St. Anthony’s High School on Long Island. He briefly boxed, and became a bodybuilder before deciding to study kickboxing and become an MMA amateur fighter.
Gotti, who loves Italian food and once weighed 250 pounds, dieted to become an MMA fighter.
“My diet is as strict as can be,” he says. “A piece of grilled chicken, maybe some greens and maybe a little carb like a sweet potato or something. Not very exciting.”
Two months after his MMA training began, his father was surprised when his son asked him how many tickets he wanted for his first amateur fight. John A. Gotti, 55, figured it was like the amateur boxing he did at the New York Military Academy.
“I thought, ‘How bad could that be?’ ” he says. “Big headgear, big gloves, nobody can get hurt.”
The MMA amateur fights were just like the pros, except there were three rounds instead of five.
On the way to the fight, he learned that his son’s opponent was Henry Mills. In his first fight, Mills, several inches taller, had knocked out Gotti’s trainer in 37 seconds.
John A. Gotti wanted to cancel the fight, but his brother Peter talked him out of it.
In Round 1, the fighters went toe-to-toe slugging it out. By the middle of Round 2, both fighters were gassed. Gotti III was hurt and fighting on heart, not technique.
“He’s falling against the cage, and I want to throw up all over my shoes,” says his father. “I’m just sick.”
But his son rallied and caught his opponent with punches that knocked his mouthguard out. He won a split three-round decision. Afterward, John A. Gotti figured his son would say he had enough. Maybe time to open a gym.
“So the next day, we sit down, he says, ‘I love it. This is the happiest I’ve been in my life. This is my dream.’ When a kid says that to you, whether you like it or not, you have to support it.”
But he says his anxiety repeats itself until each fight is over.
“Listen to me, every time my son climbs into the octagon, it’s like I’m waiting for a jury to come back with a verdict all over again,” says John A. Gotti.
He speaks from experience. Federal authorities tried him four times in five years. Each trial ended with a hung jury.
Young Gotti admits he gets jittery when he is in the octagon.
“Everybody gets scared,” he says. “If you’re not getting nervous, there’s something mentally wrong with you. But you have to just block all that stuff out and let your instincts take over at that point.”
The explosive fighter says he would rather his father not even attend his fights.
“I always tell him, I love the support and all the people coming out to the fights, but if I had it my way, me and my coaches, we’d go to a foreign country and we’ll fight the enemy, even the crowd,” he says. “It gets me more nervous watching my family there. Mom? She don’t come. She’s not allowed.”
But with every win, there’s more attention and a bigger target on his back. Trolls on the Internet taunt him with mob jokes under anonymous handles.
He does have one unusual prefight superstition. After the weigh-in, he eats a forkful of an Italian meatball. It doesn’t matter if the fight is in Rhode Island or Westbury, N.Y., or Hartford, the meatballs travel in Tupperware from an Italian restaurant on Long Island.
“You would think we were holding the Holy Grail,” says Panza with a laugh.
The one time his father chose Chinese food for the treat, Gotti lost a split decision. It was his only loss in compiling a 5-1 amateur record.
After each of his pro victories, Gotti scales the 6-foot octagon fence and lets loose.
“It’s just me roaring to the crowd,” he says. “It’s got nothing to do with the opponent or being disrespectful. It’s just me expressing all the days of hard work and sacrifice.”
To celebrate after a win, he says he will binge.
“First, we eat pizza,” he says. “I’ll eat fast food. I’ll eat dessert. Anything I can get my hands on. Anything.”
He also wants to send a message, but not with his fists or feet: “I tell kids, chase your dreams, do what makes you happy, stay on the narrow path and just stay focused.
“The street life and all that comes with it is garbage. Believe in yourself and you’ll achieve whatever it is you want to achieve.”
Stan Grossfeld can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.