John Gotti III remembers the first time he ever sat down to watch an MMA fight. It was 2006 and his father, John Jr., had just gotten out of prison. John Jr. told his son about the big UFC title fight between Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture — a trilogy bout — at UFC 57.
John III was in eighth grade at the time. He was just looking to spend some time with his dad, so they watched together.
“Just to bond with him, I wanted to watch the fights,” John III told Ariel Helwani on Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour. “So I tuned into the fights that night and ever since that night I became hooked.”
It was Liddell’s knockout of Couture and then it was clips of Quinton Jackson’s highlights. John III was all in on mixed martial arts.
Now, about 12 years later, his own fighting career is in full swing. John III, who is 1-0 as a pro, will face Eddie Haws at CES NY 1 on Friday night in Long Island, N.Y. John Jr. will be in attendance at The Space in Westbury that night, along with dozens — maybe even hundreds — of friends and family.
Fighting was not the family business, at least not in the way John III is doing it. The Gotti name is infamous in the United States. John III’s grandfather, John Gotti, was the longtime boss of the Gambino crime family in New York.
Gotti was convicted of murder, conspiracy, racketeering and a host of other charges in 1992. He died in prison in 2002 at age 61 after years of battling throat cancer.
John Jr. was, at one point, the acting boss of the Gambino family and did stints in prison himself in the 1990s and 2000s. He has been open about his former role in that world, but has said he left the life long ago. Gotti Jr. was indicted on racketeering and conspiracy to murder charges in 2008, but he was released in 2009 after a mistrial. A movie about his life starring John Travolta as John Sr. — “The Dapper Don” himself — is set for a June release.
But this week, all John Jr. is worried about his John III’s second pro fight, he said on The MMA Hour. He said he has told his son that fight weeks for him are “akin to me being in the bullpen waiting for a jury to come back with a verdict.”
“I watched this kid when he was crapping his diaper for chrissakes,” Gotti Jr. said. “And he’s become my hero. I’m not his hero — he’s my hero, OK? It takes a real tough guy to do what he does. My father was one of the toughest human beings I ever met in my whole life. He was a man’s man and he walked all the way to the gates. But watching my son get up every day and regiment himself and do what he does…
“I was one of those spectators that would sit ringside and critique a fighter. Until I got to understand the game. I don’t critique fighters. I no longer critique fighters. I have an immense amount of respect for fighters now, because it takes more balls to do what these guys do, to climb into that Octagon and put it all out there — that’s a real tough guy. Not some of the garbage I knew in the gutter.”
It was about four years ago that John III made the choice to go full force into MMA, he said. He recalls telling his father is in his office that he wanted to go train at Bellmore Kickboxing on Long Island. There was some trepidation at first, but John Jr. has come around and is now fully supportive of his son’s dream.
“I’m happy that he supports me 100 percent,” John III said. “He’s behind me. He’s one of my biggest supporters. Without him, this would be a much harder journey.”
One difficult thing about gaining more of the public eye is questions about that famous last name. It’s unavoidable, Gotti III said, but something he has conditioned himself to deal with.
“I’m adjusted to it by now,” he said. “You get these same questions over and over, over the course of your whole life. Since a kid, I’m just kind of used to it at this point. At the same time, I’m just trying to take my own path, my own avenue in this sport and accomplish my own things through hard work and dedication. But I’m proud of my name and my name is my name and I’m gonna represent it the best I could, win, lose or draw. That’s all I could do as far as that.”
Gotti III, 24, went 5-1 as an amateur and seems like a real prospect in the welterweight division. John Jr. thinks it’s remarkable how disciplined his son is, from working out to his diet. There was a time, he said, when he thought John III might have gone down the wrong path — the path he was once on.
“The only one that I thought would emulate what I was was my son John,” said John Jr., who has six children. “The only one. He was the one who had all the questions regarding that life. He was very inquisitive regarding his grandfather, regarding where I was in my life. My wife would always catch him on the sites, reading the sites and whatnot. And watching the shows. So he was the one that I had to worry about.”
That was never on his mind, though, Gotti III said.
“I never envisioned myself going down that path,” he said. “I always envisioned myself doing something with athletics, being in the gym and doing what I’m doing right now. I love the whole process. Not just the fighting — being in the gym and eating a certain way and the hours of training. I just love it. I love the whole lifestyle.”
The reason why he was so inquisitive about his grandfather’s life and what was going on with his father is because he cared about his dad and his future, Gotti III said.
“My father sheltered all his children the right way all our lives,” Gotti III said. “We were raised differently. We’ve seen the horrors of that world and what it does to families and people. My father fought a lot. He fought a lot of trials. I’ve seen the wear and tear it took on him. That was never an option for me to go down that type of path. I was interested in always asking questions, because I was interested for my father and I wanted to know what was going on with him and his trials. I wanted to know the outcome, because when he won his cases those were probably the happiest moments of my life, still to this day, when he came home.”
Even now, though, John Jr. said that his son keeps his circle very small and that’s the way he likes it. He’s devoted to his career as a fighter and is a true gym rat.
“John is not very sociable,” John Jr. said. “He’s devoted to the gym. My son does two-a-days. His circle of individuals around him is really, really very tight. So therefore, he’s not really exposed to a lot of those other elements. That being said, he is blessed to have family that love and care about him, friends that watched him grow up that protect him. So we do try to screen the possibilities of certain individuals getting next to my son, absolutely.”
Gotti III will cut weight this week and enter the cage Friday night. His father will be there in the crowd, not too far away. It won’t be an easy time for either John Gotti in Westbury. But that father-son bond over MMA forged more than a decade ago will grow even stronger when it’s over.
“His career is now MMA,” John Jr. said. “Like I had said, it’s hard for me to watch. But I’m enormously proud of him.”