The name arrives before him. It always will, setting an expectation for what he should or shouldn't be.
The grandson of one of the 20th century's most notorious gangsters knows this. He understands it, even if it's not quite fair, and moves forward with the hope that it doesn't have to be this way forever. The name can be redefined and cast in a new light.
Now all John Gotti has to do is put in the work.
By most indications, that's exactly what he's doing. Later this year, after three years of patiently wading through New York's amateur mixed martial arts scene, Gotti will step into a cage as a professional for the first time.
The fight, targeted for September but not yet official, will almost certainly take place somewhere near his grandfather's old stomping grounds—either New York or New Jersey—and bring with it a certain level of anticipation.
MMA is by definition counterculture, and so it has a built-in fascination with anti-heroes and the infamous. To be clear: Gotti is neither. He's a 24-year-old chasing a dream. But his name? To fans and promoters, right now that's the hook. It's the reason to watch him. It represents both the height of opportunity and the weight of expectation.
"There's no getting around it. Throughout my career, the name is always going to be attached to me," Gotti told Bleacher Report. "My father and my grandfather, they're a part of me. But this is a different avenue that I'm taking. Nobody in my family ever pursued sports to this degree or became a professional athlete. They never went down that road, so this is a whole different road I'm going down. It's not like my name is Frank like my brother. I share the name 'John Gotti.' I want to put it in a positive spotlight and show people that I'm a hard-working kid and I'm dedicated to this game."
For Gotti—son of John "Junior" Gotti and grandson of the notorious John Gotti—that process starts now.
Right off the bat, one thing is clear: This is no money grab. From his coaches to his training schedule and his long-term plans, nearly every aspect of his career has been plotted and considered. When he started training, he was a muscled 250 pounds. When he walks to the cage as a pro for the first time—most likely either for New York's Triton Fights or New Jersey's Ring of Combat—he'll fight at a lean 170.
"He's not a partier. He's not a drinker. He doesn't do anything like that," said Nic Canobbio, who's promoted Gotti's amateur fights with Triton. "He wants to be a great professional fighter, and he's going to do what it takes to reach his ultimate goal."
Gotti came to MMA as many do, in a roundabout way. Raised in Oyster Bay, New York, Gotti gravitated toward traditional sports as a kid, excelling in baseball and football.
Still, combat sports were always a part of his childhood. When his cousins would come over to visit, it wasn't uncommon to grab a pair of autographed boxing gloves from his dad's memorabilia collection—Evander Holyfield's, Mike Tyson's or Roberto Duran's—and spar a few rounds.
"As kids, we didn't know who these people were," he said. "We would have these matches not knowing we were wearing these gloves from these legendary fighters. We were oblivious."
Around the age of 11, he took up boxing for a couple of years, but eventually back-burnered his interest in favor of team sports.
It was around the time his dad returned home from a stay in prison that John was first exposed to MMA. His father, a longtime combat-sports lover, introduced him to mixed martial arts. Wanting to make up for lost time with his dad, he spent time side by side watching a Randy Couture vs. Chuck Liddell UFC fight.
He was quickly hooked.
"I fell in love with it right away," he said. "It's the purest form of combat. There are so many disciplines to it. I love boxing, but there is so much more to it than boxing."
Still, it wasn't until 2013—after a run at bodybuilding—that he finally decided he wanted to chase it as a profession, even though he says that in the back of his mind, he always knew he'd end up here. At first, his dad resisted the plan, but when John made it clear he was serious, his dad signed on in hopes of shepherding his path.
Within five months, John made his amateur debut.
This was one of the few moments in his career that was not carefully considered. He was recommended for a fight to Canobbio by his then-trainer at Bellmore Kickboxing, Mark Lehr, who told Canobbio that he had a prospect that was raw but talented.
"He said, 'full disclosure, it's John Gotti's grandson,'" Canobbio recalled. "He told me to let him know if I thought it would work. But I didn't really think too much of it. At the end of the day, he was training with a great team, and I figured if they're putting the time in with him, he's worthy of a fight."
It was a match that arrived with little fanfare and no attempt to trade on the Gotti name for attention. And in at least one way, it was the perfect kind of debut outing, a brutal war of attrition that tests resolve and makes for an easy exit toward the next life adventure for those who decide such a path to be a wrong turn. Gotti survived, won and continued forward.
"I learned something about myself in there," he said. "It made me see if this was for me or if it was not for me. It got really rough in there, and it gives you a gut-check, but I never had any doubts."
Overall he's had six amateur bouts, going 5-1 with a four-fight win streak. His fan-friendly style along with his name have afforded him plenty of opportunities, but so far he has been patient, rejecting anything that will move him ahead too far, too fast.
It's an approach Ryan LaFlare, his teammate and the co-owner of his current gym, Long Island MMA, agrees with. LaFlare, who has a 13-1 pro record and is 6-1 as a UFC welterweight, says he's "100 percent" certain Gotti can succeed at the UFC or Bellator level as long as he doesn't rush ahead.
"He's going to get a lot of opportunities early in his career because of his name, but he needs to be patient," LaFlare told Bleacher Report. "He has a lot of potential.
"He is humble and willing to learn, which shows a lot of potential," LaFlare continued. "I like to think of him as a rusted sword. Sharp and can do damage but once polished and sharpened, he can be lethal."
Guided by his dad, Gotti has taken the slow, steady approach, most recently taking the last few months to sharpen his skills in preparation of his upcoming pro debut. Recently, he's paid extra attention to his jiu-jitsu game with Anthony D'Angelo, and he's brought in a strength and conditioning coach for the first time. He trains two times a day, and if all goes well in September, he'd like to fight again before the holidays and end the year 2-0.
If he did, that would get the fight world talking, but he's trying not to get too far ahead of himself. Plans in MMA quickly change, he understands, and he has to be ready and willing to adapt to whatever comes.
Still, the pressure is on. After all, you can't carry the Gotti name quietly.
John never really got to know the man who made it famous. His grandfather was arrested and convicted before John was born, and his only memories of him were made in federal prison, where the "Dapper Don" passed away in 2002.
All this time later, his name still reverberates. And his grandson knows that may always be the case. But that doesn't mean he can't fight to change it.
"I just have to focus on what I can control and what I can create for myself," he said. "The past is the past, and you can't change that. I'm moving forward. I'm trying to project a positive image for my family and myself. I'm trying to create a positive path and create my own legacy. My grandfather is going to be remembered 100 years from now, when we're all dead and gone. Good or bad, he's part of history. My father has his own story. And hopefully, God willing, years from now when you think of the name, you'll think of me, too. Hopefully people will think of me and my accomplishments in MMA."