Fighting to Survive: The Boston Bomber's Gym
Credit: John "Doomsday" Howard, left, practices with Wai Kru owner John Allan, center. (Photo by Kate Samp)

John Allan was vacationing in Thailand last April when he received an email from an employee at Wai Kru, his small mixed martial arts gym in Boston. The subject line read "Tamerlan."

"Tamerlan needs to change his attitude or not be allowed into the gym," the email started. "I have had it with his attitude like he owns the gym, he came in yesterday and I nicely asked him and the two people he was with to take their shoes off and he basically told me to fuck off ... Tamerlan is disrespectful, he doesn't represent the gym at all, and he walks around like he owns this place … Something needs to be done."

Two days later, two crude pressure-cooker bombs set off by Tamerlan and Dzhokar Tsarnaev tore through the Boston Marathon. More than 250 people were injured. Sixteen people lost their legs. Three victims, 29-year-old Krystle Campbell, 23-year-old Lingzi Lu, and 8-year-old Martin William Richard, died.

Three days after the attack, Wai Kru's parking lot was flooded with federal agents and local police. Tamerlan Tsarnaev, by then the primary suspect in the bombing, had trained at his gym for years. Allan warned police about another gym member associated with Tamerlan, Ibragim Todashev; told his staff to fully cooperate; and booked a flight home.

By the time Allan touched down, MIT Police Officer Sean Collier had been murdered, Tamerlan was dead, and his younger brother, Dzhokhar, was in custody after an unprecedented manhunt. 

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It's a Wednesday afternoon in late November and Allan is eagerly pacing around his gym. This is the first week of John "Doomsday" Howard's training camp. The 5'7", 171-pound welterweight is preparing for UFC 168 in Vegas where he'll battle Siyar Bahadurzada, a 5'11" fighter born and raised in Afghanistan.

Doomsday is perhaps the last beacon of hope for a gym that, against the odds, has stayed in business after a disastrous year. One of Allan's instructors left a few weeks after the bombing, taking dozens of clients with him, and monthly revenue plummeted by as much as $8,000. The gym, which runs free after-school programs for high school students and often has a pay-when-you-can mentality, is struggling with finances and morale.

A major UFC win would be one of the first positive public moments for Wai Kru in years. Besides its association with Tamerlan and the bombing, there was the brutal triple homicide in 2011 that left three gym members dead, including Brendan Mess, who was a close friend with Tamerlan. Allan is hoping to instead connect Wai Kru with Doomsday, a rising star in the UFC. "Doomsday winning is what everyone in Wai Kru wants. Whether it's the doctor or lawyer who comes in for exercise or the amateur fighter here who hopes to break into the UFC," says Allan. 

For Doomsday, a Boston native, a win in Vegas is redemption, a way to cement his presence in the most popular fight promotion in the sport. Doomsday started strong in the UFC, winning four consecutive fights, two by knockout. Then he went cold: A loss by TKO after Jake Ellenberger split his eye followed by two unanimous decisions against him. The UFC cut him. He was only allowed back in when there was a spot to fill at a fight in Boston a few months after the bombing. The hometown hero fought up a weight class against Uriah Hall and won by decision. Still, UFC boss Dana White wasn't impressed.

"HORRIBLE!!!!!!! The high 5 fight of the night WTF," White tweeted to his 2.8 million followers. Doomsday needs to deliver a lights-out performance against Bahadurzada to silence such criticism. "Doomsday is more cerebral than people think – he's very emotional. When those emotions are focused, and they are now, he's capable of doing anything."

John "Doomsday" Howard, training at John Allan's Wai Kru gym in Boston. 

John Allan is muscular and handsome, with big, expressive brown eyes and an ever-present smirk. Most days he wears a black Wai Kru hooded sweatshirts and blue Adidas track pants with a black Wai Kru baseball cap. He's a proud card-carrying medical marijuana patient, which he uses daily. He walks and talks non-stop, always pacing, giving orders, turning to his phone to text with his stunning German fiancée, and chatting with everyone who passes through the gym's door. "It's like trying to work with a Tasmanian devil," one of his employees says.

Allan grew up in Walpole, a sleepy town between Boston and Providence whose primary landmark is a maximum-security prison. He eventually ended up at Boston College, wrestling a semester and studying philosophy and theology. It was then he began meditating and noticed that the left side of his body fatigued after a few minutes. "That's why I started doing Muay Thai. I decided to learn it left handed to strengthen that side of my body," he recalls.

It wasn't long before he was fully immersed in the world of Martial Arts. He experimented with Jeet Kune Do, Bruce Lee's wildly interpretive style. In his early 20s, he went to Japan for six months to study judo. From there he bounced to Thailand: "In Thailand there's no beginner class." Allan spent the next decade traveling regularly between New York and Southeast Asia. In the States he'd piece together odd jobs, dabble in music production, and line up martial-art instruction gigs. In Thailand he'd visit obscure Muay Thai camps. Process and mechanics fascinated Allan, and he took to teaching. 

In 2006 Allan moved back to Boston and opened Wai Kru. "I knew it'd pay for itself and maybe I'd make a little money. I hoped I'd get 30 or 40 members in the first five or six months, but I had close to 100 within two months."

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Tamerlan first showed up at Wai Kru toward the end of 2008, accompanied by his father. "His father was an intense dude," says Allan. "One day in winter he rode his bike from Cambridge to Allston and Tamerlan ran behind him. I remember thinking ‘Jesus, it's so fucking cold. Why?' There was no room for weakness."

In his early days at Wai Kru, Tamerlan worked hard, focused on winning the Golden Gloves so he could box for the U.S. in the Olympics. As major events approached, Tamerlan's stoicism gave way to flair. "When he shows up at the Golden Gloves for the first time, he's wearing white boots, a flowing scarf, and there was a piano," Allan recalls. Tamerlan belted out 45 seconds of concert piano, "like Tchaikovsky," and then weighed in, fully clothed.