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)

Tamerlan spent a lot of time with Brendan Mess, who was trained in jiu-jitsu. Mess tagged along to Wai Kru and instantly synced up with the gym's free-flowing structure. "He was helping Tamerlan," says Allan. "They seemed like they were really good friends."

Tamerlan brought other acquaintances to Wai Kru, including Ibragim Todashev who Allan calls "a lunatic." Todashev was prone to outbursts and ready to fight anyone, anytime. His shattered English, however, caught Allan's sympathetic ear. Todashev told Allan he'd been beat close to death several times in Chechnya by gangs of thugs. When the young immigrant couldn't afford the gym's monthly fees, Allan helped line up a bouncer gig at a nearby bar. It lasted one night, until Todashev refused to sweep the floor because it was "woman's work."

Tamerlan didn't initially like Todashev. They became closer after his dreams of qualifying for the Olympics were dashed thanks to a change in Golden Gloves regulations concerning non-citizens. Tamerlan's boisterous nature soon earned religious undertones, says Allan, and his friendship with Mess disintegrated.

"What was fucked up is that the jiu-jitsu instructor would tell the students – in Portuguese – that these guys were terrorists," Allan says. "Sometimes you just say things like that. It's not our job in life to hire a private investigator or follow a member of the gym because he grew a beard. We all have our prejudices."

Tamerlan (foreground) and Dzhokar (back right) training in the boxing ring. 

On Sunday, September 11, 2011, two people allegedly entered the Waltham apartment where Brendan Mess was hanging out with Raphael Teken and Erik Weissman. There were drugs and money in the apartment, and a vicious struggle ensued. All three men had their throats slit so severely that they were nearly decapitated.

The news made Allan queasy. Weissman and Teken had worked out at Wai Kru for short stints, and Mess was well known and liked by everyone at the gym. "It made me a little sick to my stomach to think that Tamerlan's boy just got murdered. You know? Like executed."

Tamerlan came to Wai Kru the next day, laughed off the savage murder, and skipped Mess' funeral. The case went cold until May 22, 2013, when an FBI agent shot Todashev seven times during an interrogation at Todashev's Florida apartment. A newly released FBI report says that Todashev confessed to playing a role in the triple homicide, then went berserk, threw a coffee table and charged the agent with a metal pole.

Allan's not surprised: "I know Ibragim very well and how he fights. If someone was getting charged by a crazed Ibragim, they better fucking discharge that weapon fully," Allan says. "He was hot headed enough to force an agent to put him down."

*

The bewilderment that washes over Allan when discussing Tamerlan vanishes when he's with Doomsday. It's late December, snowing steadily in Boston. In the steamy basement gym, Allan is taking a padded pummeling from Doomsday. After three minutes of intense sparring, Allan makes Doomsday sprint back and forth across the mats before jumping into another sparring session. Allan then pulls a nearby student from a Muay Thai class whom Doomsday must lift up and carry across the mat between punch combinations. 

No two training days are alike with Allan. "He is one of the craziest coaches I've ever had in my life. He mixes it up like there's no routine," says Doomsday, who is named after the comic book villain that killed Superman. The creature's special power is the ability to come back to life, impervious to whatever previously killed it. It's a trait, Doomsday says, that not only applies to him, but to Allan and the entire Wai Kru camp. "We learn from our mistakes," he says.

A week later, Doomsday and Allan march through Las Vegas' MGM Grand Garden Arena and into the octagon to fight Siyar Bahadurzada in UFC 168. Halfway through the second round, both fighters are visibly gassed. With 30 seconds left, Doomsday hoists Bahadurzada onto his shoulder in an astonishing display of strength, stumbles across the octagon so that he's directly in front of a screaming Allan, and crushes his opponent into the mat. The crowd erupts. Social media and MMA blogs light up, the type of viral highlight UFC brass loves. Though the fight goes another full round, Dooomsday wins by unanimous decision. 

At the press conference after the fight, Doomsday is asked about his next opponent. "My coach, Kru John, knows I'm a fighter, I'll fight anybody," Doomsday stammers, adrenaline still coursing. "It's up to him. He'll make the right decision."

Doomsday's devotion is immensely reassuring to Allan. "Doomsday is like a brother," he says. "I owe a lot to him and he owes a lot to me." The win has helped breathe new life into Wai Kru, and they're looking to capitalize on the momentum on April 11 – days before the first anniversary of the bombing – when Doomsday takes on Ryan Laflare for UFC Fight Night 39 in Abu Dhabi. A victory there could earn Doomsday a top 10 ranking and pave the way to a title bout.

Doomsdays' victorious body slam at UFC 168, in Las Vegas.

Allan still gets calls from investigators. Journalists continue to hound him and show up unannounced at the gym. There are questions he'll never be able to answer. A federal agent once told Allan the ability to knock a man out with one punch or execute a deadly chokehold is important to someone intent on carrying out a bombing in the middle of one of Boston's most historic and crowded events. "Wouldn't you go to the best gym and train yourself to be a human weapon?" Allan recalls an agent asking him.

That question still gives him pause. As a trainer, he cherishes his position to impart discipline and structure and hope among Boston's rougher bunch. But he'll never know what was going through the mind of Tamerlan as he refined his fury in the gym. "Sure, Tamerlan boxed at my gym," he says. "But he didn't show up to Boylston Street throwing jabs and crosses. It was a fucking pressure cooker."