WHEN Georgian middleweight Avtandil Khurtsidze arrived in the UK in 2017, he became an instant cult icon. “I’m crazy man,” he said, with his wild grin cracking a pumice-like complexion. “I’m crazy black man. I’m Brooklyn man. I’m Russian man. I’m Ukrainian man. I’m Georgian man. I’m a very beautiful man, man.”
But just a month before his scheduled bout with then-WBO middleweight champion Billy Joe Saunders, Khurtsidze was arrested by the FBI under the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations (RICO) Act and, after being found guilty in June 2018, faced up to 40 years in prison before a 10-year sentence was enforced. But how did Georgia’s greatest boxer become the chief enforcer to Razhden Shulaia, one of post-Soviet Russia’s most powerful crime lords and a key member in the most prolific criminal syndicate in the US, accused of everything from contract killings and kidnappings to the snatching of cigarettes and chocolate?
SPRAWLED across the banks below the Northern Imeriti Foothills, Avtandil Khurtsidze grew up in Georgia’s third largest city, Kutaisi. Fronted by villas, verandas and an array of pastel-tinted roofs, tucked between the Tuscan imitations lie deteriorating Soviet housing blocks and dilapidated factories. The heartland of empires throughout history, the city has been consistently ransacked and, aside from the last remaining Soviet statues, it’s the palatial graveyards, embellished with life-size effigies, which most readily illustrate its history.
They are the graves of Kutaisi’s deceased despots known as the Vory – an elite society of Soviet criminals born in Lenin’s gulags. Despite casually being referred to today as the Russian mafia, 80 per cent of the Vory are thought to originate from Georgia, largely split between two clans – those from Kutaisi and those from the country’s capital, Tbilisi.
A known street fighter nicknamed “Chachuku” in his hometown – Georgian for sledgehammer – Khurtsidze soared through the amateur ranks after taking up boxing as a means of protection. However, despite being the country’s No. 1 amateur, his slugging come-forward style was deemed unsuited to the unpaid code’s point-scoring system, meaning Khurtsidze was overlooked for a place at the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Begrudged, he immediately turned professional and, under the guidance of Doc Nowicki, a mechanic-turned-boxing engineer, he emigrated to Philadelphia to live with three other highly touted Georgian boxers – Koba Gogoladze, Aslanbek Kodzoev and Ramazan Paliani.
After a positive start in the US, Khurtsidze’s career was derailed by a shock defeat to former two-time world title challenger Tony Marshall. Having coasted through the first six rounds, in the seventh a desperate Marshall inflicted a barrage below Khurtsidze’s beltline, causing the Georgian to keel over in agony. To the horror of those at ringside, the referee waved the fight off. Despite being labelled by onlookers as one of the most blatant ill-justices ever witnessed in a boxing ring, Nowicki’s appeals to the New York Commission were fruitless. Khurtsidze packed his bags and returned to Kutaisi with his career in ruins.
Khurtsidze’s return coincided with the homecoming of the leader of the Kutaisi Clan, Tariel Oniani. The crime lord, wanted by Interpol, was forced to flee Spain after learning that 400 police officers were preparing to pounce on his lavish coastal hideouts. His return enlivened criminal activity and mafia power struggles in Georgia, and as the government sought to regain control, sundry Vors and their underlings were incarcerated – pictures of a younger Khurtsidze, with a noticeably more proliferated buzz cut, leaning against cell bars, indicate he spent at least some time in prison during this period.
He was spotted by hallmarked trainer Alexander Lichter and recommended as a sparring partner to Zaurbek Baysangurov – a Russian super-welterweight and future world champion. After impressing during the spars, he was signed to the Klitschko brothers’ promotional company, K2 East, racking up 15 straight wins in Ukraine. Once, when fighting in front of a raucous crowd in Odessa against Jamel Bakhi, Khurtsidze apologised in his post-fight interview in the ring for not knocking out his opponent sooner. Not only had the Georgian music blaring from the stands wrangled with his rhythm, he claimed it also precipitated an irrepressible urge to break into dance mid-bout.
It’s unclear how Khurtsidze first met the Russian Vor Razhden Shulaia, however, his defence lawyer admitted the pair were long-time acquaintances in post-Soviet Georgia and had frequently socialised together. Incidentally, Khurtsidze was not the first boxer that Shulaia was seen to have close connections with either, after being photographed leaving a meeting in 2009 with former two-time world heavyweight champion Nikolay Valuev, which caused headlines in Russia due to Shulaia’s criminal status.
In 2010, after losing a tight decision to hometown favourite Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam in Paris, Khurtsidze began spending more time with Shulaia, and they became close accomplices. Aslan Usoyan, the leader of the rival Tbilisi Clan and head of the so-called Russian mafia with ties to the FSB (Russia’s Federal Security Service), was shot by a sniper on the streets of Moscow. Italian police swooped on senior members of the Kutaisi Clan and Shulaia was arrested in Lithuania.
After being inexplicably released, Shulaia fled to New York and established a fierce jurisdiction in Brighton Beach, a notorious Soviet deluge in southern Brooklyn, once described as “the land of pelmeni, matryoshkas, tracksuits and vodka.” In no little coincidence, Khurtsidze too re-emerged in the neighbourhood.
Shulaia made base above a quaint family restaurant on the seafront, which he converted into an illegal poker house where he and Khurtsidze were recorded by the FBI plotting numerous extortion schemes and attacks on rival enterprises. One video showed Khurtsidze repeatedly assaulting a Georgian man, who had insulted Shulaia in public, only pausing between strikes to recite sermons on his power and status in the criminal world. An informant even reported seeing Khurtsidze and Shulaia emerge from behind the poker house with a severely bloodied man, only for the Vor to ask Khurtsidze why he had hit the victim so hard.
Shulaia also demanded an ‘obshchak’ – a form of tribute – be paid to him by all the criminals operating in the area, and Avtandil Khurtsidze was responsible for its collection. He was spotted by FBI officers collecting thousands of dollars in cash on the pavement, as well as seizing jewellery in compensation. Avtandil Khurtsidze was nicknamed “Suicide” by these lower-rung criminals – the only way to combat him if his temper was provoked.
However, Khurtsidze wasn’t safe from retaliation either. In the year he returned to the US with Shulaia, he was attacked by a group of henchmen supposedly working for an Armenian Vor based in Los Angeles. Shulaia retaliated by taking 20 armed members from the syndicate to exact revenge for his long-time friend, even pistol-whipping one of his associates he deemed not to have involved himself with necessary vigour.
Despite having collected irrefutable evidence of Khurtsidze’s criminal involvement, the FBI still required further proof to bring down the enterprise, and thus the boxer’s career continued unperturbed. He was signed by DiBella Entertainment soon after his re-arrival in America and recorded five straight stoppage victories under the promotional banner in a little over a year-and-a-half. Yet only after stepping in at two weeks’ notice to face the unbeaten Antoine Douglas on Showtime in March 2016 did Khurtsidze become known to the wider boxing public. He inflicted a fierce pasting on the helpless American, before stopping him in the 10th round. Khurtsidze landed a frightening 276 power punches during the bout.
The victory secured Avtandil Khurtsidze mandatory status to the WBO title and, after accepting step-aside money so Saunders could attempt to arrange a fight with Gennady Golovkin, the Georgian arrived in the UK in April 2017 to take on Birmingham’s Tommy Langford for the vacant Interim belt, again winning in brutal fashion.
Meanwhile, the enterprise had spread far beyond the gloomy poker attic. Branches appeared in New Jersey, Atlanta and Las Vegas, and the syndicate were involved in extortion rackets, arms-trafficking, contract killings, kidnappings, gun-running, chloroform robberies, drugs and gambling rings, and numerous money-laundering schemes. One ingenious ploy even saw them utilise a new technological scam to hack casino machines, defrauding them of thousands of dollars per night.
But ironically, after a litany of sour pursuits, it was the sickly steal of over 10 thousand dollars’ worth of chocolate which proved to be the final evidence the FBI required to move in on the enterprise. Two of its members, who had stolen the cargo from a trucking company, were in search of a buyer. The consumer who came forward? An undercover FBI agent.
So, with Saunders’ promoter Frank Warren none the wiser, the FBI finally busted the enterprise just a month before Khurtsidze’s scheduled bout with the WBO champion in London. Thirty-three members of the syndicate, all with links to the Kutaisi Clan, were arrested. Khurtsidze was denied bail and held in prison due to the assaults captured on video in the poker house. He was also charged with wire fraud relating to $17,800 of stolen cigarettes.
Just two weeks into the time on remand, Khurtsidze released a message from prison to his followers via his Facebook page. He claimed to be the happiest inmate in jail, teaching daily boxing classes to over 100 of his fellow prisoners. When his trial was finally heard in June this year and Avtandil Khurtsidze was found guilty on one count of racketeering conspiracy and one count of wire fraud conspiracy, he was reported by the American press to be facing 40 years behind bars. Khurtsidze soon released another message.
“Final sentence will not be more than five years,” the 39-year-old said. “Taking into view my good behaviour, I will get out in two years. Do not believe fake informers. I am not a terrorist to face imprisonment up to 40 years. I’ll be back and defeat many others in a boxing ring.
“They have prepared special gloves for me, so we fight every day [in prison]. Besides, I have lots of free time and nothing else to do – workout, nutrition and sleep. I am not in a bad place. If I had had conditions like this in Kutaisi, probably I would have achieved much more. The other day someone brought me a chicken drumstick and ice cream, I thought it was a joke.”
The charisma of boxing’s cult hero turned cult villain remains immutable and infectious but, even in a sport so wedded to crime and corruption, the free-grinning Georgian is among the most rampant culprits in its history.
In September 2018, Avtandil Khurtsidze was sentenced to 10 years in prison.
“He let many people down who believed in him, but no one more than himself,” Lou DiBella told ESPN. “Just a waste, and it’s all on him for choosing the dark side.”