In Bad Company: The Story of Avtandil Khurtsidze, Mob Enforcer

Avtandil KHURTSIDZE - 30.10.2010 - Championnat du Monde WBA des poids Moyens - Palais des Sports - Paris, (Photo: Amandine Noel / Icon Sport via Getty Images)
Avtandil Khurtsidze in the ring after his fight against Hassan N'Dam N'Jikam at the Sports Palace in Paris on October 30, 2010. (Amandine Noel/Icon Sport via Getty Images)

When the Southern District Court of New York dealt a ten-year prison sentence to former middleweight contender Avtandil Khurtsidze on charges of racketeering and conspiracy last September, it was literally a case of adding insult to injury. It had been a grisly summer, after all, for the Georgian national. Roughly a month before receiving his verdict, Khurtsidze was reported to have been stabbed in the face.

The incident occurred in early August 2018. Khurtsidze, whose stocky, five-feet-four frame and wrinkled face belied his jaunty personality, got caught up in a skirmish with members of a Latin American gang inside the Metropolitan Detention Center, the embattled federal holding facility in Brooklyn where Khurtsidze had been residing for more than a year. Among his fellow detainees at one point were Martin Shkreli, the snarky hedge fund manager and pharmaceutical CEO, and Vincent Asaro, the elderly Bonanno family mobster whose life served as the inspiration for the film Goodfellas.

According to CrimeRussia, Khurtsidze incurred the most damage out of anyone from the exchange, suffering “multiple hematomas and stab wounds,” one of which figured, yes, on his face. Khurtsidze was sent to the hospital and later to the punishment cell. How the dispute arose is unclear, but according to CrimeRussia’s source, Khurtsidze had nothing to do with the initial altercation. It began as a verbal dispute between a fellow Georgian named Razhden Shulaya and the Latin Americans. Only after it escalated into a brawl did Khurtsidze enter the picture, presumably rushing into the fray to give his outnumbered compatriot a hand.

Shulaya, of course, was more than just a countryman to Khurtsidze. As a vor y zakone, or “thief-in-law,” a high-ranking honorific bestowed to select members of the ex-Soviet criminal underworld and whose usage is thought to have originated in the gulags of the 1920s, Shulaya was the kingpin behind a vicious Brooklyn-based Russian mafia for which Khurtsidze allegedly was a key henchman. In one important respect, then, Shulaya was effectively Khurtsdize’s boss. Whenever a problem emerged with the rank and file, say, with a messenger who was late on a payment or an employee who did not offer sufficient obshchak, or “tribute,” Shulaya would allegedly summon Khurtsidze to mete out a disciplinary solution. But there are clues that their relationship was not purely transactional.

According to an August 2018 issue of Boxing News, the two went way back and were often seen socializing in their native Georgia. Shulaya may have had a soft spot for boxers. He was photographed with heavyweight Nikolay Valuev in 2009. For a vor looking to maintain his reputation, being buddies with a prizefighter offered instant clout, a point that one of Khurtsidze’s initial lawyers, who resigned after a few months on the case, brought up to Hannibal Boxing while pondering a possible defense strategy. “Georgia is a small community, and everyone wants to get to know a professional boxer,” he said. “Khurtsidze’s defense might be that Shulaya and him are childhood friends.” Perhaps, then, there was more at play for Khurtsidze than a sense of professional obligation on the day he came to Shulaya’s aid in jail.

Shulaya was star-crossed from the moment he set up his US operation sometime in 2014. The FBI. had wiretaps and informants homed in on Shulaya, recording what would amount to several years’ worth of evidence. Headquartered in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where Shulaya ran an illegal poker house above a restaurant, the group had bases in at least six other states. Their métier was diverse. Joon H. Kim, the former acting US attorney for the Southern District of New York, who unsealed the original indictments, described Shulaya’s line of business as “a dizzying array of criminal schemes,” in which blue-collar rackets coexisted with ostensibly white-collar ones. Shulaya, apparently, was no classist. The scams included the sale of contraband cigarettes, the theft of over ten thousand pounds of chocolate, the defrauding of casinos by hacking into slot machines, identity theft, credit card fraud, murder-for-hire conspiracies, and, in a doozy, using femme fatales to seduce well-heeled victims and later drugging them with chloroform. Shulaya’s eclectic, high-minded ambitions for his enterprise were in line with his villainous heritage. Indeed, the vory as a subculture had been making inroads in the US since the early 1990s, back when the FBI had not quite smartened up to their dealings. From the outset, though, the vory were noted for their special brand of ruthlessness. Even John Gotti is reputed to have once said of the vory, “We Italians will kill you. But the Russians are crazy—they’ll kill your whole family.”

Shulaya’s fledgling criminal outfit, however, would never get a chance to flourish into the kind of interstate empire of which he dreamed. On June 7, 2017, Shulaya, along with more than twenty-five of his alleged associates, was arrested in a sweeping federal roundup. That included Khurtsidze, who was charged on two counts; one for participating in RICO conspiracy, the other for participating in wire fraud conspiracy.

The takedown came at a particularly inopportune moment for the thirty-eight-year-old Khurtsidze, who was at the time enjoying an unprecedented wave of professional recognition. In fact, he was but a month away from his scheduled July 8 challenge of WBO middleweight titleholder Billy Joe Saunders in London.

For most of his career, Khurtsidze was simply one of the countless undistinguished fighters who try to eke out a living from the sport. After an early unsuccessful stint in the US (brought there by Philadelphia-based mechanic-turned manager Doc Nowicki) that saw him suffer what most credible ringside reports describe as a horrendous stoppage loss to Tony Marshall, Khurtsidze returned to Europe, plying his trade in Ukraine under the Klitschko brothers’ K2 promotional banner. Khurtsidze reeled off sixteen straight victories, before losing a narrow decision Hassan N’Dam N’Jikam. After a layoff of nearly three years, he returned to the US, this time to Brooklyn, where he soon linked up with New York promoter Lou DiBella and made his way back to the ring in 2014, the same year, not coincidentally, that Shulaya set up his Brooklyn base.

Khurtsidze’s introduction to the broader boxing public came in 2016. In a match he was expected to lose, the Georgian pulled off a punishing upset of highly-touted prospect Antoine Douglas on national television; Douglas was never the same after that fight. (Khurtidze even unwittingly concocted his own viral moment, when, responding to his trainer’s frequent entreaties to fight like Mike Tyson, he cried out, “I love Mike Tyson!”) He followed that up with a knockout of middling Tommy Langford in England, which earned him the right to challenge Saunders for a world title. Terms were quickly agreed to between DiBella and Saunder’s promoter Frank Warren.

“We were on the cusp of him getting ready to fight for a world championship,” Andre Rozier, Khurtsidze’s trainer, recalled. “How did this happen? It’s unreal, unbelievable. And a shot that we had a good possibility of winning.”

Alas, it wasn’t meant to be. Like the rise and decline of the protagonist in a bildungsroman, Khurtsidze went from the heights of a world-title showdown to the cold, concrete slab of the MDC, as inmate #9117-054. Five months later, in an email interview conducted and translated from Russian by one of his initial lawyers, Khurtsidze described his daily life in the cell:

“Daily schedule is simple. We wake up at seven, then breakfast. I use gym extensively. Trying to work out two, three hours a day. I do my best to be in shape. I try to think about my family as a way to keep my mind off troubles. I think about my parents, my hometown. . . . I see my wife quite often. She visits me with the baby son, whenever the facility is open for visitation. And these are the moments I cherish a lot. They are the source of my strength. Food is fine. The usual stuff.”

Unlike many of his co-defendants, Khurtsidze did not strike up a plea deal with the government. Zurab Dzhanashvili, Shulaya’s supposed right-hand man, for instance, became a vital government witness. If there can be said to be a crucial difference between the Italian-American mob (La Cosa Nostra) and Russian organized crime, it is that the Russians have a culture of “flipping,” according to FBI agent John Penza, who worked on the Shulaya investigation. “Russians happily flip,” Penza told Garrett M. Graff, “and then go back to work with the same partners.” Clearly, Khurtsidze didn’t share this sentiment. Indeed, Khurtsidze’s refusal to cooperate was a source of frustration for one of his previous lawyers, who later resigned, citing his client’s supposed stubbornness. “Whatever I tell him about the government’s position, he says, ‘Fuck it, fuck it,’” the lawyer recalled.

The government believed it had a watertight case against Khurtsidze, arguing that Khurtidze, as the “primary enforcer” for Shulaya’s group, was someone whose role was, in fact, “breathtaking and extraordinary.” In other words, the prosecution contended that Khurtidze wasn’t just a rube kept in the dark, trotted out for the routine beating; he was a valuable member of the Shulaya dynasty, privy to the larger conspiratorial designs of the group. It explains why some of his peers received sentencing in line with or below federal guidelines—at least nine of his co-defendants received sentences between six to fifty-seven months—and Khurtsidze was the only one issued a sentencing above the guidelines, 120 months, which is on par with a co-defendant who pled guilty to a murder-for-hire plot. By comparison, Shulaya, who was facing life, received forty-five years.

According to court documents, Khurtsidze’s defense lawyers briefed an appeal to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in April, on account of at least key four errors made by the trial judge. They have requested either that Khursdize’s convictions be vacated or his 120-month sentence be vacated and the case remanded for resentencing. (Shulaya’s lawyers are also preparing to brief an appeal).

“Contrary to the District Court’s belief, Khurtsidze did not play an integral part in the Shulaya enterprise,” the brief reads. “A sentence of ten years for his conduct is wholly unsupportable and was substantively unreasonable.”

Today, Khurtsidze is incarcerated in a prison in New Hampshire, according to a source with knowledge of his predicament. More than two years have passed since his arrest in June 2017. Five months later in October, in an interview conducted and translated by his previous counsel over email, Khurtsidze was asked to describe his newfound surroundings. “I have never been in such a company before,” he wrote. “Murderers, terrorists, fraudsters.”


About Sean Nam 30 Articles
Sean Nam has written for The Cruelest Sport, Undisputed Champion Network, and The Sweet Science. His non-boxing writing has appeared in New Rambler Review, Slant Magazine, Atlas Obscura, Rain Taxi, Mubi Notebook, The Brooklyn Rail, and Cineaste. In 2017, he curated the Boxing on Film series for the Anthology Film Archives in New York City. He is a member of the Boxing Writers Association of America.