Russian Gangsters and Russian Wrestlers

Fightland Blog

By Drew Jennings

While explaining the rules of the tournament, "Sambo Steve" has to compete with the Beastie Boys, who are blaring from the CrossFit class on the other side of the gym.

The 2013 North American Freestyle Sambo Championships are taking place in mid-gentrification east Austin, Texas, among graffiti-tagged warehouses and hip vegan bistros, and two massive aluminum ceiling fans with 10-foot blades are struggling to keep the place tolerable. It's mid-August. Sambo Steve, born Stephen Koepfer, the president of the American Sambo Association, explains why his organization is holding their tournament here in the unbearable Austin heat, rather than in New Jersey, where it used to be held:

 “New Jersey was too expensive. We don’t have money.”

Despite being the largest Sambo organization in the U.S., the ASA is essentially broke. It’s also not recognized by FIAS, the sport’s international ruling body. Ask anyone in the organization and they’ll tell you the ASA has fallen victim to the ethnocentric streak that runs through the Sambo world—the belief that the sport should be run by Russians, even in America.

Incorporating striking, judo throws, and submission finishes, Combat Sambo was the closest thing to MMA before MMA; it is commonly referred to as “MMA with a jacket.” In the grappling-only Sport variation, competitors are stood up and reset anytime a finish doesn’t seem imminent, a rule that forces them to aggressively pursue tap-outs. Flying arm-bars, rolling knee-bars, and scissor heel-hooks are commonplace.

There are about 50 guys stretching on the mats: Americans in their blue jackets and East Coast Russian expats in their red Cамбо gis. Reilly Bodycomb, ASA’s southern representative, and one of the top Sambo practitioners in the U.S., warms up his students in a back room. He points out a lanky kid with scraggily facial hair.

“Elliott, 18 years old. Kid’s a sponge. He’s been winning BJJ tournaments in the absolute division,” Bodycomb tells me. Frustrated by the rigidity of traditional martial arts, Bodycomb was first drawn to Sambo by its lack of hierarchy.

“In Sambo, the ‘right way’ is whatever works. There’s no belt ranking system. People ask ‘How do you know who’s in charge?’ You grapple with everyone and find out really fast who you should listen to.”

The tournament’s organizers had hoped to have an A and B division but that plan is abandoned due to low turnout. Novices will be thrown in with experts.

“Hundreds of guys used to come out to tournaments,” Sambo Steve says while looking around the sparsely populated room. “Now, if you get 80 guys it’s a success.”

Elliot, the grappling prodigy, runs through the quarterfinals and semis via collar choke and twisting foot-lock. His opponent in the finals also advanced easily. He is older, with a stronger build. They start off exchanging top position on the ground. As they work their way back to their feet, Elliott gets a firm grip of the back of the other guy’s gi and throws up a flying arm-bar. The tap-out comes as soon as they hit the ground.

Bodycomb looks to me and says “Eighteen years old.” All together Elliott’s three matches last barely a minute.

Civil War

Most agree things started to go to shit for Sambo shortly after the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union. Prior to the collapse, Sambo enthusiasts witnessed the military-fighting-system-turned-sport blossom into an internationally celebrated art form. In 1966, Sambo was recognized and sanctioned by FILA, the international governing body of amateur wrestling, and under FILA’s wing, Sambo flourished. By 1985, the sport had grown so much that the Sambo representatives in FILA decided to separate from the organization and create their own ruling body. FIAS, the International Federation of Amateur Sambo, was born. But when the U.S.S.R. disbanded, the newly independent former Soviet nations sought representation in FIAS, but mutual terms could not be reached.

“There were a lot of Cold War politics involved,” Steve says. In 1993, FIAS split into FIAS “West,” run by Americans and Western Europeans, and FIAS “East,” run by Russians and Eastern Europeans, with both organizations claiming to be the authentic FIAS. They held separate world championships but continued to use the same logo. Representative national bodies were forced to choose sides, and the USSA went with FIAS “West,” and a new group, the AASF, broke off from the USSA and took sides with FIAS “East.” Without the built-in fanbase the “East” enjoyed, the “West” struggled to cultivate a following in Western Europe and the U.S., and in 2005, they went under, taking the USSA with them.

The AASF appears to be headed for the same fate as its rival. In April, Bodycomb competed in the AASF Pan-American and U.S. Open Championships held in New Jersey. If the name of the tournament sounds a bit goofy, it’s because the AASF combined the Pan-American Championships and the U.S. Open to avoid the cost and effort of putting on two tournaments. The majority of the participants weren’t even from the Americas.

“I beat two Moldovans and lost to a Russian and got second as the only American in my division in an event held in New Jersey,” Bodycomb laughs. “My medal actually says ‘U.S. Open & Pan-American Championships.’”

The tournament is supposed to be a qualifier for the World Championships, but the AASF tends to handpick people they like for the U.S. National Team, usually expats from ex-Soviet nations.

“An American could win the U.S. Open, but instead they’ll pick an expat from Georgia who lives in Brooklyn,” Steve says. The dire state of the AASF was exposed at the 2010 Open when after a string of injuries it became apparent that no medical staff had been brought in to oversee the tournament. There weren’t even basic first aid supplies on-site—not even ice packs. Further shame and embarrassment fell on the AASF when it was revealed afterwards that tournament organizers had not purchased enough accident insurance to cover any injuries.

No good, money launderin’, gambling ring runnin’, judge bribin’ thieves

The AASF’s lack of resources is astonishing considering the organization is linked to some of the most powerful men in Russian organized crime.

In April, AASF executive committee members Arthur Azen and Kiril Rapaport were charged in a massive FBI round-up of linked Russian crime syndicates accused of laundering over $100 million. Azen is allegedly a major player in what the FBI has labeled the Taiwanchik-Trichner and Nahmad-Trichner organizations. He faces 115 years in prison and over two million in fines if convicted of charges including money laundering and extortion in connection to running high-stakes poker games and operating the largest sports book in the world. The gambling ring supposedly catered to ultra-wealthy Russian oligarchs and A-list Hollywood stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon.

Allegedly at the head of the high-stakes ring is notorious Thief-in-Law (the Russian equivalent to the Mafia “Don”) Alimzhan Tokhtakhountov, better known as “Taiwanchik” for his Asian facial features. He is known to hobnob with Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov and tennis players Marat Safin and Anna Kournikova. Remember the ice skating scandal of the 2002 Winter Olympics, when a French judge was bribed to vote for the eventual gold-medal-winning Russian couple? That was Taiwanchik. Although he is still wanted by Interpol for the Olympics fiasco, and now by the FBI, he manages to live freely in Moscow. This may have something to do with the fact that he is good friends with the former chief of Interpol’s Moscow branch. 

To add to the absurdity of it all, the prosecution has also accused Arthur Azen of hiring MMA fighters to collect money from his debtors. According to GalleristNY, while monitoring Azen’s movements, federal agents had to intervene in one confrontation because they felt the debtor was in grave danger. No one I spoke with from the American Sambo community has met either Azen or Rapaport, and little is known about them. And if this dirty money is actually being laundered through the AASF, it’s clear that none of it is being used to revitalize the sport.

Lunch with Putin, and the Malaysia coup

“The first split was a real civil war, with one side wanting to do things one way and the other wanting to do them another way,” Steve says. “What’s happening now is much worse and much pettier and ego-driven. It’s about everyone wanting to be kings of their little kingdoms.”

In February of this year, FIAS Vice President Fazliddin Pulatov wrote a scathing letter addressed to President Shestakov. The letter was posted on the newly-founded Sambo.com, a site that claims to be the only official FIAS site and warns against any other sites making a similar claim. In his letter, Pulatov blames Shestakov for ruining any chance Sambo had at inclusion in the Olympics. He accuses him of embezzling FIAS funds by creating fake federations and states that the only reason Shestakov became president was because of his relationship with Vladimir Putin. The letter rambles on and on; Pulatov calls Shestakov a "pathological coward," "a slave of his greed," and "a laughing stock."

The following month, Shestakov met with his friend Putin, who is himself a high-level sambist and judoka. According to Shestakov, the Premier was impressed with the progress FIAS has made towards the “integration of Sambo into the world sports movement.” Putin also promised to support the effort to get Sambo into the Olympics.

A week later, Shestakov called a FIAS “Executive Committee Meeting.” At this meeting the present members voted out several high-ranking FIAS officers. Vice Presidents David Rudman, Mikhail Shults, Fazliddin Pulatov, and Secretary General Nikolay Lents were removed “for activities of a discrediting nature to the FIAS.” In the meeting notes published on the organization’s Web site, there are no specific details about what these activities might be.

Rudman, Shults, Pulatov, and Lents would not go quietly, though, and a month later they held their own meeting. Not to be outdone by the Shestakov’s “Executive Committee Meeting,” the ousted leaders held the “Extraordinary Congress of FIAS.” The Congress was originally scheduled to coincide with the World Sambo Championships in November. At a conference in Kuala-Lumpur, Malaysia, titled "Perspectives on Worldwide Sambo Development,” the new, rogue FIAS decided to hold an impromptu Extraordinary Congress "in order to prevent the FIAS from the split"—a split that had already happened. The group decided to "annul" President Shestakov's authority. They went on to submit a new senior management roster to the Swiss Trade Register in Cantone Vaud, where FIAS is officially registered. Lentz, who was among those originally voted out, still had the right of executive signature, and the changes went through. So, technically, “rogue” FIAS is now the “real” FIAS. The new document leaves out the leaders of “old” FIAS and proclaims Mikhail Shultz the new president.

Some John Grisham shit

Shortly after news of the coup came out, Old FIAS posted a “Press Review” of the situation. Among the handpicked, pro-Old FIAS articles, is a piece from Russian publication Fontaka that accuses the new President Schultz of being a former member of infamous Russian gang Izmailovo, and even claims that he took part in a motorway shooting “six years ago.” Another article claims that Shultz is actually involved in the Moscow-based Podolsk gang and that he has been detained several times for drug trafficking. The accusations are vague, and no specific sources are given; the info comes from “experts” and “sources close to the situation.” Old FIAS has also released a video that has the feel of a political smear campaign ad. Over black-and-white clips of Rudman and Schultz, the words “Raiders” and “Beware” appear in red block letters. Interestingly, the video appears to contain footage of the committee meeting where the leaders of Rogue FIAS were initially voted out.

“It doesn’t seem real. It’s like some John Grisham shit,” Bodycomb says and shakes his head. Representatives of various national federations who were present at the conference in Malaysia claim that no Extraordinary Congress was held and that they were unaware that any leadership changes had taken place. Old FIAS has labeled the action an attempt by Rudman and Shultz to get their hands on the organization’s banking accounts. Criminal charges, lawsuits, and counter-suits have been fired back and forth. In his letters Pulatov accuses Shestakov of misleading the Sambo community by claiming that the sport is thriving internationally and Olympic acceptance is within sight. This does seem delusional and misleading (barring some serious string-pulling by Putin), especially considering the recent banishment of all forms of wrestling from the games.

There seems to be plenty of blame for the sinking of Sambo to go around. If neither side is guilty of downright corruption, they are certainly guilty of neglect and incompetence. The most sensible solution I can come up with is for there to be a Sambo showdown to decide it all. Settle it on the mats. Shultz vs. Shestakov for sole rule of FIAS! I jokingly ask Steve who he would put money on, but he is unamused by the question and won’t indulge me with an answer. He seems over whatever madness is happening on the other side of the world. He has his own organization to run. He isn’t interested in seeing Sambo in the games anyway.

“The Olympics neuters combat sports,” he says.    

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