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Courting Gangsters: AIBA elects interim president linked to heroin trade, organized crime

Gafur Rakhimov, an Uzbek national linked to the heroin trade and organized crime, has been elected as interim president of amateur boxing’s regulatory body. 


The Amateur International Boxing Association (AIBA) has named one of the alleged leading criminals involved in the heroin trade as its interim president, pending elections in November.

Gafur Rakhimov, AIBA’s longest serving vice-president, was promoted to the position last Saturday, less than a month after being named one of Uzbekistan’s “leading criminals” by the U.S. government. The US treasury department office of foreign assets control (OFAC) has since frozen his assets in the United States and prohibited US-based businesses from conducting financial transactions with the controversial businessman.

The OFAC justified its sanctions on Rakhimov by linking him to the “Thieves-in-Law,” a transnational criminal syndicate based in Eurasia that has been linked to illegal activity around the world. The OFAC designated the Thieves-in-Law as part of a “broader strategy to disrupt the financial infrastructure of transnational criminal organisations that pose a threat to the United States and our allies.”

“Gafur Rakhimov is being designated for providing material support to the Thieves-in-Law,” OFAC Director John E. Smith said in a statement. “Rakhimov has collaborated with Thieves-in-Law on business, as well as assisted Thieves-in-Law by providing warning of law enforcement issues, arranging meetings, and addressing other problems. Rakhimov has been described as having moved from extortion and car theft to becoming one of Uzbekistan’s leading criminals and an important person involved in the heroin trade.”

Following Rakhimov’s promotion, the International Olympic Committee released a statement which highlighted its concern over the crimes that the interim AIBA president had allegedly committed.

“The IOC is extremely worried about the governance in Aiba,” an IOC spokesperson stated. “The IOC chief ethics and compliance officer will give a report to the IOC executive board meeting this upcoming week in Pyeongchang. The IOC executive board will then decide on further measures.”

While Rakhimov’s ascension to the top of the pecking order in international boxing is unsettling, it is the latest in a series of dilemmas that the organization has suffered from over the past few years.

A History of Incompetence

In October 2017, controversial president Wu Ching-kuo was suspended from his role in charge of AIBA after allegations of “financial mismanagement” and widespread corruption surfaced. The suspension — unanimously voted by the disciplinary commission — put an end to Wu’s 11-year leadership at the helm of the organization.

The 70-year-old Wu had been accused of financial negligence after accumulating 15 million Swiss francs worth of debt through questionable management practices. He was also accused of trying to remove AIBA committee members who questioned his authority. Ho Kim, one of the senior executives ousted by Wu in 2015, later claimed that the president had been involved in securing a controversial loan from the Azeri government. The BBC later alleged that this loan was part of a deal to offer Azerbaijani boxers preferential treatment at the London 2012 Games. Ho Kim alleged that Wu was directly involved in the negotiations and eventual signing of the contract.

“A long story to be short, yes, [the] president went to Baku for the final negotiation to sign the investment agreement. After this visit the agreement was signed with the Azeri company based in Switzerland,” Ho Kim said. “However, later Azerbaijan could not do this way and changed the agreement by investing directly from Azerbaijan – we had to sign the agreement again. Yes, [the] president was involved [in] all negotiations and progresses from the start to the end of this deal.”

The aforementioned financial revelations surfaced just a few months before the AIBA was plunged into a serious of scandalous corruption allegations at the Rio 2016 Summer Games. The Guardian reported through senior executives within the governing body for amateur boxing that match-fixing could have factored into several boxing matches at the 2016 Games, including the medal matches. Some claimed that a network of corrupted officials decided the score on certain bouts.

The match fixing controversy erupted after Irish boxer Michael Conlan lost a questionable bantamweight quarter-final bout against Russia’s Vladimir Nikitin. Conlan grabbed a ringside microphone after his loss and announced that amateur boxing is “known for being cheats.” This was followed by several other suspect losses, including Gary Antuanne Russell’s loss to Fazliddin Gaibnazarov.

At the time, AIBA vehemently denied the allegations:

“Boxing is a sport which triggers a lot of passion and sometimes people tend to behave as fans and not as boxing experts, which is prejudicial to the reputation of our sport. As for any Olympic Games, the expectations are very high and we can understand the importance of winning a medal,” a AIBA spokesman said, “However, our role is to ensure a fair and transparent competition and that the thousands of spectators and millions of fans enjoy an amazing tournament with 13 great and undisputed gold medallists. We reiterate that, unless tangible proof is put forward, not just rumours, we cannot further comment on these allegations.”

By October 2016, however, AIBA had suspended all 36 officials involved in the Rio Olympics pending an investigation. By early 2017, the special investigation committee had deemed that there had been a lack of “proper procedural norms” and a host of other issues that likely impacted “in-competition best practice.” The special committee added that none of the suspected officials can resume their duties in the sport until they have been cleared by AIBA.

The long list of controversies and scandals that plagued AIBA over the past few years played a pivotal role in exasperating fatigue in Wu’s turbulent tenure as president of the organization. However, this does not explain the decision to replace the controversial former president with an alleged criminal kingpin from Uzbekistan.

Courting Gangsters

The history of criminal syndicates being involved in boxing dates back well over a century. Former heavyweight champion John L. Sullivan’s championship bid in 1892 was funded by a Chicago crime boss. Jake La Motta — the subject of Martin Scorsese’s sports film Raging Bull — cooperated with the mob when he threw a fight against Billy Fox in 1947. Up until then, he had refused to work with the mob, which ran boxing in the 1940s-50s. La Motta won the middleweight title two years after throwing the fight.

La Motta’s 1947 loss to Billy Fox was fixed by Frank ‘Blinky’ Palermo, an associate in the Philadelphia crime family who owned several fighters under the table including World Welterweight champions Virgil Akins and Johnny Saxton, and owned a share of heavyweight champ Sonny Liston’s contract as well. At the time, Liston’s contract was controlled by St. Louis mobster John Vitale. By 1960, however, Palermo was subpoenaed to appear before the Senate investigation committee into the mob’s control of boxing. Though he pleaded the Fifth Amendment, Palermo was arrested the following year and charged with conspiracy and extortion against welterweight champion Don Jordan. He was sentenced to 25 years.

Mob involvement in boxing continued well into the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. In 1993, the U.S. Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations held a series of hearings on organized crime’s connection to boxing. By April, former crime underboss Salvatore ‘Sammy the Bull’ Gravano testified that the crime family he was associated to, the Gambinos, had ties to former welterweight champion James ‘Buddy’ McGirt’s managers, Al Certo, and Stuart Weiner.

“The interest today (for organized crime) is in getting a piece of a successful boxer,’ Gravano said at the Senate hearing in 1993. ‘Once a boxer becomes successful, the family that has him can profit from that success.”

Gravano, a federal prisoner and government informant who helped put away crime boss John Gotti, also testified that boxing promoter Don King has ties to the Gambino family. King is the promoter behind events such as “The Rumble in the Jungle,” “The Thirlla in Manilla” and has been involved with some of the biggest names in boxing, including Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Evander Holyfield, Ricardo Mayorga, Bernard Hopkins, and Mike Tyson.

Given boxing’s history of courting gangsters, it comes at little surprise that the newly elected president of amateur boxing’s governing body has alleged ties to organized crime.

According to the OFAC, Gafur Rakhimov collaborated with Thieves-in-Law on business dealings and provided material support to the syndicate. Once a local criminal involved in extortion and car theft, he is now believed to be one of the most powerful criminals in Uzbekistan and an important person involved in the heroin trade. He is also reportedly a member of the so-called ‘Brother’s Circle,’ an international criminal group involved in drug trafficking.

Despite the reputation that precedes him, Rakhimov plans to tackle several of the key challenges facing AIBA.

“First of all, AIBA has huge financial liabilities, which need to be addressed urgently,” Rakhimov told Around the Rings. “And I can tell you that we are already making good progress as the Executive Committee, including me, has been working effectively together as a team. AIBA’s corporate governance and transparency were damaged by the previous management. We need to rebuild these and give them a strong foundation.

“The image and reputation of AIBA have also been seriously tarnished. The organization will now have to work hard to recover its lost credibility.”

As for his reason for taking on the leadership role, Rakhimov believes his passion for boxing and 30 years of experience make him a perfect candidate for the organization.

“I couldn’t turn my face away when my beloved sport and organization needed my help.”

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