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Shooting Death Of Kazakh Boxer Latest In Series Of Suspicious Deaths

Yermek Serikov was known as the "Kazakh Tyson." His trainer described him as a "real man, a bright character."
They called him the "Kazakh Tyson" for his boldness in the ring. His opponents collapsed like paper dolls.

But the rising boxing star is no longer a threat. Yermek Serikov -- Kazakhstan's "brightest boxer and best hope" -- was shot by assailants on August 11, and died within hours.

A car containing bullet casings was found near the scene of the crime. Police say they are investigating the case, but no details have been released.

Serikov's trainer, Vyacheslav Titovsky, thinks the fighter was targeted because of his success.

"He was a good man, a goal-oriented person. He was a real man, a bright character," Titovsky says. "We called him the 'Kazakh Tyson' because he was really fearless. And, you see, his fearlessness brought him to this."

Serikov, 20, was shot in the leg when he stopped at a gas station and subsequently died during surgery.

Many believe organized crime and a new generation of highly paid athletes are contributing to the wave of deadly incidents.

The Kazakh government rewards its winning athletes handsomely -- Serikov had collected at least $300,000 in winnings -- leading to the theory that the attack on his life was an orchestrated assassination attempt by mobsters, possibly as punishment for failing to turn over a portion of his earnings.

Kazakh sports journalist Yessey Zhenisuly agrees, telling RFE/RL that so-called "big crime" is behind the death of the country's three-time Asia boxing champion and the recent deaths of other Kazakh athletes.

"It is not known who killed Yermek Serikov, but it is clear that some kind of big crime is behind it," Zhenisuly says. "[It's] similar to what happened to Askar Shaykhiev, the world champion in wrestling, or to [boxer] Abdisalan Nurmakhanov, or to Kazakhstan's famed boxer Bektas Aubakirov. Also, we should not forget that even [boxer] Yermakhan Ibraimov was severely beaten.

"What we see is our society's inability to cherish its heroes. Or not even cherish -- its inability to even respect them. I think we can even say it's ignoring them."

Vulnerable To Criminals

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, more than 20 prominent sportsmen in former Soviet republics have died under suspicious circumstances.

Many have been in Kazahstan.

The reason that prominent sportsmen are being shot is the fact that after collapse of the Soviet Union the majority of sportsmen were neglected or left to fend for themselves.
Tae Kwon Do master Mustafa Ozturk was poisoned in Almaty in 1993, the same year that field hockey champion Marat Zheksenbayev was knifed to death in his apartment and the corpse of kickboxing champion Erkhan Sadykov was found locked in the trunk of his own car.

In 2000, world freestyle wrestling champion Askar Shaykhiev was shot dead on the street, and veteran boxer Abdisalan Nurmakhanov was shot and killed in his home. Asia boxing champion Bektas Aubakirov was shot in a cafe in 2001, and prominent soccer player Andrei Litvinenko was found dead by hanging in an abandoned building in 2007. The police called it suicide. Litvinenko's father called it murder.

Kyrgyz football coach Boobek Kadyrkulov thinks the Soviet collapse left athletes at a loss, often leaving them vulnerable to criminals or joining crime gangs themselves.

"The reason that prominent sportsmen are being shot is the fact that after collapse of the Soviet Union the majority of sportsmen were neglected or left to fend for themselves. They had no other alternative than to get involved in unethical businesses, such as racketeering," Kadyrkulov says.

"In our republic a number of prominent sportsmen were shot dead in recent years. So, in general, the main reason for the situation is that they are neglected and turn to 'bad' businesses."

New Temptations

Sergei Kanev, a sports crime expert based in Moscow, agrees that many athletes are faced with new temptations, many of them criminal, when they take home their winnings.

"When a lower-class kid becomes a world champion and comes back home, to some extent he starts feeling like a star, like the top man," Kanev says. "He's invited to be a spokesperson for companies. He holds talks on some business groups' behalf.

"In the end, many people, including bandits, absolutely understand these athletes achieved something as sportsmen but have no one to help them if they get into trouble. I think boxers, sportsmen, soccer players should be very careful when representing someone at business negotiations. It seems to me that many of them do not understand that, and die as a result."

It is not just individual athletes who are in peril. A number of boxers and boxing coaches refused to speak with RFE/RL about Serikov's death because they said it would jeopardize their own safety. That alone, Zhenisuly says, is an indication that authorities should be doing more to protect fighters.

"I don't understand why they [boxers] are being killed. I think there are reasons we are not aware of," Zhenisuly says. "It might be interpersonal problems, problems related to sharing something with someone, but the most important thing is the country should be interested in protecting its citizens, because they lend dignity to the country."

Show Me The Money

Boxing is a big deal in Kazakhstan. The 2000 Sydney Games saw the country -- with a population less than half that of California -- put as many fighters in the ring as the United States.

The nation's success is attributed to things like Kipchaki tribal warrior roots, the introduction of Russian fighting techniques in the 1950s and '60s, and unusual training methods, including reports of German shepherds being released on 11- or 12-year-old boxing trainees.

Money is another incentive. Kazakh gold medalists receive $250,000, almost double the amount China gives their gold medalists and 10 times the amount awarded by the U.S. Olympic Committee.

Kazakhstan's boxing program is the country's only entirely government-funded sports program. In a country characterized by extreme class divisions -- nearly 14 percent of the population lives below the poverty line -- one win can usher a fighter of humble origins into the high-stakes world of Kazakhstan's ruling elite.

Often, however, the championship winnings land athletes in trouble. For instance, it was widely speculated that Kazakh boxing champion Bekzat Sattarkhanov refused to share his winnings after beating U.S. fighter Ricardo Juarez at the 2000 Sydney Games, and that his death in a murky traffic accident a few months later came as no coincidence. Accident details were never released. The other two passengers survived.

Zhenisuly agrees that fighters deserve better care.

"In 2004, when Bakhtiyar [Artayev] became a boxing champion at the Olympic Games [in Athens], it was suggested that champions be provided with lifetime pensions and protection, but nothing ever materialized," Zhenisuly says. "For instance, this year 2008 Beijing Olympics champion Ilya Ilyin was knifed. Ilya Ilyin sort of 'forgave' his attackers and the case was closed, but this fact shows that there are some controversial things happening in our society."

A weightlifter who took home a gold medal from Beijing, Ilyim was hospitalized after being injured in a bar fight. Unnamed friends said he had been knifed, but Ilyim refused to discuss the case and said he had been hurt by a broken bottle.

RFE/RL's Kazakh, Kyrgyz, Russian, and Tajik services contributed to this report.

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