By Alex Distefano
By Scott Snowden
By Anna Merlan
By Steve Almond
By Jena Ardell
By Jon Campbell
By Alan Scherstuhl
By Tessa Stuart
It is a law of sports physics that to make your mark as a boxer you either move up to heavyweight or die trying. Before his mysterious disappearance in November 1995, cruiserweight contender Sergei Kobozev seemed to have mastered the sweet science. A few years after he emigrated to Brooklyn from St. Petersburg, Russia, the 31-year-old Kobozev was set to bag his second major cruiserweight belt and $100,000 to boot. But a few months before his bout, he was brutally murdered by New York's roughest Russian mob crew.
Even now, after two of the three men accused of his murder were recently convicted in a Manhattan federal court and details of Kobozev's death finally emerged, no one but the killers knows the full story. The fact that Alexander Nosov, Vasiliy Ermichine, and Natan Gozmanthe three men indicted for the murderworked for Brighton Beach's Russian mafia group called the "Brigade," and that Gozman is still at large only seems to fan the flames of rumor on the boxing scene. "When he got killed, I was shocked. I got the feeling in my gut that there's more than meets the eye here," says Tommy Gallagher, Kobozev's former trainer at Gleason's Gym in Brooklyn. "This guy was a moneymaker. They're going to tell these guys to whack this kid? There had to be something more to it."
There definitely was more to Sergei Kobozev than his violent end. He first earned his rep fighting for the Soviet national boxing team at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. When he moved to Brighton Beach in 1991 he was part of a wave of Soviet bloc boxers recruited by Gallagher to go pro in the States. If it can be said that Gallagher's "Russian Invasion" briefly took American boxing by storm in the early '90s, then Kobozev was the thunder.
By the time Kobozev absorbed his first loss to cruiserweight challenger Marcello Dominguez in October 1995, he had won 22 consecutive bouts (including one against current WBA heavyweight champ John Ruiz), among them 17 knockouts. Norman "Stoney" Stone, Ruiz's longtime trainer, remembers Kobozev as "a tough kid." "There's no doubt he could have been a heavyweight contender," Stoney says. Of course Gallagher agrees, saying, "He was so easy to work with. He was a great boxer."
When Kobozev disappeared on November 8, 1995, it was such a mystery that his common-law wife, Lina Cherskikh, and Gallagher even consulted Russian émigré psychics about it. The psychics hinted that he might have left Cherskikh for another woman. Weighing in at 190 pounds and just a little over six feet, with blue eyes, light brown hair, and clean-cut good looks, Kobozev sometimes "got into trouble with women," says one friend. Kobozev apparently didn't need the money he earned from his weekend work as a bouncer at the Paradise restaurant, a hot spot in Sheepshead Bay's Russian émigré community. A close friend says Kobozev kept his job at Paradise "for the broads."
It took nearly four years for Brooklyn homicide detectives and the FBI to discover for sure that Kobozev hadn't gone on a romp. His corpse turned up with a broken neck in March 1999 in a shallow grave in the backyard of a home owned by Alexander Spitchenko of Livingston, New Jersey. As it turned out, Kobozev lost his last fight during a confrontation with hoods in an auto-body shop on East 15th Street in Brooklyn. Spitchenko, after making a deal with authorities, laid out the story in court.
Spitchenko, who arrived in Brighton Beach in 1991, was not only a master extortionist; he later became the Brigade's No. 2 man in New York. By Spitchenko's own account given at Nosov and Ermichine's trial in early December, the Brigade (headed by famed godfather Vyacheslav Ivankov until 1995) ran "hundreds" of protection scams on Brighton Beach businesses. "We strong-armed people and collected money, extorted, stole, did counterfeit credit cards," Spitchenko explained to a hushed courtroom. When the Brigade's victims refused to cooperate, Spitchenko offered a solution: "We beat them up."
The Brigade's operations added up to a smorgasbord of petty theft, prostitution, and, most importantly, protection rackets. In one extortion case described by Spitchenko, he and Ermichine raided a Brooklyn clothing retailer and made off with $3000 worth of high-quality suits. The heist was only one part of an elaborate ruse the Brigade deployed to force the petrified store owner to accept their protection scheme. Soon after the robbery, Ermichine returned to the store with Spitchenko in tow. "I had a baseball bat on me," Spitchenko told jurors. "The owner of the store was hiding from us." He said he shouted at the owner, "If we catch you, we'll break your legs."
During the trial, Spitchenko gave detailed testimony on Brigade operations and Kobozev's run-in with Nosov, Gozman, and Ermichine on that chilly November afternoon in 1995. The boxer had gone to the auto-body shop to have his car worked on. Instead, he was the one who got worked on.
Spitchenko and several other members of the Brigade were indicted on federal racketeering charges in the spring of 1999. In exchange for testifying against his friends, Spitchenko copped to charges of racketeering and accessory to murder. He got a plea deal that will reduce his sentence and place his family in the Federal Witness Protection Program.
Prosecutors used Spitchenko's testimony to support their theory that when the hoods saw Kobozev at the auto-body shop, the Brigade's 24-year-old bad boy Nosov was still smarting from a bar brawl he was involved in that Kobozev had broken up at Paradise a couple of days before. Defense lawyers attempted to portray the brawl as an extension of Spitchenko's rumored feud with the club's former owner, Valera Zimnovitsch. A sources familiar with the case doubts the prosecution's theory that Nosov's loss of face to Kobozev at Paradise was the only motive for the killing.
Daniel Nobel, defense attorney for Ermichine, says a court ruling on his cross-examination of Spitchenko prevented him from countering the mob boss's testimony against his client. "He's basically a dirtbag," Nobel says of Spitchenko. "But he claims to have undergone this very radical change of character since he was arrested." Though Nobel says he considers the Kobozev murder a secondary element of the much larger case against his client, he speculated that Kobozev's relationship with Paradise owner Zemnovitsch might not have been entirely innocent. "In his testimony, Zemnovitsch described his relationship with Kobozev as 'friendly,' "says Nobel. "I would hazard a guess that if you dig deeply enough you might unearth at least a friendly relationship between Zemnovitsch and a lot of the people the government is currently investigating."
Nakhman Gluzman, a worker at the garage where Kobozev was killed, testified that the boxer did not seem surprised when Nosov and his friends showed up. Instead of kicking up a fuss, Kobozev allowed Nosov to throw an arm around his shoulder and guide him to a small office attached to the garage. In court, Assistant U.S. Attorney Robert Buehler attributed the false camaraderie to Kobozev's overconfidence in his fighting skills. "As a professional fighter, Kobozev probably thought he had nothing to worry about," said Buehler.
The truth about what Kobozev and Nosov discussed may never be revealed. What is certain, at least according to testimony, is that in the heat of the struggle Nosov pulled out a gun and shot Kobozev in the back. Minutes after the shot, Gozman and Nosov hefted the crumpled boxer to their Grand Cherokee and dumped him in the back. Still conscious during the first few minutes of his journey to his grave in Spitchenko's backyard, prosecutors said, Kobozev "begged for his life." But a mercy plea to Spitchenko's boys proved a waste of his breath.
After depositing Kobozev's black-and-white 1988 Chevy Blazer just a few miles from the garage at a 24-hour restaurant called the Petrina Diner, the men drove around aimlessly for hours, according to testimony, while they cooked up a plan to get rid of Kobozev's body. It was late at night when they finally arrived on Spitchenko's doorstep in New Jersey looking for a way out. In his testimony, Spitchenko insisted that he did not take part in the actual murder and that it was Ermichine who broke Kobozev's neck. Whatever the case, that night in Jersey, Kobozev was KO'd for good.
With Gozman still on the loose, the only thing Kobozev's friends and family have to look forward to is Nosov and Ermichine's sentencing in May. Seven years after the boxer's death the only thing those who knew him are certain of is that Kobozev did not go down without a fight. "Even when he lost, he maintained his dignity. He kept his head up," Gallagher said.