Getting Out of Kazakhstan With $65K in a Suitcase
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because some bad ideas are so bad they’re almost good.
You ever have one of those friends who could routinely be counted on, no matter how daft the task, to do just about anything for a desired reward? Jump down a flight of stairs for a candy bar? Taunt a vicious dog for a bag of chips? Stick your hand in a dark hole for kicks and giggles?
Well, chances are if you haven’t had a friend like that, YOU are the friend like that. In this instance, though, that friend’s always been me. Fear was just a measure of bravery, and being scared was never a reason not to do something. Which is what I thought when I got a call from Frederico Lapenda: “Hey, man, get me a copy of your passport. We’re going to Russia.”
Never mind that he and I had never spoken before. He had been vouched for by a close friend, so I did what he said. The occasion? Doing color commentary for German TV coverage of the World Vale Tudo fight championship. Touted as the only true “no-holds-barred” mixed martial arts competition by Lapenda, it tended to live up to its promise even if, during the pre-fight rules meetings, he discouraged (but did not outlaw) eye gouges, fish hooking and other techniques that today would be widely held to be dirty or outright illegal. But this was the late 1990s. And things were different.
Especially in Eastern Europe — in that instance, St. Petersburg, Russia, which had it all. Especially if by “all” you meant butcher stores stocked with only one cut of mystery meat; impossibly thin, well-made-up women loitering in the lobby of the Hotel Moscow, where we stayed; a fight venue surrounded by Rolls Royces in a country full of smoking, broken-down Trabants; and warnings to not go anywhere alone.
And still I took myself for a walk a few blocks from the hotel, only to return after some laborers started eyeballing me. As I approached, I realized they were eyeballing my $50 leather shoes. Yup. Time to fold it.
Despite getting back to the U.S. without major incident or injury, I couldn’t help but feel I had dodged a bullet.
With 14.93 million people in Kazakhstan in 1999, all of them likely to find $65,000 a pretty tasty windfall, these just seemed like bad odds.
But then there was the burgeoning friendship with Lapenda — a prime example of a self-made man who, through sheer power of will, smarts and flying by the seat of his pants, made stuff happen. He was sort of like a Brazilian Zorba the Greek whose life philosophy influenced my own for at least a year after meeting him. Never saw him get angry or ruffled. Instead, it was every bit about “let’s make this work.”
The next time he called, from Los Angeles, he said, “I got some work for you, man.”
“What kind of work?”
“Have you ever been to Kazakhstan?” And he said it just like that, flourish and all. “Well, I’m going to send you there.”
“I’m in. For what, though?”
“The biggest fight event that part of the world has ever seen!” He was, after all, a fight promoter. Don King. Dana White. Showmen first and foremost. “I’ll have fighters and fight teams from all over Eastern Europe there. It’ll be great.”
As a journalist, I thought it would seem so.
“Great. You going to send me a ticket?”
“Yes. And a few other things. I need to have you carry the show check too.” Have you ever seen someone win some jackpot at a casino or the Publishers Clearing House sweepstakes? He was talking about that giant cardboard cutout of a check.
“Whatever you do, never accept a giant check,” Todd Hester, founder of Gladiator Magazine, had told me a few days earlier. Information, at the time, I found merely amusing, considering no one had ever offered me one before.
“OK. The show check. And you are going to have an interpreter for me?”
“Yes. Also, at the show’s end, would you bring back the show receipts AND the show check?”
“Why don’t you bring them back yourself?”
“Well, I’m not going to be there.”
“You’re not going?! You’re the organizer! Who’s going to organize in your stead?”
“Well, you. That’s why I’m sending you over.”
“What? OK. So you want me to bring back the show check and the big, giant check?”
“No checks! Cash. Bring back the cash and the big, giant check.”
“How MUCH cash?”
“I don’t know. Maybe $65,000. AND the cardboard check.”
“You going to give me an escort? I don’t mean a prostitute. I mean a bodyguard.”
“Oh, you don’t need a bodyguard,” Lapenda laughed.
“Why don’t YOU go and do this?”
“It’s too dangerous. And I have kids.”
“Hey, man! I have kids too!”
“Look. I have a meeting right now. Think about it and get back to me in the next hour.” The line went dead, leaving me to contemplate getting out of Kazakhstan with $65,000 in a suitcase — and a big, giant check. Sort of like the world’s worst first person shooter video game. But I’d have nothing to shoot back with. And with 14.93 million people in Kazakhstan in 1999, all of them likely to find $65,000 a pretty tasty windfall, these just seemed like bad odds.
Fifty-nine minutes later, I called Lapenda back. “Can’t do it, my man.”
“Yes, you can.”
“No. Really. I can’t.”
“No. You’re doing it. You can’t let an opportunity like this get by you.”
And then I made the telltale pause. “Umm …”
“I’ll call you back soon!”
So a solution presented itself. I ducked calls from Lapenda for a week. And then they stopped coming. But I’ve never stopped wondering what happened to him and that suitcase brimming with cash.