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26 OCTOBER 2014

 

Nikolai Valuev: More Than Meets The Eye


Valuev floors Barrett (pic DKP)
Valuev floors Barrett (pic DKP)

By Thomas Hauser
Let's start with some thoughts from Nikolai Valuev himself. He was born in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) on August 21, 1973. He's the World Boxing Association heavyweight champion, stands 7-feet-2-inches tall, weighs 328 pounds, and has 45 wins in 45 fights.

Given his size, Valuev enters the ring by stepping over the ropes, not through them. Between rounds, he sits on a custom-made stool. He has been labeled "The Beast from the East," "The Russian Monster," and more. He dislikes the nicknames. "My parents called me Nikolai," he says. "My surname is Valuev. I am Nikolai Valuev. For me, no other name exists. Everything else is for the kindergarten."

The words flow. "I am not a machine," Valuev continues, the gravitas of his remarks etched on his face. "I am not a piece of meat. I am not a circus show. I am a normal human being. I have human feelings. I have a beautiful family. I have many friends. I like good music, classical music. I read books. People sometimes do not treat me like a human being because of my size. They make a sensation. I try to not take it personally because they do not know me as a person. But there are times when it hurts me inside."

Valuev comes from a working-class Soviet family. Both of his parents were 5-feet-5-inches tall. But his grandmother says that Nikolai's great-great-grandfather was "a giant of a man" named Vasily and a direct descendant of the Tartars (a Mongolian tribe that overran parts of Asia and Europe in the 13th century).

At age thirteen, Valuev was sent to a boarding school that specialized in sports. Soon, he was playing on a team that won a junior-level national basketball championship. Then his interests broadened to include track and field. At age nineteen, he won a national junior title in the discus and was invited to attend the Institute of Sport in Leningrad with an eye toward competing in the 1996 Olympics. At the institute, he caught the eye of a boxing trainer named Oleg Shalaev.

At age twenty, Valuev took up boxing. "At first, it was very hard for me," he says. "Most boxers begin at a much younger age, and everything was new to me. I had never thrown a punch in my life. Punching the heavy bag, shadow-boxing, sparring, even skipping rope was a challenge."

Valuev turned pro in late 1993 and, because of his size, was marketed as a "special attraction" on fight cards in Japan, Korea, Australia, Russia, Belarus, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, and England. Then, in 2003, he signed a promotional agreement with Wilfried Sauerland. That led to improved training (with Manuel Gabrielian), better sparring partners, and hope.

"Everything changed when I began with Wilfried Sauerland," Valuev says. "He showed me respect as a boxer and helped me to become more professional. That made me want to work harder in training to become the best boxer that I can be."

Valuev's first twelve fights under the Sauerland banner were held in Germany. Over time, the level of opposition improved. On December 17, 2005, he wrested the WBA title from John Ruiz on a controversial majority-decision. That was followed by a three-round annihilation of Owen Beck in June of this year.

Valuev is explicit in saying that does not define himself by his size or his craft. He thinks of himself as an athlete, not just a boxer. And both of those considerations are secondary to his role as a husband, father, and friend.

Valuev listens earnestly when questioned and answers with no apparent artifice. "I like loyalty," he says. "I like it when people say what they mean and stand by it. I hate injustice. I want my family to be provided for well and to have a good place in this world."

One gets the impression that, for much of his life, Valuev has wanted his own place in the world to be more like that of everybody else; to not be gawked at as a giant. In that regard, his wife Galina and their son Grishna represent safe harbor for him.

Valuev met Grishna in 1999 and was sufficiently enamored that he began writing poetry for her. "The poems are personal," he says. "They were written for Galina, and I don't discuss them. All I will tell you is that she didn't throw them back at me. She still has all of the poems."

In February of this year, Valuev's image took a hit when he was accused of assaulting a 61-year-old parking attendant named Yuri Sergaev outside the Spartak Ice Palace in St. Petersburg. According to the attendant, Galina had parked illegally in a space reserved for busses and he told her to move her car. She then telephoned Nikolai, who came to the arena, dragged the attendant to a ventilation shed, and beat him. Valuev countered that his wife called him in tears and said that, as she was taking Grishna to the ice rink, Sergaev yelled at her and mocked her. He then rushed to Spartak to defend her.

"He insulted my wife," Valuev explained. "I grabbed him by the collar to bring him to his senses. I did not hit this man. There was a lot of ice in the parking lot. He slipped and fell. I sincerely regret the conflict but you have to understand; I acted like any normal man in my position would, whether he was the world champion or a simple engineer."

Sergaev was treated for a concussion and facial bruises. One gets the impression that few things are more upsetting to Valuev than anything that might bring unhappiness to his wife and son.

Valuev had fought twice in the United States prior to last week's journey to Chicago. On May 31, 1997, he knocked out Terrell Nelson in two rounds. Four years later, he disposed of George Linberger in one stanza. Both of those bouts were in Atlantic City. The second was notable because it was co-promoted by Don Elbaum, who hosted a pre-fight press conference at the Russian Tea Room in New York. "Blini and caviar will be served," the media advisory promised. At least there were blini. But more notably, Elbaum was asked on that long-ago-day if Valuev was really 7-feet-2-inches tall. "Actually, he's seven-three," the promoter confided. "But I didn't want to scare anyone."

HBO and Don King (who co-promotes Valuev with Sauerland) had no such qualms when it came to the October 7th match-up between Valuev and Monte Barrett. This was Nikolai's coming out party in the United States, and the network fashioned a promotional campaign that featured vertical wallscapes instead of the customary horizontal billboards. Meanwhile, at the August 30th kick-off press conference in New York, the hyperbolae were flying.

Valuev's reputation precedes him. Before he enters a room, people wait in anticipation. They've heard the numbers, but they want to see for themselves how big he really is.

The answer, it was revealed, is that Valuev is massive; huge, a giant of biblical proportions. His size is accentuated by a protruding forehead with large bumps (frontal bossing) that are a normal part of his brow but look as though they were raised by blows.

"He's the eighth wonder of the world," King proclaimed in New York. "He's the jolly red giant. King Kong. He picked up the Empire State Building. He's faster than a speeding bullet. He can leap over the Sears Tower in a single bound. Is he a bird? Is he a plane? He's Super Nikolai Valuev."

Valuev sat stoically through it all. When the press conference was over, Alan Hopper (King's director of public relations) complimented the fighter on the stylish pinstripe suit he'd worn and told him, "The media will like that. It's a sign of respect for them and the sport."

"Thank you," Valuev responded. "But I don't wear the suit and tie for them. I wear it because I respect myself."

That was followed by further bit of insight. "I'm not a child anymore," Valuev said. "I know for sure that I get everything now because people want something from me. As soon as they don't need me anymore, all appearances will vanish. That's like a beautiful packaging for a bad tasting candy."

Meanwhile, Barrett was all but overlooked in the hubbub. This was only his third fight since March 2004, and he hadn't been in the ring since losing to Hasim Rahman in August 2005. He's 35 years old and, in the past, had experienced difficulty coping with big men such as Lance Whitaker and Wladimir Klitschko. His purse for the Valuev bout would be $175,000. "Boxing isn't a sport for me," Monte told reporters. "It's a business."

The Barrett camp knew that Valuev had been in close fights against John Ruiz and Larry Donald and had dominated Attila Levin, Clifford Etienne, and Owen Beck. It also knew that he had gone twelve rounds on six occasions and won each time.

"There will be times when Monte has to fight with him and not just box," James Bashir (Barrett's trainer) said two days before the fight in Chicago. "But we'd like to pick our spots." As for Valuev's height, Bashir said optimistically, "Hit him in the body and, all of a sudden, he'll be six-seven."

Still, there was a 106-pound weight differential to deal with (Valuev had tipped the scales at 328 pounds to Barrett's 222). And Bashir was unhappy with the fact that the Illinois Boxing Commission had okayed an 18-foot ring rather than the traditional twenty. "Trust me; those two feet make a difference," he said. Then, the night before the fight, Team Barrett went to the arena, measured the ring, and found that it had shrunk to 16-feet-9-inches. They threatened to call the fight off and the 18-foot ring was restored.

There was an almost preternaturnal calm in Valuev's dressing room before the fight. An hour before the bout, his hands taped, Nikolai paced back and forth. There was no music. No one talked. Roars from the crowd filtered into the room as Thomas Adamek and Paul Briggs battled furiously in a light-heavyweight title encounter.

Valuev kept moving . . . pacing . . . stretching . . . shadow-boxing. At one point, he bent over at the waist and touched his palms flat against the floor with ease despite wearing braces on both knees.

Manuel Gabrielian gloved his fighter up, and the warm-up intensified with the trainer issuing instructions. The few times that Valuev spoke, it was softly and in Russian, having to do with an equipment adjustment or request for water. His shoes were retied. His protective cup was repositioned beneath his trunks. Each sequence of hitting the pads was more intense than the one before.

After a half-hour of working with Gabrielian, Valuev sat on a chair in quiet repose. In that moment, he looked more vulnerable than fierce. The playing field was more level than most fans thought it was. Size is just one facet of boxing. In the battle to come, he would have to overcome Barrett's natural advantage in reflexes, coordination, and speed. He would be called upon to endure physical pain. And if he were felled by the smaller man, he would become the subject of derision.

The warm-up process resumed. At 10:15, Valuev threw his final punches. As he was readying to leave the dressing room, he stepped on an HBO cable, felt the weight of his body at an awkward angle on his ankle, and uttered a word in Russian that sounded as though it had four letters. The ring-walk followed.

From the opening bell, it was clear that Barrett had come to fight. In the early going, he set a fast pace, stayed in the center of the ring, and got off first, landing stiff jabs and overhand rights. He also managed to keep Valuev turning, which denied Nikolai the time he needed to set his feet and punch with leverage. But as the bout progressed, Monte began to wear down and lost form. That allowed Valuev to dictate the pace, and his size became a decided advantage.

Valuev's arsenal consists largely of jab-righthand-jab-righthand with an occasional uppercut. But it was enough. In round eight, a chopping right hand that was more of a cuff put Barrett down. Monte was skating on thin ice; and in round eleven, the ice cracked. He was sufficiently exhausted that Valuev was able to set his feet and put his weight behind his punches. A roundhouse right that would have hurt anyone landed flush and sent Barrett to the canvas. He rose, badly hurt, and was felled again, this time by an uppercut. At that point, responding to the urging of cornerman Jimmy Glenn, James Bashir jumped into the ring and stopped the carnage.

So . . . What is one to make of Nikolai Valuev?

For starters, boxing has never seen anything quite like him. And don't reference Primo Carnera in response to that statement, because many of Carnera's fights in America were fixed.

Valuev is boxing's longest-reigning heavyweight beltholder and the wild card in the heavyweight division. His strengths and shortcomings are magnified by his size, and it's worth taking a look at both sides of the ledger.

On the downside, Valuev is slow to set his feet and punch with leverage. His repertoire is limited and he telegraphs everything he throws. His size and skill-level dictate what he does in the ring. By definition, there is no "Plan B." Also, Valuev doesn't use his size as well as he should on the inside. When an opponent ties him up, he should lean on him with all 328 pounds and shake him (think Lennox Lewis). But he doesn't. He's still fighting by amateur rules. Maybe that's because he's afraid of losing points or appearing to be the bad guy, but it diminishes his effectiveness as a fighter.

The other side of the coin is that Valuev has a style that allows him to fight within his limitations. He has good stamina and paces himself well. His work rate is constant throughout a fight. He takes a good punch and, when hit, punches back.

It's hard to maintain form against a 7-foot-2-inch 328 pound fighter who keeps moving forward. To be stalked by such a menacing presence must, by definition, evoke a large measure of concern in the bravest of men.

If Valuev were a foot shorter, he wouldn't be much; but neither would Shaquille O'Neal. And yes, Nikolai is predictable offensively. Opponents know what he's going to do in advance. Okay; now try to stop him.

Outstretched, Valuev's left hand can keep an opponent at bay. It's hard to land over or around it. When used effectively, it piles up points. Given his size, Nikolai can counter with a right hand over an opponent's jab. And when he's able to set his feet at proper distance, his blows have concussive force.

In sum, Valuev is not a novelty act. He's flawed and beatable but won't be easy to beat. The key to his future rests on the degree to which he keeps improving as a fighter and whether his knees (both of which have been operated upon) betray him.

"Nikolai is ready to fight the other champions now," Wilfried Sauerland said after Valuev's demolition of Monte Barrett. And ready or not, he's the only heavyweight on the scene today with the potential to attract the attention of the American public. Commercially and competitively, he's a force to be reckoned with.

Don King is never at a loss for words. As far as the promotion of a prizefight is concerned, King and Valuev go together like peanut butter and jelly.

"People might criticize Valuev but they can't beat him," King said at the post-fight victory party. "No one says that Nikolai is Muhammad Ali but he's improving all the time. I'm elated and my heart rejoices when I think about the possibilities and potentialities of Nikolai Valuev. All roads lead to the giant."

Thomas Hauser can be reached by email at thauser@rcn.com



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