Nikolai Valuev and his quest for acceptance

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nikolai Valuev

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Nikolai Valuev was fighting for more than victory when he journeyed to Chicago on October 7, 2006, to defend his heavyweight belt against Monte Barrett. By Thomas Hauser

NIKOLAI VALUEV was born in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) on August 21, 1973. A massive giant of biblical proportions, he stands 7-feet-2-inches tall and weighs over 300 pounds. 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. Everything in his life has been shadowed by his size.

Valuev came from a working-class family. Both of his parents were 5-feet-5-inches tall. But his grandmother told him that his 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 13, Valuev was sent to a boarding school that specialised 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 19, 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.

Valuev was 20 when he took up boxing.

“At first, it was very hard for me,” he later recalled. “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.”

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

Valuev’s first 12 fights under the Sauerland banner were contested in Germany. Over time, the level of opposition improved. Victories over Paolo Vidoz, Gerald Nobles, Attila Levin, Clifford Etienne, and Larry Donald followed. On December 17, 2005, Valuev won a majority decision over John Ruiz to claim the WBA heavyweight belt. Then came a three-round annihilation of Owen Beck that brought his ring record to 45 wins in 45 fights. Had he been a foot shorter and a hundred pounds lighter, he wouldn’t have been much as a fighter. But the same could be said about Shaquille O’Neal as a basketball player.

Valuev entered the ring by stepping over the ropes, not through them. Between rounds, he sat on a custom-made stool. He was labeled “The Beast from the East” and “The Russian Monster” and disliked the nicknames. “My parents called me Nikolai,” he said. “My surname is Valuev. I am Nikolai Valuev. For me, no other name exists. Everything else is for the kindergarten.”

Valuev was also explicit in saying that he did not define himself by his size. He wanted his place in the world to be more like that of everybody else, to not be gawked at as a giant. He thought of himself as an athlete, not just a boxer. And that was secondary to his identity as a husband, father, and friend.

“I like loyalty,” Valuev said in a conversation with this writer. “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.”

The words flowed.

“I am not a machine,” Valuev continued, 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.”

Nikolai’s wife Galina and their son Grishna represented safe harbour for Valuev.

He met Galina in 1999 and was sufficiently enamored to begin writing poetry for her. “The poems are personal,” he explained. “They were written for Galina, and I don’t discuss them. ”

Then, in February 2006, 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 buses 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 got the impression that few things were more upsetting to Valuev than anything that might bring unhappiness to his wife and son.

On October 7, 2006, Valuev defended his WBA belt for the second time against Monte Barrett in Chicago.

Valuev had fought twice before in the United States. On May 31, 1997, he’d 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.

This time, Don King was the promoter of record. The fight marked Valuev’s debut on HBO. Meanwhile, at the kick-off press conference in New York, the hyperbolae were flying.

“He’s the eighth wonder of the world,” King proclaimed. “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 he suit was wearing 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 a further bit of insight shared with this writer.

“I’m not a child,” 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 beautiful packaging for a bad tasting candy.”

Barrett was all but overlooked in the hubbub. He was 35, had fought only twice in the preceding 31 months, and hadn’t been in the ring since losing to Hasim Rahman 14 months earlier. His purse for fighting Valuev would be $175,000.

“Boxing isn’t a sport for me,” Barrett told reporters. “It’s a business.”

In the past, Barrett had experienced difficulty coping with big men like Wladimir Klitschko and Lance Whitaker. Moreover, Valuev had gone 12 rounds on six occasions, winning 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. “But we’ll 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 would tip 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 20.

“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 encounter inside the arena.

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 him up.

Valuev resumed warming up, more intensely now with the trainer issuing instructions. The few times that Nikolai spoke, it had 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 working with Gabrielian for 30 minutes, Valuev sat on a chair in quiet repose. In that moment, he looked more vulnerable than fierce. The playing field in the battle ahead would be more level than most fans thought it would be. Size is just one factor in boxing. Nikolai would have to overcome Barrett’s natural advantage in speed, reflexes, and coordination. He would be called upon to endure physical pain. And if he were felled by the smaller man, he would become an object of derision.

The warm-up began anew. At 10.15, Valuev threw his final punches. Readying to leave the dressing room, he stepped on an HBO cable that had been stretched across the floor, 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.

Valuev was flawed and beatable as a fighter. But he was never easy to beat.

On the downside, he was habitually slow to set his feet and punch with leverage. His repertoire was limited. He telegraphed everything he threw. And he didn’t use his size as well as he could have on the inside. When an opponent tied him up, Nikolai should have leaned on him with all of his weight. But he didn’t. That might have been because he feared having a point taken away by the referee. Or he might not have wanted to be mocked for his size. Whatever the reason, it diminished his effectiveness as a fighter.

Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Bongarts/Getty Images

The other side of the coin was that Valuev’s style allowed him to fight within his limitations. Outstretched, his left hand kept opponents at bay. It was hard to land over or around it. His jab, when used effectively, piled up points. And given his size, he could counter with a right hand over an opponent’s jab. He had good stamina and paced himself well. His work rate was constant throughout a fight. He took a good punch and, when hit, punched back. Also, when he was able to set his feet at proper distance, his blows had concussive force.

In other words; Valuev was predictable. Opponents knew in advance what he was going to do in the ring. Okay; now try to stop it.

It was clear from the opening bell 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 it’s hard to maintain form against a 7-foot-2-inch, 328-pound giant who keeps moving forward. As the bout progressed, Barrett wore down. That allowed Valuev to dictate the pace, and his size became a decided advantage.

Valuev’s arsenal consisted largely of jab-right hand-jab-right hand, 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.

In round 11, the ice cracked. Barrett 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 Monte to the canvas. He rose, badly hurt, and was felled again, this time by an uppercut. At that point, James Bashir jumped into the ring and stopped the carnage.

“People might criticise Valuev but they can’t beat him,” Don King proclaimed 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.”

After beating Barrett, Valuev successfully defended his belt by stoppage over Jameel McCline. Then, on April 14, 2007, he lost a majority decision to Ruslan Chagaev. Victories over Jean-François Bergeron, Serghei Liakhovich, John Ruiz (in a rematch for the newly-vacated WBA belt), and Evander Holyfield followed. In the last fight of his ring career, on November 7, 2009, he was outpointed by David Haye.

Then, plagued by chronic physical problems, including two bad knees (both of which had been operated on), Valuev retired from boxing. His final record showed 50 wins against 2 losses with 34 knockouts. He was never knocked down as an amateur or pro and left a legacy of having always conducted himself in the athletic arena with dignity and personal grace. As a coda to his ring career, in 2011, he was elected to the Russian Parliament.

Thomas Hauser’s most recent bookBroken Dreams: Another Year Inside Boxing – was just published by the University of Arkansas Press. In 2004, the Boxing Writers Association of America honoured Hauser with the Nat Fleischer Award for career excellence in boxing journalism. In 2019, he was selected for boxing’s highest honor – induction into the International Boxing Hall of Fame.

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