Size Matters

With his Shaqlike dimensions and fearsome features, Nikolay Valuev--history's tallest heavyweight champ--intimidates foes and titillates fans, but can Don King's colossus fight?
October 08, 2006

El ToroMolina--he is our greatest, the greatest of all ... he is gigantesco, with theneck and the shoulders of a fighting bull and muscles in his arms as big asmelons and legs as strong as the great quebracho trees of the Andes. --SeñorAcosta in The Harder They Fall by Budd Schulberg

In recent yearsthe ring entrance has become an ever more vital part of boxing's absurdistpageantry. With hopes of giving themselves a psychological edge, fighters havearrived in the ring aboard motorcycles and makeshift thrones. To show he was,as he said, "all business," Winky Wright recently stepped onto thecanvas wearing a three-piece suit. To underscore his agility, Prince NaseemHamed once did a flip over the turnbuckle.

But for a spectacle of sheer menace, nothing can match the prefight processionof Nikolay Valuev. If history is any indication, when the 33-year-old Russianheavyweight fights Monte Barrett on Saturday night at the Allstate Arena nearChicago, he will leave the locker room in a robe that can't quite cover thethick hair that carpets his chest, back and shoulders. He'll walk methodically,his eyes wide open, as if he's forgotten how to blink. When he reaches thering, he'll lift a leg and simply step over the top rope. "I can see fearin the other corner when I do that," Valuev, speaking through hisomnipresent interpreter, says with a laugh that originates deep in his belly."You can do that when you're my size."

Here's what elseyou can do when you're 7 feet tall and weigh 325 pounds: Even though armed withonly rudimentary boxing skills, you can become the heavyweight champion of theworld.

In what is eithera sad commentary on the state of the division or an encouraging commentary onthe global appeal of boxing, there is no American atop the heavyweight ranks.The four current belt holders all hail from former Soviet states. (Let's getready to ... spell-check!) While the IBF's Wladimir Klitschko (Ukraine), theWBO's Sergei Liakhovich (Belarus) and the WBC's Oleg Maskaev (Kazakhstan) areeach good, if unremarkable, fighters, it's hard to know whether Valuev, the WBAchamp, achieved his status simply by dint of his size. "I'd be champtoo," Jamaica's Owen Beck said after getting KO'd by Valuev, "if everyguy I fought came up to my rib cage."

When Valuev meetsBarrett, he'll be aiming for his 45th straight win against zero defeats. ButValuev is sufficiently self-aware to know that his real battle isn't againstBarrett but rather against perception. "I will show that I am not just abig guy who happens to fight," he says. "I am a fighter who happens tobe big."

It's hard toexaggerate Valuev's size. Built to nearly the exact specs of Shaquille O'Neal,Valuev often stands a full foot taller than his opponents. His fists are thesize of melons. His head, one foe said, is "the size of a Volkswagen."Nicknamed "the Beast from the East," Valuev has been likened to everymythical giant from Gargantua to Shrek. Suffice it to say, this is not a manwho needs to wear vertical stripes.

Valuev's storybegins in the guts of cold war Russia. His father worked in a Leningrad factoryrepairing radios. His mother worked for the military. Nikolay grew up with fewmaterial trappings, but didn't know better. "You shared toys, sharedclothes, shared everything," says Valuev, who was born in 1973."Everyone had the same, because that was the system."

By age 16 Nikolaywas 6'8" and weighed north of 250 pounds. Since his parents were ofunremarkable size, the consensus was that Nikolay was blessed--or, cursed--witha hyperactive pituitary gland. He has a different theory. One of hisgreat-great-grandfathers was a colossus who was said to have descended fromTatars, the Mongolian tribe that once invaded Russia. Surely Nikolay hademerged from that gene pool. "Very early on, I knew that my size wassomething I was going to have to accept," he says. "You want people toaccept you for who you are inside, but I've always been Big Nikolay."

By his late teensValuev had reached 7 feet. He was no natural athlete, but because of his sizehe played on a team that won the Russian junior basketball championship, and heset his sights on making the Olympics in the discus and the hammer throw. Hewas 19 when he stumbled--literally--into boxing. The wife of one of his coachesat the Institute for Sport in St. Petersburg saw this behemoth with the size(and the agility) of the Winter Palace and suggested he lace up a pair ofgloves. "I had never punched anyone in my life," Valuev recalls.

Still, boxing fedsomething in him, and he spent hours in the gym trying to improve his footworkand fitness. He sparred, figuring out how to angle his punches at shorter men."From the beginning [boxing] was a way to prove something to myself,"he says, "that I am a real man." By 1993, when he was 20, Valuev wasfighting professionally, larding his record against inept unknowns. But he wasmarketed as a freak instead of a credible athlete. "It was no dignity,"he says wistfully, "and not much money either."

His fate changedin 2003 when he crossed paths with a German promoter, Wilfried Sauerland, whobelieved that Valuev could become a bona fide fighter. Working by then with awell-regarded trainer, Manuel Gabrielian, Valuev upped the caliber of hisopposition. At times he seemed to be doing a slow pantomime of a boxer,throwing sluggish punches while pawing at his opponent in the manner of aplayful bear. At times he was devastating: Fighting Paolo Vidoz of Italy inOctober 2004, Valuev threw a right hand that not only ended the bout but alsobroke his opponent's jaw in two places. At other times Valuev's mere presencehas won him the fight. In 2005 Clifford Etienne was set to fight Valuev. Thenhe got to the weigh-in. "Nobody told me I was takin' on Bigfoot!"Etienne yelled before returning to his hotel room and packing his bags.Ultimately he showed up for the fight but lasted only three rounds.

Valuev's shiningmoment came last December, when he challenged John Ruiz in Berlin for the WBAbelt. Valuev groped and lumbered and occasionally punched his way to acontroversial majority decision. "Boxing is the only sport where you canget robbed without a gun," groused Ruiz, who was nearly a foot shorter and100 pounds lighter than Valuev.

As the firstRussian heavyweight champ, Valuev was feted like a hero when he returned to St.Petersburg, where he lives with his wife, Galina (who at 5'4" provides anincongruous match for her husband), and their four-year-old son, Grisha. Thesedays he can't even go hunting in the Russian hinterlands without beingapproached by fans. Which is fine by him. "I never fought to be popular,but if people want to meet me or shake my hand," he says with a shrug,"how can I not [respect] that?"

Inevitably DonKing has angled for a piece of the action. Mr. Only-in-America held options onValuev after the Ruiz fight. So it was that a limo rolled up to the VIPentrance at last month's U.S. Open tennis championships in New York City, andout popped King and then Valuev. In full impresario mode, King brayed,"He's the Jolly Red Giant! Come see the Eighth Wonder of the World. FromRussia with Glove!" The bankers and the brokers on their way to theirsuites looked on bemusedly.

Here Valuev was,again reduced to a sideshow. He played along, posing with players and shakinghands. But he couldn't conceal his resentment, smiling wanly and muttering inRussian. At one point King saw a TV cameraman approaching. "Now look realnice, Nikolay," King instructed.

"I will,"the fighter said, "but I'm going to look nice for me, not because I'm goingto be on television."

By this point ithad become clear: Valuev may prevail against Barrett, a 35-year-old journeyman,or he may be exposed as an oversized pretender. But either way, the tallestheavyweight champ in history will leave the ring with his head high.


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"You want people to accept you for WHO YOU AREINSIDE," says Valuev, "but I've always been Big Nikolay."

PHOTOPhotograph by Martin Rose/Bongarts/Getty Images TOWEROF GLOWER Despite dwarfing the 6'2", 237 3/4-pound Ruiz, Valuev (inset) wononly a controversial split-decision victory in 2005. PHOTO[See caption above.] PHOTOWALTER SCHMITZ/BILDERBERG/AURORABIG DADDY Valuev, in St. Petersburg with Galina and four-year-old Grisha, has raised the shoulder ride to new heights.