FEED­ING TIME

Cir­cus tag fades as world starts tak­ing Valuev’s box­ing cre­den­tials more se­ri­ously

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Box­ing world starts to take Beast from the East se­ri­ously

NO­BODY de­nies that from the mo­ment Niko­lai Valuev turned pro­fes­sional he was pro­moted as a freak, an­other sideshow at­trac­tion in the world of box­ing, and it was thought that his lim­ited tal­ent would never let him es­cape the var­i­ous nick­names he would go on to ac­quire – the Rus­sian Gi­ant, the Rus­sian Bear, and lat­terly the Beast from the East.

He stripped to fight in 10 coun­tries, for about the same num­ber of pro­mot­ers, dur­ing a decade of abuse af­ter he turned pro. And each time he walked to the ring, the pun­ters pointed their fin­gers, gasped and laughed at his size, his full coat of body hair and his face.

Sim­i­lar re­ac­tions still fol­low him, and he’s learnt to go along with the line, as he did when he ap­peared this week in Ger­many to pub­li­cise tonight’s fight with David Haye (add an­other nick­name to the list for the “David v Go­liath” bout).

But over the years, Valuev has spo­ken more re­veal­ingly about the ef­fect it has on a man to grow up treated as a freak.

“Peo­ple have al­ways looked at me, they have al­ways talked about me,” Valuev has said. “When I was young, the coaches looked and won­dered if I could help them in their sport – when I turned pro­fes­sional it was the same. Peo­ple looked to see what I could do for them.”

Valuev is 7ft (al­though you’ll of­ten see that fig­ure as 7ft 2in) and weighs just un­der 203kg, and in 51 prize fights he has lost just once, but the statis­tics fail to con­vey his vast­ness, his heavy fea­tures, his hairy torso, and the num­bers fail to re­flect his abil­ity in the ring.

The freak can now fight, and that is some­thing that no­body pre­dicted when he turned pro­fes­sional in 1993.

When Valuev was 20 he was spot­ted by leg­endary Soviet coach Oleg Sha­laev dur­ing a fit­ness ses­sion at one of the many sports colleges Valuev at­tended – from the age of 13 he was forced into sport, any sport, by the crum­bling old-Soviet sys­tem of pro­duc­ing sports stars by what­ever means nec­es­sary.

He was first packed off to the St Peters­burg Sports Academy by his par­ents, who, by the way, were about 5ft 6in. His dad re­paired ra­dios and his mother cooked pan­cakes and made beet­root soup for her beloved lit­tle gi­ant.

He was part of a bas­ket­ball team which won the Rus­sian ti­tle when he was 15, and by 16 he was al­ready 6ft 6in and the cen­tre of at­ten­tion for coaches looking to fill their own tro­phy cab­i­nets.

The sport­ing suc­cess con­tin­ued and when he was 19, and 6ft 9in, he was the na­tional dis­cus cham­pion. Valuev took ad­van­tage of all the at­ten­tion and was able to read his way to a good ed­u­ca­tion be­tween com­pe­ti­tions. He re­mains a devo­tee of Sir Arthur Co­nan Doyle and Agatha Christie.

“My child­hood was trashed,” said Valuev, when asked to re­call his early years. “Peo­ple paid me more at­ten­tion be­cause of my size, I know that is the case, and I un­der­stand why.”

His size is the source of many myths. His granny has claimed her grand­fa­ther was a gi­ant – a war­rior de­scended from a ma­raud­ing band of paid killers. The story of the 8ft as­sas­sin from the Steppes has, un­der­stand­ably, been ac­cepted as fact, as it is prefer­able and far sex­ier than a med­i­cal ex­pla­na­tion.

A year af­ter Valuev met Sha­laev, and af­ter just 15 am­a­teur fights, the boxer ended up in Berlin for his first paid bout.

Valuev has made con­tra­dic­tory claims about this time, in­sist­ing in some in­ter­views that he fell in love with box­ing from the start, and in other, more re­cent mo­ments of re­flec­tion, has said he has no pas­sion for the sport. The truth is in there some­where.

“At first I wanted to make money be­cause life in Rus­sia at that time was hard for me and for my fam­ily,” he said. “I went all over for fights – it was a dif­fi­cult time.”

It was dur­ing this time that Valuev twice fought in Lon­don on shows pro­moted by Frank Maloney. It was Maloney who gave Valuev the glo­ri­ous Beast from the East ring moniker one night in 1996 at Bat­tersea Town Hall.

How­ever, like most things in Valuev’s life there are sev­eral ver­sions of events. Maloney has al­ways been coy – which is rare for the boy from Peck­ham who con­quered Las Ve­gas with his fighter Len­nox Lewis – when it comes to dis­cussing the end of his time with Valuev.

“Let’s just say he had some peo­ple with him that I was not too keen on con­tin­u­ing work­ing with – scary peo­ple,” said Maloney.

The Valuev car­ni­val con­tin­ued, but by 2003 the boxer was weary of the monotony and he claims that he was ready to walk away or move up a level or two. It was in 2003 that Valuev met vet­eran Ger­man pro­moter Wil­fried Sauer­land and his am­bi­tious son, Kalle.

“I told Niko­lai that the cir­cus had to come to an end and that it was time to meet bet­ter box­ers, box­ers that he could lear n from and box­ers that would pro­vide the an­swer to the ques­tion that we all wanted to know: Is Niko­lai good enough to be a world cham­pion?” in­sisted Sauer­land Jnr.

There are two bril­liant ex­am­ples in box­ing his­tory and lit­er­a­ture of ma­nip­u­lated giants be­ing ma­noeu­vred from ob­scu­rity, through the murky depths of pub­lic­ity to the ti­tle and then back to ob­scu­rity without riches.

In 2003, Valuev was un­beaten in 32 fights, a 10-year vet­eran, but still liv­ing in a tiny St Peters­burg apart­ment – the Sauer­lands were de­ter­mined to make sure Valuev did not join Budd Schul­berg’s Toro Moreno or Primo Carn­era on a list of shame.

In Schul­berg’s mas­ter­piece of box­ing fic­tion, The Harder They Fall, the wit­less Ar­gen­tine Moreno is the vic­tim of mob abuse, and in the real- world Ital­ian Carn­era briefly held the world ti­tle in 1933 be­fore a se­ries of mer­ci­less beat­ings.

Valuev looked like and, in many ways, was mar­keted as the new Moreno/Carn­era for years dur­ing his du­bi­ous start in the ring.

The fi­nal part of Valuev’s ca­reer be­gan once he agreed terms with the Sauer­lands, and for once peo­ple on both sides of the ropes were talk­ing about his abil­ity and not just his bulk.

The wins con­tin­ued and they started to look im­pres­sive for the first time, as vet­er­ans and un­beaten con­tenders were han­dled with vary­ing de­grees of suc­cess.

Paolo Vi­doz, Ger­ald No­bles, Clif­ford Eti­enne and Larry Don­ald were all beaten be­fore his first world ti­tle fight, against John Ruiz, in 2005.

“Niko­lai is a de­cent hu­man be­ing and he has proved he is a much bet­ter fighter than any­body ever imag­ined he would be, “ said Sauer­land Jnr.

To­day, Valuev is a busi­ness­man in Nurem­berg, where tonight’s fight takes place, and is looking at open­ing a carvery; a place where he can cook the wild pigs, deer and bears that he of­ten slaugh­ters in the lo­cal forests. There is even a story about Valuev go­ing one-on-one with a wild pig and killing it with his hands.

At 36, the one-time freak of the ring is start­ing to look a lot less like a joke and a lot more like the clever, awk­ward and brave fighter that 51 ap­pear­ances have made him.

He has never ap­peared to have been hurt, but it would be hard to find many emo­tions in his face.

He has cer­tainly never been hurt by an in­sult and seemed shocked that Haye thought call­ing him “ugly” and “smelly” would up­set him.

“I’ve heard the same things all my life,” Valuev replied with a shrug. “Haye is an­other idiot in box­ing.”

There are few fairy­tale end­ings in the fight game, but watch­ing Valuev walk to the ring in front of 9,000 tonight to de­fend his World Box­ing As­so­ci­a­tion belt against Haye, will be as close to a happy end­ing as I could ever have imag­ined for the man I saw at Bat­tersea Town Hall all those years ago.

Maloney is right, the peo­ple with Valuev then were scary and there was some­thing oddly sad about the kid they were call­ing the Beast from the East.

Thank­fully, he is a lot hap­pier now. – The In­de­pen­dent

AP PHOTO

FREAK SHOW: Rus­sian WBA heavy­weight cham­pion Niko­lai Valuev, left, dwarfs Evan­der Holy­field (US) on his way to a points de­ci­sion at a pre­vi­ous fight – trashing Holy­field’s bid for a fifth world ti­tle.

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