Sunday, February 11, 2007


Nikolai Valuev, WBA Heavyweight Champion of the world, had just knocked out Monte Barrett in the eleventh round and everybody around him was in a celebratory and jovial mood. Don King was cackling like only Don King does, “Hah-hah-hah! My Russian Giant! The Eighth Wonder of the World! Hah-hah-hah!”

The scene wouldn’t have been noteworthy except for the fact that Nikolai Valuev is a towering, hulk of humanity that stands over 7’0” tall and weighs nearly 330 pounds. His match against Barrett was unremarkable and it was designed merely to showcase Valuev on an American stage. But because Valuev is the largest human being to ever hold a portion of the heavyweight championship he is a rubbernecker’s fantasy who is gawked at with a peculiar mix of curiosity and awe.

Unbeaten in 45 straight fights and currently boxing’s longest reigning heavyweight titlist he has conquered Europe and now his ringmasters want him to conquer America. Nikolai Valuev, it would seem, should have had a lot to smile about, but on Saturday night in Rosemont, Illinois he appeared to be the saddest person in the room.

There have been other giants that have held the heavyweight championship. Jess Willard held the title from 1915 to 1919. “The Pottawatomie Giant” named after his hometown in Kansas, was 6’6 ¼” and in his prime he tipped the scales at 230 pounds. In 1933, Italy’s Primo Carnera, “The Ambling Alp” held the title for just under a year. At 6’5 ¾” tall, Carnera, at his best, scaled in the neighborhood of 260 pounds . By comparison, Valuev dwarfs both of those monsters and in his enormity he would have outweighed Willard by 100 pounds.

Like Carnera, Valuev is sensitive to the fact that because of his size he will be treated differently and looked at as some sort of circus freak. Valuev is a shy, contemplative, gentle giant and would prefer to wile away his days in the Russian countryside with his family, reading poetry, Tolstoy or exploring classic novels. His life has been unique and by the time he was 12 years old he was 6’6” tall. Valuev, for his part, has always tried to minimize his differences, “I never set myself apart from the other children. It’s just that I was taller than them. The only real difference was simply my height.”

Throughout his life Valuev has struggled to cope with his enormous size and the perception of those around him. “When someone addresses me as though I am not a normal person, I simply stop communicating with them,” says Valuev. He is introspective, thoughtful and soft-spoken. Despite the fact that he is recognized as a heavyweight champion of the world he attempts to avoid crowds of people, lest he attract unwanted attention and be leered at.

Valuev rarely smiles and seems almost joyless in a strange sort of way. He shuns the adulation of the people. Watching him in the ring he seems programmed and releases his punches mostly by rote and without passion. “He seems somehow to limit himself by his desire to be seen as normal” says Larry Merchant. “Just a normal giant, a guy as big as a Russian bear. That’s how he wants not to be seen. He seems to subscribe to Shakespeare’s line: ‘Oh, it is excellent to have a giant’s strength, but it is tyrannous to use it like a giant.”

It can’t help the giant’s self image when, because of his size, television commentators compare him to dogs. HBO’s Jim Lampley, calling the Barret fight from ringside said, “It looks like a battle between a mastiff and a smallish pit bull.” Larry Merchant chimed that Valuev, “Has a head like a St. Bernard”.

Despite their size and power, giants can be exploited. Look at the fictional tale of heavyweight boxer Toro Moreno. The movie is a loose biographical account of Carnera’s life in boxing. In this case, art imitates life and life imitates art. Moreno was a clumsy, seven foot tall heavyweight boxer in Budd Schulberg’s film from 1956, “The Harder They Fall”. He was a South American colossus brought to America amid much hype and fanfare who was schemed by a corrupt promoter (Rod Steiger) and sportswriter (Humphrey Bogart) into believing that he had a real shot at becoming a heavyweight champion.

Through a carefully arranged series of fights, Moreno and the public were duped into believing that he was much more capable than he ultimately proved to be when matched against the champion. In the end, Moreno’s dreams and his huge body were both shattered. Change the names and it could become Valuev’s life story in boxing too.

Beneath Valuev’s immense exterior lies a person of kindness and integrity. At times, during the press tour to hype the fight against Barrett, it appeared as though Valuev was a disconnected observer who was uncomfortable with the attention and bluster and the business side of boxing as conducted here in America. Quite simply, he looked like he would rather be anywhere else but where he was.

The mostly misunderstood Valuev tries to put into perspective for others what life is like as a giant, “Lots of people, I’m sure, don’t see me as an ordinary person”, explains Valuev. “But this really doesn’t have an impact for me, because for me the most important thing is how you perceive yourself, not how the world sees you.”

For now, at least on the outside, Nikolai Valuev wears the big red gloves and the colorful costume of the heavyweight champion. On Saturday night, when those around him were laughing on the outside - Nikolai Valuev, the sad, Russian clown of a heavyweight champion, was crying.

October 2006

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