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His fate changed in 2003 when he crossed paths with a German promoter, Wilfried Sauerland, who believed that Valuev could become a bona fide fighter. Working by then with a well-regarded trainer, Manuel Gabrielian, Valuev upped the caliber of his opposition. 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 a playful bear. At times he was devastating: Fighting Paolo Vidoz of Italy in October 2004, Valuev threw a right hand that not only ended the bout but also broke his opponent's jaw in two places. At other times Valuev's mere presence has won him the fight. In 2005 Clifford Etienne was set to fight Valuev. Then he 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 shining moment came last December, when he challenged John Ruiz in Berlin for the WBA belt. Valuev groped and lumbered and occasionally punched his way to a controversial majority decision. "Boxing is the only sport where you can get robbed without a gun," groused Ruiz, who was nearly a foot shorter and 100 pounds lighter than Valuev.
As the first Russian 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 an incongruous match for her husband), and their four-year-old son, Grisha. These days he can't even go hunting in the Russian hinterlands without being approached 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 Don King has angled for a piece of the action. Mr. Only-in-America held options on Valuev after the Ruiz fight. So it was that a limo rolled up to the VIP entrance at last month's U.S. Open tennis championships in New York City, and out 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. From Russia with Glove!" The bankers and the brokers on their way to their suites looked on bemusedly.
Here Valuev was, again reduced to a sideshow. He played along, posing with players and shaking hands. But he couldn't conceal his resentment, smiling wanly and muttering in Russian. At one point King saw a TV cameraman approaching. "Now look real nice, Nikolay," King instructed.
"I will," the fighter said, "but I'm going to look nice for me, not because I'm going to be on television."
By this point it had 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 tallest heavyweight champ in history will leave the ring with his head high.