Molina--he is our greatest, the greatest of all ... he is gigantesco, with the
neck and the shoulders of a fighting bull and muscles in his arms as big as
melons and legs as strong as the great quebracho trees of the Andes. --Se�or
Acosta in The Harder They Fall by Budd Schulberg
In recent years
the ring entrance has become an ever more vital part of boxing's absurdist
pageantry. With hopes of giving themselves a psychological edge, fighters have
arrived in the ring aboard motorcycles and makeshift thrones. To show he was,
as he said, "all business," Winky Wright recently stepped onto the
canvas wearing a three-piece suit. To underscore his agility, Prince Naseem
Hamed once did a flip over the turnbuckle.
But for a spectacle of sheer menace, nothing can match the prefight procession
of Nikolay Valuev. If history is any indication, when the 33-year-old Russian
heavyweight fights Monte Barrett on Saturday night at the Allstate Arena near
Chicago, he will leave the locker room in a robe that can't quite cover the
thick 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 the
ring, he'll lift a leg and simply step over the top rope. "I can see fear
in the other corner when I do that," Valuev, speaking through his
omnipresent interpreter, says with a laugh that originates deep in his belly.
"You can do that when you're my size."
Here's what else
you can do when you're 7 feet tall and weigh 325 pounds: Even though armed with
only rudimentary boxing skills, you can become the heavyweight champion of the
In what is either
a sad commentary on the state of the division or an encouraging commentary on
the 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 get
ready to ... spell-check!) While the IBF's Wladimir Klitschko ( Ukraine), the
WBO's Sergei Liakhovich ( Belarus) and the WBC's Oleg Maskaev ( Kazakhstan) are
each good, if unremarkable, fighters, it's hard to know whether Valuev, the WBA
champ, achieved his status simply by dint of his size. "I'd be champ
too," Jamaica's Owen Beck said after getting KO'd by Valuev, "if every
guy I fought came up to my rib cage."
When Valuev meets
Barrett, he'll be aiming for his 45th straight win against zero defeats. But
Valuev is sufficiently self-aware to know that his real battle isn't against
Barrett but rather against perception. "I will show that I am not just a
big guy who happens to fight," he says. "I am a fighter who happens to
It's hard to
exaggerate 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 the
size of melons. His head, one foe said, is "the size of a Volkswagen."
Nicknamed "the Beast from the East," Valuev has been likened to every
mythical giant from Gargantua to Shrek. Suffice it to say, this is not a man
who needs to wear vertical stripes.
begins in the guts of cold war Russia. His father worked in a Leningrad factory
repairing radios. His mother worked for the military. Nikolay grew up with few
material trappings, but didn't know better. "You shared toys, shared
clothes, shared everything," says Valuev, who was born in 1973.
"Everyone had the same, because that was the system."
By age 16 Nikolay
was 6'8" and weighed north of 250 pounds. Since his parents were of
unremarkable size, the consensus was that Nikolay was blessed--or, cursed--with
a hyperactive pituitary gland. He has a different theory. One of his
great-great-grandfathers was a colossus who was said to have descended from
Tatars, the Mongolian tribe that once invaded Russia. Surely Nikolay had
emerged from that gene pool. "Very early on, I knew that my size was
something I was going to have to accept," he says. "You want people to
accept you for who you are inside, but I've always been Big Nikolay."
By his late teens
Valuev had reached 7 feet. He was no natural athlete, but because of his size
he played on a team that won the Russian junior basketball championship, and he
set his sights on making the Olympics in the discus and the hammer throw. He
was 19 when he stumbled--literally--into boxing. The wife of one of his coaches
at 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 of
gloves. "I had never punched anyone in my life," Valuev recalls.
Still, boxing fed
something in him, and he spent hours in the gym trying to improve his footwork
and 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 was
fighting professionally, larding his record against inept unknowns. But he was
marketed as a freak instead of a credible athlete. "It was no dignity,"
he says wistfully, "and not much money either."