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Size Matters
October 09, 2006
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?
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October 09, 2006

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?

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El Toro 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´┐Żor 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 world.

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 be big."

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.

Valuev's story 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."

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