Boxing: Beastly business for land of the free-fall

King of the ring hits back as eastern giants take over heavyweight territory America once owned

Getting duffed up in the Ryder Cup was by no means the only sporting hurt suffered by the United States this year. Even more embarrassing is the body blow inflicted on their boxers by the new heavy mob from Eastern Europe, who have totally annexed the territory that has been largely in American hands since the turn of the last century.

"The Russians are coming" used to be the panic-stricken cry of Middle America during the Cold War days. Well, they have now arrived, along with other chips off the old Soviet bloc, led by a modern-day Goliath in gloves who stands seven feet tall and weighs 24 stone and whose nom de guerre is King Kong.

The monster bruiser from St Petersburg is Nicolay Valuev, one of a quartet of towering Eastern Europeans who now rule the world heavyweight division in these days of fistic fragmentation. He is the World Boxing Association champion alongside the Ukrainian Wlad-imir Klitschko (International Boxing Federation), Sergei Liakhovich of Belarus (World Boxing Organisation) and Oleg Maskaev, born and raised in Kazakhstan (World Boxing Council). When Maskaev, a former Red Army officer, left Baltimore's Hasim Rahman floundering on the canvas in Las Vegas six weeks ago it completed an invasion that has left American heavyweight boxing in a state of mortification not experienced since Apollo Creed had his lights punched out by the robotic Russian Ivan Drago in Rocky IV.

Even Don King was left speechless for once. But not for long. It was a situation which the ringmaster of verbosity, 75 last month, could never have contemplated when he first made everyone's hair stand on end, not least his own, by enticing Ali and Foreman to Rumble in the Jungle 30-odd years ago. But unlike America's latter-day heavyweights, he can take a punch.

Within days he had announced his partial acquisition of a three-fight deal with the most fascinating of the fearsome foursome, the 33-year-old Valuev, who, despite his massive size and flat-footedness, can actually fight a bit, moving well and punching hard, notably with a thundering jab. Canny King quickly cottoned on to this, taking Valuev from Germany, where he now lives, on a barnstorming US tour before an upcoming defence against former WBC title contender Monte Barrett in Chicago next Saturday. Parading what some may consider a fighting freak known as "The Beast from the East" is meat and drink to boxing's incorrigible Barnum. His media blitz with Valuev has embraced a visit to Broadway and the top of the Empire State Building, where King declared: "He's a Russian and he's coming with love" as the headlines proclaimed: "King has found his Kong."

Valuev, a somewhat sensitive soul for someone of his immense physical stature, does not take kindly to comparison with either Kong Kong or Shrek. But business is business. He speaks slowly with his smattering of English to explain: "My parents gave me the name Nicolay, and to call me by this nickname is childish. It has more to do with publicity than boxing, but they can call me what they like in America if it sells tickets, because I am here to win."

The biggest world champion in history was born and raised in St Petersburg. He is married with a three-year-old son and unbeaten in 45 bouts, controversially outpointing King's man John Ruiz in Berlin last December to win the WBA title. He actually had a couple of his earlier fights for the British promoter Frank Maloney in London, when he came and went relatively unnoticed. His height - he was 6ft 7in when he was 16 - is the result of the same pituitary gland disease that afflicted a boxing colossus from another era, Primo Carnera. He says: "I always knew I was going to be very large but growing up was magnificent, particularly when I became a boxer and won the Russian national title. I am not just what people see. I have heart. I've been knocked down and got up to prove I am a champion."

King labels him "the eighth wonder of the world", adding: "Everyone thinks he's just a big oaf, that he can't think, can't speak. I beg to differ. He may not be as articulate as Ali but he will learn. He's a good fighter. Judge him on his talents."

America will, on Saturday night. The modestly equipped Barrett is unlikely to prove the severest of tests. But would any US heavyweight these days? Ask American promoters where all their heavies have gone and they will tell you they are in the NBA or NFL. "When I started in this game 40 years ago footballers earned $5,000 a year, now they earn about $5,000 a minute," says King's rival Bob Arum, whose fighter Rahman, the last remaining US world champion, was dethroned by Maskaev. "Why go to a smelly gym when you could be a high- school hero with all the cheerleaders shouting for you? Boxing's too hard."

In the Fifties and early Sixties it was generally believed that the Mafia ran heavyweight boxing, but Ali changed all that when he relieved the Mob-managed Sonny Liston of the title. Now the word is that another Mob has moved in, aka the Russian Mafia, with millions of roubles to be made from the big men who have taken over from a succession of American journeymen. But this seems more risible than visible.

Johnny Nelson, who retired last week as a world cruiserweight champion, and is as perceptive a pugilist as you will meet, reckons the real reason for the decline is the lifting of the Iron Curtain. He says he saw the Russian ring revolution coming when he sparred in Eastern Europe in the mid-1990s.

"You could sense a shift of power. What I saw was frightening. It was like a conveyor-belt production line, with the kind of hunger you used to see in the States. All it needed was the advent of professionalism."

But the malaise goes deeper than that. Two decades have passed since America had an Olympic heavyweight champion. Moreover, America does not have a heavyweight aged under 30 in the world's top 30, and the man now touted as the only likely US saviour is the 43-year-old Evander Holyfield, punched out and well past his fight-by date.

The Russians have come, and, even more alarmingly, when Castro expires, the Cubans may be coming. In boxing, America is now the land of the free-fall.

Eastern Feast: Big hitters from the old bloc

Wladimir Klitschko

IBF champion. Ukraine

Age 30, 6ft 6in. Lives in Hamburg, Germany. 49 fights, 46 wins

Nickname: Dr Steelhammer

Multilingual brother of former WBC champion Vitali. Won title with seventh-round stoppage of American Chris Byrd in Mannheim, Germany, April 2006. Olympic champion 1996. Doctorate in sports science.

Sergei Liakhovich

WBO champion. Belarus

Age 30, 6ft 4in. Lives in Scottsdale, US. 24 fights, 23 wins

Nickname: White Wolf

Climbed off the floor to win title from American Lamon Brewster in Cleveland, April 2006. Beat Audley Harrison in hometown Minsk in 1998 European Amateur Championships before emigrating to United States.

Oleg Maskaev

WBC champion. Kazakhstan

Age 37, 6ft 3in. Lives in Sacramento, US. 38 fights, 33 wins

Nickname: The Big O

Knocked out Hasim Rahman in 12th round to win title in Las Vegas, August 2006.Had previously ko'd Rahman in 1999. A former miner and officer in the Red Army, he moved to the United States after the fall of the Soviet Union.

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