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.

Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
News
Campbell: ‘Sometimes you have to be economical with the truth’
newsFormer spin doctor says MPs should study tactics of leading sports figures like José Mourinho
Sport
football
Life and Style
Agretti is often compared to its relative, samphire, though is closer in taste to spinach
food + drink
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
Kelly Osbourne will play a flight attendant in Sharknado 2
people
News
Down-to-earth: Winstone isn't one for considering his 'legacy'
people
News
The dress can be seen in different colours
i100
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
Voices
Lance Corporal Joshua Leakey VC
voicesBeware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Life and Style
Alexander McQueen's AW 2009/10 collection during Paris Fashion Week
fashionMeet the collaborators who helped create the late designer’s notorious spectacles
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?