Boxing: How a freak fought back

Nikolai Valuev has always been treated as a circus act. By beating David Haye, the 23-stone 'Beast from the East' can prove he's grown into a fearsome talent.
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Nobody denies that from the moment Nikolai Valuev turned professional he was promoted as a freak, another sideshow attraction in the world of boxing, and it was thought that his limited talent would never let him escape the various nicknames he would go on to acquire – the Russian Giant, the Russian Bear, and latterly the Beast from the East.

He stripped to fight in 10 countries, for about the same number of promoters during a decade of abuse after he turned pro. And each time he walked to the ring, the punters pointed their fingers, gasped and laughed at his size, his full coat of body hair and his face.

Similar reactions still follow him, and he's learnt to go along with the line, as he did when he appeared yesterday in Germany to publicise Saturday's fight with David Haye (add another nickname to the list for the "David v Goliath" bout). But over the years, Valuev has spoken more revealingly about the effect it has on a man to grow up treated as a freak. "People have always looked at me, they have always talked about me," Valuev has said. "When I was young, the coaches looked and wondered if I could help them in their sport – when I turned professional it was the same. People looked to see what I could do for them."

Valuev is 7ft (although you'll often see that figure as 7ft 2in) and weighs just under 23st, and in 51 prize fights he has lost just once, but the statistics fail to convey his vastness, his heavy features, his hairy torso, and the numbers fail to reflect his ability in the ring. The freak can now fight, and that is something that nobody predicted when he turned professional in 1993.

When Valuev was 20 he was spotted by legendary Soviet coach Oleg Shalaev during a fitness session at one of the many sports colleges Valuev attended – from the age of 13 he was forced into sport, any sport, by the crumbling old-Soviet system of producing sports stars by whatever means necessary. He was first packed off to the St Petersburg Sports Academy by his parents, who, by the way, were about 5ft 6in. His dad repaired radios and his mother cooked pancakes and made beetroot soup for her beloved little giant.

He was part of a basketball team which won the Russian title when he was 15, and by 16 he was already 6ft 6in and the centre of attention for coaches looking to fill their own trophy cabinets. The sporting success continued and when he was 19, and 6ft 9in, he was the national discus champion. Valuev took advantage of all the attention and was able to read his way to a good education between competitions. He remains a devotee of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Agatha Christie.

"My childhood was trashed," said Valuev, when asked to recall his early years. "People paid me more attention because of my size, I know that is the case, and I understand why."

His size is the source of many myths. His granny has claimed her grandfather was a giant – a warrior descended from a marauding band of paid killers. The story of the 8ft assassin from the Steppes has, understandably, been accepted as fact, as it is preferable and far sexier than a medical explanation.

A year after Valuev met Shalaev, and after just 15 amateur fights, the boxer ended up in Berlin for his first paid bout. Valuev has made contradictory claims about this time, insisting in some interviews that he fell in love with boxing from the start, and in other, more recent moments of reflection, has said he has no passion for the sport. The truth is in there somewhere.

"At first I wanted to make money because life in Russia at that time was hard for me and for my family," he said. "I went all over for fights – it was a difficult time."

It was during this time that Valuev twice fought in London on shows promoted by Frank Maloney. It was Maloney who gave Valuev the glorious Beast from the East ring moniker one night in 1996 at Battersea Town Hall. However, like most things in Valuev's life there are several versions of events. Maloney has always been coy – which is rare for the boy from Peckham who conquered Las Vegas with his fighter Lennox Lewis – when it comes to discussing the end of his time with Valuev. "Let's just say he had some people with him that I was not too keen on continuing working with – scary people," said Maloney.

The Valuev carnival continued, but by 2003 the boxer was weary of the monotony and, he claims, that he was ready to walk away or move up a level or two. It was in 2003 that Valuev met veteran German promoter Wilfried Sauerland and his ambitious son, Kalle. "I told Nikolai that the circus had to come to an end and that it was time to meet better boxers, boxers that he could learn from and boxers that would provide the answer to the question that we all wanted to know: Is Nikolai good enough to be a world champion?" insisted Sauerland Jnr.

There are two brilliant examples in boxing history and literature of manipulated giants being manoeuvred from obscurity, through the murky depths of publicity to the title and then back to obscurity without riches. In 2003, Valuev was unbeaten in 32 fights, a 10-year veteran, but still living in a tiny St Petersburg apartment – the Sauerlands were determined to make sure Valuev did not join Budd Schulberg's Toro Moreno or Primo Carnera on a list of shame.

In Schulberg's masterpiece of boxing fiction, The Harder They Fall, the witless Argentine Moreno is the victim of mob abuse, and in the realworld Italian Carnera briefly held the world title in 1933 before a series of merciless beatings. Valuev looked like and, in many ways, was marketed as the new Moreno/Carnera for years during his dubious start in the ring.

The final part of Valuev's career began once he agreed terms with the Sauerlands, and for once people on both sides of the ropes were talking about his ability and not just his bulk. The wins continued and they started to look impressive for the first time, as veterans and unbeaten contenders were handled with varying degrees of success. Paolo Vidoz, Gerald Nobles, Clifford Etienne and Larry Donald were all beaten before his first world title fight, against John Ruiz, in 2005. "Nikolai is a decent human being and he has proved he is a much better fighter than anybody ever imagined he would be, " said Sauerland Jnr.

Today, Valuev is a businessman in Nuremberg, where Saturday's fight takes place, and is looking at opening a carvery; a place where he can cook the wild pigs, deer and bears that he often slaughters in the local forests. There is even a story about Valuev going one-on-one with a wild pig and killing it with his hands.

At 36, the one-time freak of the ring is starting to look a lot less like a joke and a lot more like the clever, awkward and brave fighter that 51 appearances have made him. He has never appeared to have been hurt, but it would be hard to find many emotions in his face. He has certainly never been hurt by an insult and seemed shocked that Haye thought calling him "ugly" and "smelly" would upset him. "I've heard the same things all my life," Valuev replied with a shrug. "Haye is another idiot in boxing."

There are understandably few fairytale endings in the fight game, but watching Valuev walk to the ring in front of 9,000 on Saturday to defend his World Boxing Association belt against Haye, will be as close to a happy ending as I could ever have imagined for the man I saw at Battersea Town Hall all those years ago. Maloney is right, the people with Valuev then were scary and there was something oddly sad about the kid they were calling the Beast from the East. Thankfully, he is a lot happier now.