Nikolay Valuev: Goliath v David
The 'Beast from the East' is seven feet tall and is said to have killed a wild boar with his bare hands. His British challenger has a mountain to climb, but in fact the Russian giant is a sensitive soul who wooed his wife with love poems and likes a bit of Miss Marple... Alan Hubbard speaks to Nikolay Valuev
Sunday 11 October 2009
He lumbers towards the gymnasium, his 23-stone frame filling the corridor, his bison-sized head almost scraping the ceiling, and you half-expect him to be roaring: "Fe, fi, fo, fum!" Instead he waves a cheery "hello". Nikolay Valuev, the biggest man in boxing, may be a genial giant but he does indeed smell the blood of an Englishman, an uppity one named David Haye.
It is a rain-sodden dawn in Kienbaum, an hour's drive from Berlin into what used to be East Germany. There, at a sports school once used by a regime that churned out champions on a conveyer belt and where, it is said, they first experimented with blood doping, the "The Beast from the East" was preparing for the defence of his World Boxing Association heavyweight title in Nuremberg on 7 November.
He trains ridiculously early in the day so he can then go fishing in the nearby lake. Back home in St Petersburg he also hunts for boar, deer and the occasional bear. "But I have managed to shoot only one," he chuckles over breakfast, though it is also said he once killed a boar with his bare hands when it attacked his dog.
For such a big man his first meal of the day seems frugal enough – two boiled eggs, a slice of cheese, fruit and muesli, – but we are told he dines more substantially later, devouring around three and a half kilos of meat.
He says he has no special diet. "A diet is for someone who has no control over his body. I do not have a special plan to eat, only the good food my body needs. I know what is good for me and what is not good for me. I eat all the foods separately, the meat, the vegetables, the salads, not together and no sauces or fat. If everyone followed this philosophy they would be happier."
This pantechnicon of pugilism could have come from central casting for Jack and the Beanstalk, or a Bond villain, and at a fraction over seven feet tall he looks more scary than he actually is while posing happily for photographs. "He'll do anything you want," says an aide. Indeed he will, for the upcoming pairing is a publicist's dream – David v Goliath. A match made in heaven, or at least the Bible, and the 9,000 available tickets are selling fast.
Valuev is used to being an object of curiosity. Handsome he is not but there is no sign of the paunch that is customary with many huge heavyweights these days. No blubber, simply sheer muscle and might. You could make a pair of curtains from his trunks but here is an athlete, albeit a ponderous one.
Haye has already derided him as "the ugliest man I've ever seen" and was even more offensive, Valuev recalled, when the Londoner was due to fight Wladimir Klitschko a couple of months ago, a fight that was called off when Haye developed a back injury which occurred almost simultaneously as bankrollers Setanta were going under. "When I saw him with the severed heads of the Klitschkos on his shirt I thought, 'Oh my God, not another idiot in boxing'." When asked how problematic it might be to cope with an 11 inches shorter, eight stones lighter but infinitely faster opponent who promises to buzz around him like a fly, Valuev replies through his interpreter – he speaks only a smattering of English – that he is used to dealing with little people. "My wife is tiny [5ft 2in] and I have two small children." His equally diminutive 61-year-old trainer, Alexander Zimin, was an Olympic flyweight on whose head Valuev can rest his elbows.
Both his factory worker parents stand only 5ft 5in tall. Doctors had suggested to them that their son, born in St Petersburg 36 years ago, could be suffering from a pituitary gland disease, but his grandmother spoke of an Asiatic tribe called the Tartars who had once conquered Russia and said that her grandfather, a giant of a man, was a descendant of this warrior race and that Nikolay came from the same gene field.
Originally earmarked as a basketball player and then a discus thrower under the old Soviet sports schooling system, he became a boxer at 21 when he rocketed in size and strength. He is indeed a curiosity, left-handed out of the ring but not a southpaw in it, and wooing his wife Galya by writing her love poems. His reading is eclectic – from Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle to Tolstoy. He may have a big head but he is of modest mien, and insists he actually doesn't like hurting people. "Boxing is not in his heart," says Zimin, which Valuev later confirms. "It is not something I do with passion," he says. "I am not like those other boxers who fill their lives with boxing, boxing, boxing. I have other interests and I like to try new things with my life, but they must wait because for now, I fight. You cannot sit on two chairs at once."
Valuev is a genuine colossus of his trade, though some of the cauliflower ear cognoscenti will tell you he can't fight a lick, but he has managed to beat 50 opponents, his only defeat coming five fights ago against the Uzbek Ruslan Chagaev on a split decision. Valuev says he was not properly prepared. "My former trainer decided on a strategy that was not the right one and it did not work against this opponent," he says. "He was a southpaw and my balance was not right."
Under Zimin, he won his next four fights on points, including the last one against an ancient Evander Holyfield, with whom he also had some difficulties. His punches do not seem to carry the power of his poundage but he is not an easy man to reach, as Haye doubtless will discover.
The monster bruiser, who had some early fights in a circus ring, is one of the trio of towering Eastern Europeans who now rule the world heavyweight roost. The Ukrainian brothers Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, 6ft 8in and 6ft 7in respectively, hold three other versions of the title between them, a situation which leaves 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.
When the American ringmaster Don King first encountered Valuev he was left speechless by his size, but not for long, declaring, "King has found his Kong". A somewhat sensitive soul for someone of his immense stature, Valuev at first did not take kindly to comparisons with either the gargantuan gorilla or Shrek (to whom he does bear an uncanny resemblance). "Such nicknames are childish," he says now. "It has more to do with publicity than boxing, but they can call me what they like if it sells tickets."
The biggest world champion in history controversially outpointed King's man John Ruiz in Berlin last year to win the WBA title. He actually had a couple of his earlier fights in London for the British promoter Frank Maloney, when he came and went relatively unnoticed – apart from breaking the scales at a weigh-in.
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. Naturally people stare but I am not just what they see. Underneath I have a heart and I have proved I am a champion. In boxing, big or small is not important, it is how strong and skilful you are. I have experience and I like to think I am very professional. It is this that is important, not my size.
"Fighting small opponents is not a problem for me. Everyone I meet is smaller, and I learn how to punch down to them. I do expect something different from David Haye but not anything special. I will box him as I always do."
The biblical boy David used a stone and a slingshot to slay the giant but boxing's David will need to catapult himself towards an opponent who likes to maul and smother. It may not be pretty. On paper it looks less of a fight, more of a freak show. So does Valuev have a strategy to defeat him? "Yes, of course." What is it? He wags a finger, "Ha ha, you will see.
"But I do not expect an easy fight. It will not be a walk through the woods. I hope I win but as always this is in the hands of God." Or Goliath.
Jack Sharkey Until Valuev, tallest heavyweight champion at 6ft 61/2in. Former Kansas cowboy knocked out Jack Johnson in 1915 to win crown.
Primo Carnera The Ambling Alp. Heavyweight champion from 1933-36 at 6ft 51/2in when average height in native Italy was 5ft 5in. Some fights may have been fixed by the Mafia.
Ewart Potgieter 7ft 2in South African, the tallest boxer in history, had 11 bouts in the '50s, losing two.
Ernie Terrell 6ft 6in victim of Muhammad Ali in infamous 1967 "What's My Name?" bout.
Ed 'Too Tall' Jones 6ft 9in former US gridiron star who had six winning pro fights in 1979 and 1980.
Gerry Cooney 6ft 6in Irish-American contender, lost in title fight to Larry Holmes in 1982.
Henry Akinwande 6ft 7in Briton who briefly held title but lost to Lennox Lewis in 1996
Julius Long 7ft 1in American called "Towering Inferno" was KO'd in two rounds by Audley Harrison in 2004.
Vitali Kitschko 6ft 8in WBC champion; Wladimir, 6ft 7in, IBF/ WBO champion. Ukrainian brothers.
David Price 6ft 8in British Olympic bronze medallist; won first pro fight.
Haye v Valuev will be live on Sky Box Office in HD on Saturday 7 November
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