Everyone’s talking about the Big Russian these days. Even those indifferent to the fights want to see the WBA heavyweight king, the seven-foot-plus, 320-pound, undefeated behemoth named Nikolai Valuev.
The man formerly known as the “Beast from the East” and now called the “Russian Giant” was born on August 21, 1973, in St. Petersburg, Russia, in the former Soviet Union. Valuev’s father, Sergei, repaired radios in a factory. Sergei’s wife, the champ’s mom Nadezhda, struggled with their meager earnings to make ends meet and feed their growing boy.
“Nothing came easily for us,” recalled Valuev. “Life was very basic. It was like growing up in the ghetto in a large American city, though the old Soviet system was different. Everyone worked. Everyone was equal. I had the same childhood as every other child. We all shared the same life experiences, the same toys.”
Sergei and Nadezhda were well matched in several ways. They had similar dispositions. They spoke the same language. They were the same size: 5-foot-5. As to how a short man and woman could have conceived the Russian Giant, Valuev’s grandmother, the family genealogist, has a clue.
Grandma spoke of an Asiatic tribe called the Tartars, a Turkish/Mongol clan who once overran Russia, and said her grandfather was “a giant of a man called Vasily.” This Vasily, the heavyweight champion’s great-great grandfather, was allegedly a direct descendent of this so-called Tartar mob.
When Valuev was 12 he had outgrown his parents by a foot and stood at 6 feet 4 inches. When he was 13, something beside his size – his athletic prowess – attracted attention and Valuev was sent to an academy in Leningrad that specialized in sports.
“I realized my childhood was finished,” said Valuev with a touch of regret. “People had paid more attention to me than to other children. I knew this. It was obvious. But I had always lived with my size. Then I realized I could actually do something with it and set my focus on achieving something in sport. I considered no other profession.”
Basketball seemed a natural for the towering young man and Valuev dribbled his way to a national championship at the junior level. He also grew two inches and stood at 6-foot-6 when he was 16 years old.
Two years later, Valuev was 6 feet 9 inches tall. Waving hoops goodbye, he emigrated into track and field, where he made a specialty of the hammer throw and discus. At 19 he won the national junior title in discus.
Valuev’s exceptionalism got him an invite to the prestigious Institute of Sport in St. Petersburg, the next logical move for an athlete aiming for the Olympics. But then fate intervened, as it often does, when future heavyweight champions least expect it. Valuev was spotted by a boxing shaman named Oleg Shalaev, who saw something in the big guy with the discus that others somehow missed.
“I decided not to teach him to throw straight punches at a big distance,” said Shalaev about his tutelage of Valuev, “the kind of show that most people want to see a big guy like that fighting. Instead I started teaching him how to throw short little punches from the bottom up.
“Teaching speed takes a lot of time, and Nikolai needed a tactic that would force everybody to come to him. They came to him – and he clobbered them.”
But at first it wasn’t easy. “It was difficult for me to develop in this kind of sport at that late age,” Valuev remembered. “Almost every boxer in the world first learns boxing as a boy. For me, everything was new: running, skipping, punching the big bag, working the speed bag, sparring, even shadowboxing. I had never thrown a punch in my life. This was a new world for me and I became addicted to it immediately.”
After a dozen amateur bouts, Valuev turned pro on October 15, 1993, in Berlin and scored a second-round TKO – and he's been fighting ever since.
After a decade of battling unknowns with unpronounceable names, Valuev came into his own in 2004 when he destroyed Paolo Vidoz to win the WBA European title. That same year, he walked away with a W against Gerald Nobles, at the time 24-0, when Nobles was DQ’d because of low blows.
The Russian Giant had a busy year in 2005. He conked Attila Levin for a third round TKO in February. In May, Cliff Etienne got KO’d in three. And Valuev decisioned Larry Donald in October.
Not the cream of the heavyweight crop, but not chopped liver, either.
Valuev’s defining fight was against then-WBA champion John Ruiz on December 17, 2005, in Berlin, which Valuev won by a close disputed decision, becoming the first Russian in history to win a heavyweight world championship.
“I worked 12 years for this moment,” Valuev said after the bout with Ruiz. “I excuse myself for not having the most beautiful performance, but the most important thing is that I won the decision and the title.”
In his last appearance and first defense of his heavyweight crown, Valuev stopped Owen Beck in three rounds at the TUI Arena in Hanover, Germany. What the Heck Beck gave up 10 inches in height and 78 pounds in weight to the Russian Giant.
“It was an important fight for me being my first title defense,” said Valuev, whose record moved to 44-0 with 32 knockouts, after stopping Beck. “I change my training after each fight to prepare for my opponent’s skills. My trainer and I developed a good boxing plan tonight.
“Now I will go to conquer America.”
Nikolai Valuev is in the States, ready to conquer America one heavyweight at a time, starting Saturday night with Monte Barrett in Chicago.