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Valuev, boxing's tallest and heaviest champion ever, is a hero in Russia, controversy or no controversy

January 27, 2006|Kim Murphy | Times Staff Writer

MOSCOW — In any boxing club, sweat is part of the ambience, but in Russia, the sweat factor usually scores a one-two punch to the nose right from the doorway, reminding all who enter of what it smells like to be a nastoyashi muzhik, a real Russian man.

On the wall of a small neighborhood boxing club in northwest Moscow, there is a huge, grainy photo of Stanislav Stepashkin, the 1964 Olympic featherweight champion who was one of Russia's early claims to international boxing fame, and a real Russian man if there ever was one.

Stepashkin agreed two years ago to serve as president of the club, and the neighborhood boys here renamed it in his honor.

These days, another photo hangs on the dank walls next to Stepashkin's, and while the picture isn't bigger, the man assuredly is: Nikolay Valuev, crowned in December as Russia's first World Boxing Assn. heavyweight champion.

Valuev himself strode into the gym recently during his triumphant return to Russia after the title bout, in which he defeated American John Ruiz on a controversial decision in Berlin to become the tallest (7 feet) and heaviest (323 pounds) world champion in history. He's so big he usually steps into the ring over the top rope ... so big that the adolescent pugilists at the Stepashkin Club would have barely been able to land a hook as high as his belly, if they had the nerve to try.

Most just craned their necks and gawked, or melted into nervous grins.

"I don't know about the world, but here in Russia, he's been very famous for a long time. For the kids here, this is such an emotional thing," said Alexei Barsukov, a former trainer who came back for the spread of iced tortes, fresh fruit and champagne laid out in the manager's office in Valuev's honor.

In the rest of the world, Valuev, 32, is known as the "Beast from the East" (promoter Don King wants to call him "King Kong" when he defends his title in the U.S.), but in his homeland, he is more often known as the "Russian Giant."

His brain is played up here as much as his brawn -- a boxer who reads Tolstoy and writes poetry to his wife? -- along with his diffident, quiet demeanor.

"You can't impose your own manner of fighting on him, and that's because of his life position. He's very calm, and very, very controlled," Barsukov said.

Added Vladimir Grachev, boxing coach at the club: "You have a person born with such a physique once in a hundred years. Such a build, and such an intellect -- Russia may not get another such man in our lifetimes."

Valuev's homecoming has been marred by an incident Jan. 19 in his hometown of St. Petersburg, where he was accused of beating a security guard who had directed his wife Galina -- rudely, she said -- to move her car when she brought the couple's 3-year-old son, Grigory, to skating lessons at a local sports club.

The guard, a 61-year-old pensioner, has been hospitalized for the last week with a concussion and bruises to the chest.

Valuev has said he was only standing up for his wife and child. "I tried to [push him] a little bit," the boxer said at a news conference Wednesday. "... There was a lot of black ice in that parking lot. What can I say? He slipped and fell. Now everybody is screaming that I began to beat him up horribly."

But a club employee contradicted that account. In a telephone interview, he said the confrontation took place inside the building's vestibule, not outside on the ice.

"I saw a huge man holding a small man with his left hand by the back of his jacket collar. The head of the small man was all hidden inside the jacket, while the big man was hitting him on the head, quickly and viciously," said Alexander Legoshin, 58. "At first the small man screamed, 'Nikolay, Nikolay!' I recognized the voice, it was Yuri Sergeyev, the guard. And suddenly, I realized that the big man was Nikolay Valuev, the boxing champion.

"Valuev's eyes were so wild that I understood that if I interfered, he would do me in, too."

He said the boxer hit the guard about 10 times in the head, then gave him a sharp uppercut to the chest, sending the man's body flying and landing with a thud. He finished it off with two more light blows, Legoshin said.

After the boxer left, Legoshin said, Sergeyev stood up and confronted Valuev's wife.

" 'Why? I didn't say anything bad to you,' " he said, according to Legoshin. " 'But what about your tone?' she said, turned around, and left."

The Russian boxing community has reacted with dismay.

"Nikolay is really the last person I expected to get involved in such a situation. He's a very quiet, calm, peaceful man," said Alexander Balenky, a boxing writer who has known Valuev for years. "If somebody insults my wife, I think I will do much more than Nikolai did."

Balenky is one of several Russians who said they saw Valuev's potential as a boxer years ago, even before his first professional victory against American John Morton in 1993, the initial step on the way to the boxer's current record of 43-0, with one no-decision.

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