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Boxing's tallest and heaviest champion ever

Valuev is a hero in Russia, controversy or no controversy.

By Kim Murphy

Times Staff Writer

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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.

Professional boxing was banned in the former Soviet Union when Valuev was growing up. He instead had played basketball and thrown the discus, and was working as a bouncer at a restaurant in St. Petersburg when trainer Oleg Shalayev noticed him at a local gym.

"I felt a desire burning in me to turn him into a boxer," the trainer recalled.

Valuev, in an interview at the elegant old Sovietsky Hotel in Moscow, said he was willing to learn, and figured the training would prove useful in his day job in any case. "I quickly started liking the sport, and started developing it," he said.

After the Morton fight, Valuev went back to the amateur circuit in Russia, though he was at a disadvantage against younger, quicker, more experienced boxers -- and was eventually disqualified anyway because of the earlier professional match.

Shalayev invited him to move into his house and began focusing on training him as a pro.

"I decided not to teach him to throw straight punches at a big distance -- 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," Shalayev said. "You see, teaching speed takes a lot of time. And Nikolay needed a tactic that would force everybody to come to him. ... They came to him, and he clobbered them."

Valuev racked up six Pan-Asian boxing championships and won his first U.S. fight in Atlantic City in 2001, a first-round knockout of George Linberger. But the huge boxer towered over most of his opponents, and his bouts were seen more as freak sideshows than fights.

Valuev, apparently believing he needed an international promoter if he was ever going to win the championship, parted company with Shalayev and signed on with German Wilfried Sauerland, who staged a series of successful contests in Germany leading up to the Dec. 17 fight with the 237-pound Ruiz that landed him the championship.

Two of the three judges scored the bout for Valuev, 116-114 and 116-113, and the other scored it even, 114-114. The decision prompted loud booing. Ruiz's manager ran into the ring and grabbed back the title belt, Valuev's corner man also ran in and the two men came to blows.

"In my opinion, Valuev lost every round of that fight," said Shalayev, who is now locked in a court battle with Valuev over their past contract. "And it speaks poorly of the WBA that they made the decision that they did. They were simply blinded by his physique.

"I can tell you, by nature, Valuev is a lazy person," Shalayev added. "His techniques now are going nowhere. His legs and arms are dangling all over the place, he's stopped hitting from the bottom up, he doesn't feint the way he used to."

Ruiz has demanded a rematch, and Valuev says he would consider it if the WBA rules in Ruiz's favor. In the meantime, his first title defense is set for April 1 in Hannover, Germany, against 6-foot-1 Jamaican Owen Beck.

He personally hopes for a match soon against Vladimir Klitschko of Ukraine.

"My strengths are patience, hard work and a desire to achieve my goals," he said. "It was my father who developed those traits in me. He believed that if you take up something, anything, then you have to see it through to the end."

His own assessments are moderate. "I'm concentrating on improving, so I can keep the title two or three fights," he said after beating Ruiz.

"He's a person of unique modesty, and it is this attitude that has made him a champion," said Grachev, the trainer at the Stepashkin Club. "He never evaluates his abilities higher than they are. He devotes himself to constant perfection. He works hard. He makes himself better with each passing day."

Lining up for photos, Grachev prepared to take a show punch from Valuev's massive fist. The boxer promised he wouldn't hit hard. Grachev didn't insist. The boys looked on, mouths agape. A couple of them knocked each other in the shoulder, and fumbled to get their own gloves.

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Times staff writer Sergei L. Loiko contributed to this report.