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Revamped Valuev looking to clinch belt against familiar foe Ruiz

Nikolai Valuev has been called everything from Shrek to The Beast from the East; Lurch (of "The Addams Family" fame) to the Tower of Force; Rock Man to The Russian Giant.

But looks can be deceptive. The 35-year-old Russian, who will challenge John Ruiz for a vacant heavyweight title belt Saturday at Max Schmeling Halle in Berlin, is most frequently defined by his 7-foot, 320-pound frame -- and why not?

Once he wrestled and killed a wild boar, which had attacked one of his dogs while he was hunting in the forests near St. Petersburg.

"The boar was too close to my dog, so I couldn't risk shooting it. I had to kill it with a knife," he said, matter-of-factly. "It's nothing special; it happens all the time."

Beneath the Russian machismo, however, Valuev is more cerebral than he's given credit for.

He has always loved literature -- Leo Tolstoy and other great Russian writers, Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Jack London -- and he wooed his wife, Galya, with poetry that he composed himself.

"This is not the image I want to give. I'm a boxer; not a poet," Valuev said. "I do many things in my life. With my friends, I hunt for ducks, deer and wild boar, and I go fishing with my son, Grisha. A man is many things, and the most important is his family. Every man needs his family around him to feel complete."

A pragmatic man indeed. So when he lost his unbeaten record by majority decision against Ruslan Chagaev from Uzbekistan in April 2007, Valuev recognized that he needed to refine his technique.

Valuev changed trainers, transitioning from the animated Manuel Gabrielian to the more austere Alexander Zimin, who coached the old Soviet Union amateur boxing team. After outpointing Canada's Jean-Francois Bergeron in September 2007, he produced a dominating performance against former titleholder Sergei Liakhovich from Belarus, winning every round in a February 2008 title eliminator at the Nuremberg Arena in Germany.

Granted, this was no off-the-floor gut check, a la George Foreman-Ron Lyle, but it takes a lot less to be rehabilitated in today's heavyweight division than it did in the halcyon days of the mid-1970s.

Valuev's long left jab -- the giant has an amazing 85-inch reach -- was a key weapon, for it thudded through Liakhovich's guard repeatedly. Liakhovich was kept off balance through much of the bout, and Valuev dominated the exchanges with a variety of punching -- something that was non-existent on the night he lost to Chagaev.

"Nikolai fought a poor tactical fight and this is what cost him his title, but he is a much better boxer than he showed against Chagaev," Zimin said. "My challenge since I began to work with Nikolai has been to improve his technique and to make him a more rounded boxer.

"He has great physical advantages over almost all of the heavyweights and, with more movement and a more effective strategy, he can make these count against anybody."

To encourage greater flexibility and to assist his recovery after hard sessions in the gym, Zimin has even introduced swimming into Valuev's preparations for his rematch against Ruiz, from whom he won the title by a controversial majority decision in December 2005.

A Goliath in gloves and a blue pair of trunks that could double as curtains, Valuev displayed the athletic grace of a herd of buffalo on the stampede that night in Berlin. Of course, Ruiz has never been balletic himself, so he was still doomed.

From ringside, the judges appeared to get the decision wrong. Ruiz found Valuev harder to hit than he expected, however, and Valuev was game, standing up to the hooks that Ruiz smashed against his chin and into his massive midriff. Ruiz's failure to box more assertively created the necessary illusion for the big man in the eyes of the judges.

"Am I a better boxer now than I was three years ago? I believe that I am. Certainly, I am more confident," Valuev said. "My technique has improved a lot over the past several months through working with my new coach, and I will show this in the ring.

"Ruiz threw more punches than he does usually when he fought Jameel McCline in his last contest, but we will see if he can throw so many against me."

Ruiz, 36, arrived in Berlin last week, confident that he can avenge his defeat by Valuev at the same arena, which will accommodate another 10,000-strong crowd.

"I will be the aggressor and I will take the fight to him more, which was the mistake I made when we fought before, even though I'm convinced that I won," Ruiz said. "My plan is to move around, show him angles and hit him with sharp and fast combination punches. All his swimming won't help him when he's in deep water in this fight, believe me."

Perhaps not, but his work in the gym with Zimin should be enough to secure victory on points for Valuev.

And then?

"There is no one in the heavyweight division who can beat Niko if he continues to improve," said promoter Wilfried Sauerland. "We would love to make a match with Wladimir Klitschko. In Germany this would be a huge fight."

If the heavyweights are to be woken from their slumber, it will take something huge.

Brian Doogan is a sportswriter for the London Sunday Times and is the longtime European correspondent for The Ring magazine.