New Yorkers pride themselves on being unimpressed by celebrity, or at least, appearing suitably uninterested when a person of note drifts into their midst.
But the façade of cool cracked repeatedly this week as promoter Don King brought his newest find, the immense Russian-born heavyweight Nicolay Valuev, into NYC. The boxing world's Barnum hopes to cultivate interest in the WBA heavyweight champion, who is scheduled to fight American journeyman Monte Barrett on Oct. 7 in Rosemont, Ill., just outside Chicago.
Valuev, who owns a 44-0 record as a professional against lower- and mid-tier opposition, stands 7 feet tall and weighs 330 pounds. He is the largest man ever to hold a title belt, and as he and King bolted around Manhattan to visit King's pal Donald Trump and pop into the UN headquarters, Valuev drew copious stares and double takes.
Is he a basketball player?
Is he Vince McMahon's newest find?
Is he the new bad guy in a forthcoming James Bond flick?
No, on all accounts, although Valuev's people insist the boxer is sifting through scripts that are attached to Hollywood heavyweights as we speak. Nicolay Valuev is the man Don King hopes will attract some needed buzz to the moribund heavyweight division, which has lacked a marquee headliner since Lennox Lewis called it a day after he battled Vitali Klitschko in 2003. King unveiled the massive mountain of a man on Wednesday afternoon at the Fire Bird Russian Restaurant in Manhattan's Theater District.
All the media members in attendance craned their necks to get a good gander at Valuev, who joined King on a dais with his German-based co-promoter, Wilfried Sauerland, and his trainer, Manuel Gabrielian. On first appraisal, Valuev looked sharp in a well-tailored suit, but with deep furrows on his cheeks and a Shar-Pei puppy-type ruffling on top of his head, his features made for compelling viewing.
Not quick with a grin, Valuev has the type of mug that would come in quite handy if you needed help shushing some rude teens at the movie theater for yakking on their cell phones, let us say.
It quickly became apparent, though, after King addressed the assembled media with an anti-terrorism/pro-President Bush spiel, that Valuev is not merely a freakish physical specimen with a fearsome countenance. In a Q & A with reporters, he showed an agile wit.
The more pressing question for fight fans and those who are aching for a must-see attraction in boxing's glam weight class: Will the 7-foot Valuev show impressive qualities against Barrett, a 6-3 Queens, N.Y.-born heavyweight with a 31-4 (17 KOs) mark since he turned pro in 1996?
King thinks so, and has a few million reasons to keep his fingers tightly crossed.
"Valuev takes on all comers," the loquacious promoter, who turned 75 last week, said. "He'll bring fame and acclaim to a re-energized division that is truly looking for a Rocky now."
HBO will show the Valuev-Barrett scrap, and HBO boxing chief Kery Davis expressed a hope that the outcome will provide clarity in a weight class that features four beltholders from the former Soviet Union: Valuev (WBA), Wladimir Klitschko (IBF), Oleg Maskaev (WBC) and Sergei Liakhovich (WBO). For about a year, the programmer said, fans have been asking him about the outsized fighter from St. Petersburg, Russia.
"We do barbershop research," Davis explained. "Lately, people have been coming up to me and saying, 'What's the story with that big Russian guy?' Monte Barrett will provide the test: is this guy the real deal or not."
King's latest moneymaker turned pro in 1993, so Valuev is definitively no "Too Tall" Jones, a dabbler who sells tickets on curiosity appeal alone. Now 33, he took the WBA belt when he defeated the awkward but effective John Ruiz (in a majority decision) in December 2005 and defended the title against Jamaican Owen Beck in June (TKO3). The Ruiz win, it must be pointed out, was bitterly disputed by the Ruiz camp; another notable win, against Larry Donald in October 2005, came by a supermodel-slim margin.
Valuev, though, did his best to score with anyone on the fence about his potential, with a good-humored opening greeting to the media.
"I'm happy to be in America," he said.
Then, in Russian through an interpreter, Valuev said he was happy to see so many smiling faces in the city during his tour, a surprise in light of the World Trade Center attack nearly five years ago.
After Barrett told the fight writers that he was in superior shape and mentally sharp, having tidied up his personal life since his last fight (an underwhelming draw with Hasim Rahman last summer), Valuev came back to the podium for a Q & A.
"Only in America," he said, after King prompted him for more of the English he's been learning. Those words, King's motto that speaks to the U.S. as the land of opportunity, got a laugh.
Valuev parried skillfully when one writer asked him how he'd fight himself.
"That's a secret I only share with my students," he said.
A jokester in the audience asked the sky-high hitter if he'd move down to cruiserweight (200 pounds and under) if he lost to Barrett.
"First, I'm not going to lose," Valuev assured everyone. "But to become a cruiserweight, I'd have to lose both legs. And then I'd be a disabled boxer and there is no disabled boxing today."
Another reporter asked Valuev if he'd considered any other vocation besides the fight game, such as the movies.
"I'm not interested in movies, I'm just a boxer," he said, then admitted that he had done some film work. A business manager was called to the podium to field the query.
Valuev, who splits his time between St. Petersburg and Berlin, his fighting home base, has appeared in a German movie. Also, scripts are in consideration for the near future, the manager said, with actors like Robert DeNiro and Vin Diesel attached.
A question came from the audience whether Valuev thinks he has faced down serious competition.
The fighter bristled, almost imperceptibly, but when the questioner shrugged off Ruiz as a quality foe, his temper flared.
"Is that what you think, that Ruiz wasn't a serious opponent?" he asked.
The man shrugged and indicated he didn't think much of Ruiz and that he hadn't seen enough of Valuev to offer a considered take.
"Then why ask this question?" the boxer said.
"Nyet," was all he said when asked if he'd ever been hurt in a bout.
Fight fans who summarily dismiss the 7-footer, supposing that he cannot possibly be coordinated enough to summon enough ring generalship to compete with even a middling heavyweight, might be in for a surprise come Oct. 7.
Having viewed video of Valuev, it is clear he has indeed grown as a technician; he owns an adequate jab (mostly used to dissuade his foe from coming forward), average power and most important, in-ring intelligence. He stays cool, is patient and is much more nimble afoot than one might suspect on first glance.
He's no Baryshnikov, mind you, but Valuev remembers to keep his feet moving, so it will be hard for Barrett, who will be outweighed by 100 pounds, to get a clean potshot at his immense noggin.
Don't be surprised if Valuev proves to have more staying power than cynics who might deride him as a carnival attraction might think. Vince McMahon and Hollywood might have to wait.
Michael Woods, the news editor for TheSweetScience.com, has written for ESPN The Magazine, GQ and the New York Observer.