Valuev just latest in infamous line of giants
Contrary to both evidence and popular belief, Nikolai Valuev, who fights David Haye in Germany on Saturday, holds as his rightful lineage not a mostly extinct tribe of mysterious, giant, hirsute half-humans.
In truth, the 7-foot St. Petersburg, Russia native is, like many European prizefighters, cerebral, philosophical and well read, and as such a poor target for the juvenile barbs and insults thrown at him with such glee by smarmy, shallow American boxing writers.
The men with whom Valuev shares a sort of over-sized lineage are the lumbering heavyweight giants who dwarfed opponents in bygone eras, and who, merely by virtue of their great size, were the villains in any good-guy, bad-bad guy promotion. Frankenstein monsters in short pants.
The first giant-sized fighter of note in the modern era was Jess Willard, who is remembered still mostly as the recipient of one of the great beatings ever taken by a heavyweight champion in futile defense of his title. Whether or not Jack Dempsey was aided by plaster in his gloves is another question entirely and isn’t explored here.
Willard, at 6 feet, 6 inches, would be considered a big heavyweight even today, but in 1911, which is when he turned pro at an improbable 29 years old, he was a freak of Biblical proportions. Most historians consider his size his only real asset, as it permitted him a psychological advantage over his much smaller opponents. Those who fought him took a different view.
“He looked like a big stiff. I’ll knock him out in a round,” Gunboat Smith, who decisioned Willard in 1912, recalled to author Peter Heller. “But the dirty bum could take it. And how he could take it, and how he could hit. I found that out.
“I threw my best punch at him and his hair wiggled a little bit. That’s all. I said, ‘Holy Jesus, that was my best punch – no detours, right from the floor, right on the chin.’ I says, ‘Wait a minute, I’ll have to try that again.’ I tried it again. Nothing happened. And he hit me with a right-hand uppercut, by God, he cracked a couple of ribs in me.”
The great Jack Johnson’s claim that he threw his fight with Willard, which netted Willard the heavyweight title in 1915, is generally regarded as hogwash, the thinking being that if one is going to throw a fight, he isn’t likely to wait until the 26th round to do so – especially in 103 degree heat.
Primo Carnera was the next giant to capture the attention of fight fans, not to mention the heavyweight title, which “The Ambling Alp” held for just under a year. At 6-5 and 260 pounds, he was slightly shorter than Willard but much thicker, and, as it tuned out, far better connected.
It is no secret that Carnera’s early career was controlled almost entirely by the mob. He was discovered working as a circus strongman and turned pro in 1928 under the guidance of manager Leon See. When he was brought to America in 1930, the mafia found him an irresistible commodity and fixed virtually all of his fights, a circumstance of which history suggests Carnera was not entirely aware. This was known in the fight community but more or less danced around by the boxing press.
On the eve of Carnera’s fight with Jack Sharkey for the heavyweight title, The New York Times’ James P. Dawson reported, “The (other) matches in which Carnera has participated can be disregarded in the main because nobody has ever taken them seriously.
“So it is that Carnera tomorrow will be on trial, and, alive to skepticism and disquieting rumors which have attached to the impending match, the state athletic commission realizes that boxing as a sport will be, to a great extent, on trial along with Carnera.”
Carnera stopped Sharkey in the sixth round with a single uppercut, which came as something of a surprise considering Sharkey’s well-earned reputation as a rugged, if inconsistent, fighter. Not to mention the easy decision win Sharkey scored over Carnera in their first match, which appeared up to the point of the knockout to be repeating itself.
Not everyone judged the outcome arranged. Writing for The Ring, columnist Jack Kofoed opined, “The Italian’s rise to the heavyweight championship of the world was due not to size alone ÔÇª but to his vast improvement in boxing and hitting.”
We all know what happened soon after. Max Baer destroyed Carnera in a manner not unlike the way Dempsey tortured Willard. Carnera toiled on in service to the mob, who got one last payday out of him when a young Joe Louis tore him to pieces in June 1935. Cue “The Harder They Fall,” the Budd Schulberg-authored screenplay based on Carnera’s hapless story.
Carnera was not the only giant heavyweight Louis chopped down. Buddy Baer, Max’s younger brother, stood 6-6 and weighed 237¾ pounds and towered over Louis when they met in Washington, D.C, in 1941.
In the first round Baer knocked Louis out of the ring with a left hook. Louis climbed back in and beat Baer around the ring, flooring him twice in the sixth. A right hand that landed right after the bell dropped Baer again and Baer’s manager, Ancil Hoffman, refused to let Baer answer the bell for the seventh, demanding that Louis be disqualified. Referee Arthur Donavan disqualified Baer instead.
The rematch, held eight months later in New York, ended in the first round with Baer, this time at 250 pounds, out cold. He never fought again.
Abe Simon, though a bit smaller than Baer at 6-4, outweighed Louis 254¾ to 202 when he met Louis in Detroit in 1941. After getting floored in the first round, Simon, according to the Times’ Joseph C. Nichols, “ÔÇª weathered the first round, survived several stormy exchanges in subsequent sessions and proceeded to give The Brown Bomber a slashing, all-out battle that went 13 rounds.”
“(Simon) bothered Louis no end with his long, pole-like left, which he stuck into the champion’s face steadily. So effective was the fire that it puffed up the area around Louis’ left eye as early as the seventh round,” wrote Nichols.
In the 13th, a volley of punches from Louis finally ended it.
It was the highlight of Simon’s career. He’d lost to most of the better heavyweights of the day, including Buddy Baer and Lou Nova, but did sport a knockout win over future champion Jersey Joe Walcott.
Like Baer before him, Simon got a rematch with Louis and was stopped in the fifth. And, like Baer, he never fought again, succumbing to several disturbing medical reports and the pleas of his long-suffering wife. According to his manager, Jimmy Johnston, Simon had about $50,000 in fights lined up when he retired at just 27 years old.
Other ring giants, most more sizzle than steak, have come and gone. Lee Canolito, Ed “Too Tall” Jones, Mike “The Giant” White, and, from the old days, Vittorio Campolo and Al Palzer, are a few.
Journeyman Julius Long, who is wonderfully named given that he stands 7-1, gets about as much business as he wants. In a different era, fighters such as Jameel McCline and Tye Fields certainly would have qualified as giants.
Among today’s fighters only the Klitschko brothers can be considered both giant and talented – hence their success
Valuev, for all his flaws, would like to be named among them. Alas, he is almost certainly more Carnera than Klitschko.
Some random observations from last week:
Arthur Abraham visited Valuev’s training camp recently, which occasioned a publicity shot of the two sitting together on the ring apron. Or, rather, Valuev sitting on the ring apron and Abraham sitting in Valuev’s lap. If you haven’t seen it, it looks a lot like this:
Kudos to Yonnhy Perez and Joseph Agbeko for the excellent scrap they put on Saturday night, and to Showtime for bringing it to us. One complaint: With Barry Tompkins still drawing breath, why are we stuck with Gus Johnson or Steve Albert? ÔÇª
Antonio DeMarco is the goods, but he should hope Edwin Valero stays in Venezuela or crashes his motorcycle again. Valero is too fast for him. ÔÇª
Good news: The winner of the Manny Pacquiao-Miguel Cotto fight will be the obvious choice to face Floyd Mayweather Jr. in Mayweather’s next fight. Bad News: To face either of them, Mayweather will demand $100 million in cash and controlling interest in a third of the planet’s oil reserves. ÔÇª
Bad News: Hector Camacho Jr. beat Yory Boy Campas Friday night. Worse News: Fernando Vargas, resembling a bald, tanned Peter Griffin, was hoisted into the ring afterward, where he challenged Camacho to a bout. And he was serious. …
In case you missed it, a second autopsy conducted in late September on the body of Arturo Gatti concluded that Gatti was indeed hanged, which effectively cleared his wife of any wrong doing. That shut us all up, didn’t it? ÔÇª
Hey, where were all you “size matters” guys when Tomasz Adamek beat the bejesus out of Andrew Golota? Golota had 2¾ inches and 42 pounds on Adamek. ÔÇª
It’s good to hear Chris Arreola is getting back in the ring so soon after his abysmal showing against Vitali Klitschko. The question is, will anyone fear him after the way he bawled when Klitschko beat him? I thought I was seeing George Costanza watching the end of “Home Alone.” ÔÇª
I want to say Kevin Johnson has the tools and the confidence to make things difficult for Klitschko when they meet in December, but I’m getting tired of Vitali making me look dumber than a lobotomized Ashton Kutcher.
Bill Dettloff can be reached at [email protected]