I’ve always suspected that, deep down inside, Don King aspired to become Carl Denham.
Now that his new protégé, hirsute giant Nicolay Valuev, has wrapped his massive paws around the WBA heavyweight championship, His Hairness appears to finally have succeeded: He’s now Don King Kong, promoter of the biggest thing to come along since the most famous ape in cinematic history hit Manhattan, or at least since Primo Carnera was on the marquee at Madison Square Garden.
“He’s ready, and we want America to know he’s coming,” a chortling King said of the 7-2, 323-pound Valuev (43-0, 31 KOs), who claimed the WBA title on a disputed majority decision over John Ruiz (41-6-1, 28 KOs) Dec. 17 in Berlin.
Hey, America already has caught a glimpse or two of Valuev, a Russian whose ponderous movements call to mind Lurch, the towering, zombielike butler from “The Addams Family.” I was at ringside at the Trump Taj Mahal in Atlantic City on June 30, 2001, when Valuev starched journeyman George Linberger in one round to mixed reviews. That was Valuev’s second and, to date, last bout in this country.
It was the plan of American entrepreneurs Joe O’Donnell and Don Elbaum to have the “Beast from the East” campaign in the United States and build a following here, much as the 6-5¼ Carnera, Italy’s oafish “Ambling Alp,” did in the 1930s before his ring flaws inevitably were exposed. But Valuev hightailed it back to Germany, land of the favorable house-fighter decision, to await his rediscovery by the next Denham. Enter King, whose fee for dangling Ruiz’s very attainable WBA title belt under Valuev’s elevated nose was four options on and a 50 percent interest in the largest man ever to hold a sliver of the heavyweight championship.
The clamor from those who believe they can take down the monosyllabic monolith was predictably loud and immediate.
“Boxing is the only sport where you can get robbed without a gun,” grumbled Ruiz, who, at 6-2 and 237¾ pounds, looked like a rag doll when entwined in Valuev’s long arms during what seemed like an endless procession of clinches. “My promoter Don King should do his job and get me a rematch.”
Sounding like Apollo Creed in calling out Ivan Drago, 43-year-old Evander Holyfield (38-8-2, 25 KOs), who has not fought since being put on medical suspension after losing a lopsided decision to Larry Donald on Nov. 13, 2004, figured he could whittle Valuev down.
“I’m hoping that I get the opportunity to fight him,” Holyfield told BBC Radio. “It would be a good show. The art of boxing is not so much the size, but what you can do with what God’s given you.”
The Lord hath giveth Commander Vander, a four-time heavyweight champion who attributes his career success to a higher power, many blessings in the ring. But five defeats in his eight most recent bouts strongly suggest that much of Holyfield’s once-prodigious talent has been taketh away by the same deity.
Not that repeated failure is a deterrent to the pursuit of a dream so enticingly represented by Valuev. Also chiming in is Andrew Golota (38-6-1, 31 KOs), who is 0-4 in world title bouts but is eager to try again.
“It’d be like fighting a mountain,” the 6-4 Golota said of a possible scrap with Valuev. “But then everybody’s better than Ruiz, and I hear Ruiz got robbed.”
It should come as no surprise that Ruiz, Holyfield and Golota, all marked down and relegated to the discount bin, are promoted by King and thus available as designated victims.
“Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it,” philosopher George Santayana once wrote, and it appears we are condemned to a stretch of recycled history in which Valuev will be cast as Carnera, a clumsy behemoth who dwarfed the heavyweights of his era much as Valuev dwarfs today’s (not so) big men.
Carnera was 16-2 when he was brought to the United States for a whirlwind succession of bouts against opponents who might or might not have gone into the tank to help him pad his record.
The big lummox won his first 23 bouts on this side of the pond, 22 by knockout, but the sole non-stoppage should have sent up warning signals that maybe he didn’t quite measure up to the hype. In his 18th U.S. bout, on June 23, 1930, at Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl, Carnera was taking a frightful beating at the hands of George Godfrey when he was awarded a fifth-round “victory” by disqualification, setting off a near-riot among the 35,000 spectators who knew the smell of rotten scrapple when they whiffed it.
Following that scare, Carnera was spoon-fed more soft touches, and his reputation as a fearsome and potentially lethal destroyer was embellished when Ernie Schaaf died 4 days after being stopped by Carnera on Feb. 10, 1933. It has been claimed by some that Schaaf fought with an old brain injury which contributed to his death as much or more as Carnera’s punches.
But reality hit Carnera, and hit him hard, when he stepped into the ring on to challenge heavyweight champion Max Baer on June 14, 1934, at the Madison Square Garden Bowl in Long Island City, N.Y. Baer floored Carnera 11 times before referee Art Donovan mercifully put a halt to the carnage in the 11th round.
“The Harder They Fall,” a 1947 novel by Budd Schulberg, was adapted into a pretty good 1956 motion picture most remembered as the final film appearance by Humphrey Bogart, who played a jaded sportswriter-turned-press agent. The book and the movie are thinly veiled indictments of the Carnera saga, in which the doomed fall guy is an Argentine named Toro Moreno, an affable but clueless sort who doesn’t realize he isn’t nearly as good as the hucksters have made him out to be.
Bogey is no longer with us, but no doubt there is a Humphrey Bogus out there to beat the drums and attempt to convince gullible American fight fans that Nicolay Valuev, like the great hairy creature that was taken from his jungle lair to become Carl Denham’s premier attraction, really is the Eighth Wonder of the World.
HEADS AND HEARTS
Heavyweight contender “Baby” Joe Mesi was in a celebratory mood after the Tonawanda, N.Y., heavyweight’s legal fight to have his medical suspension by the Nevada State Athletic Commission resulted in victory last week.
“It’s Christmas time and I want to enjoy Christmas, but I’m going to get right back in the gym,” said the 32-year-old Mesi (29-0, 25 KOs), whose career has been in limbo following his March 13, 2004, bout with Vassiliy Jirov, which Mesi won on a unanimous decision despite the fact he was knocked down three times in the final two rounds. After the bout, Mesi, who complained of headaches, was examined by a Las Vegas physician who discovered that he had suffered two subdural hematomas.
When the brain bleeds became public knowledge, the NSAC suspended him, effectively ending his career. But Mesi and his father-manager, Jack Mesi, insisted the injuries were not as severe as suggested. They enlisted neurologists and other medical experts, not to mention a battery of lawyers, to bolster their claims that the hematomas had healed and the younger Mesi was no more at risk any other fighter.
Clark County District Court Judge Douglas Herndon ruled that, since Mesi’s license in Nevada had expired, the commission no longer had jurisdiction over him. In the face of Herndon’s decision, the Nevada commission had no choice but to capitulate.
“I’m willing to let bygones be bygones,” said Jack Mesi, who said the last 22 months had been “stolen from us” while he and his son, who had been the WBC’s No. 1-rated heavyweight, fought the suspension. “I think (the NSAC) honestly tries to do what’s right in trying to protect fighters, but they’ve made some blunders along the way.”
But before the Mesis pop those champagne corks, perhaps they should consider the fate which befell former Boston Celtics star Reggie Lewis.
Lewis collapsed to the floor of the Boston Garden during a first-round playoff game against the Charlotte Hornets on April 29, 1993. A “dream team” of 12 cardiologists examined Lewis at Northeast Baptist Hospital in Boston and ultimately concluded that he suffered from ventricular tachycardia, the most dangerous form of arrhythmia.
Lewis, determined to play again, sought a second opinion and found one more to his liking from another doctor, who diagnosed neurocardiogenic syncope, not heart disease. He prescribed beta-blockers and cleared Lewis to return to the NBA.
On July 27, 1993, approximately two months after the more favorable diagnosis, Lewis collapsed and died while shooting hoops in a Boston gym.
The Mesis, like Lewis, appear to think that the reward for remaining in the arena is worth the risk. Others fear that the game that Baby Joe will now play actually is Russian roulette.
“Our rules and regulations say that if you suffered a severe (subdural) hematoma you cannot fight again,” said Marc Ratner, executive director of the NSAC. “I guess we’ll have to tweak our rules.”
And continue praying.