The heavyweight boxing champion of the world handed in his championship belt this week. Now, he's taking his talent for the big fight to a far more brutal activity: the campaign to be president of Ukraine, writes Saul Austerlitz.
Newsmaker: Vitali Klitschko
Earlier this week, Vitali Klitschko officially vacated his title as World Boxing Council (WBC) heavyweight champion of the world. Klitschko was retiring from the ring, but not from fighting. In leaving boxing, he was merely taking his pugilistic skills to a larger stage and a potentially fiercer opponent.
Since announcing last month that Ukraine would not enter a free-trade deal with the European Union, the Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych has faced a growing outcry. Protesters have gathered in Kiev’s Independence Square, demanding Yanukovych’s resignation and a renewed effort at economic integration with the EU. Leading the charge against Yanukovych has been an array of opposition leaders, with Klitschko perhaps the most prominent among them. Klitschko has called for the dissolution of the government, and might stand to be the politician most likely to benefit from the president’s removal. Could the 42-year-old boxing champion be the next leader of Ukraine?
Vitali Klitschko was born on July 19, 1971, in Belovodsk, Kyrgyzstan, which was then part of the Soviet Union. His father was a general in the Soviet air force, and his mother was Russian by birth. Klitschko spent parts of his childhood in Czechoslovakia and Central Asia. He took up kick-boxing as a child and rapidly ascended to the sport’s highest reaches. He held a world championship title in kick-boxing on six occasions, both as an amateur and a professional, before trying his hand at boxing. Six-foot-seven and 250 pounds, Klitschko was known for a cautious style, which depended on the force of his punches, and his tactical savvy.
In 1996, Klitschko was selected to represent Ukraine at the Summer Olympics, before he was kicked off the team for having used illegal steroids. He later said that he had taken steroids after injuring himself in a kick-boxing match. His younger brother Wladimir went in his stead and won the gold medal in the superheavyweight division.
At the same time, Vitali was accepted into a doctoral programme in sports science at Taras Shevchenko National University of Kiev. Klitschko worked on his dissertation while also pursuing a professional career as a boxer, primarily living and training in Germany. In 1999, Klitschko knocked out Herbie Hide in the second round to win the World Boxing Organisation (WBO) heavyweight belt. After beginning his career with 27 straight knockout victories, Klitschko suffered his first loss in 2000, when a shoulder injury forced him to quit a fight against Chris Byrd. That same year, Klitschko successfully defended his dissertation. Klitschko’s twin pursuits gave him the nickname Dr Ironfist. (Wladimir Klitschko, who is currently the WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight champion, also holds a doctorate in sports science – he has been dubbed Dr Steelhammer.)
Klitschko lost his next championship bout, against Lennox Lewis – he was forced to quit after Lewis opened a cut above his left eye that would later require 50 stitches. He won the crown in 2004 after Lewis refused to defend his title, and Klitschko defeated Corrie Sanders. But boxing always exchanged jabs with politics and patriotism for the upper hand in Klitschko’s affections. During the Orange Revolution of 2004, Klitschko gave serious consideration to bowing out of a title fight against Danny Williams before receiving a call from the then-opposition leader Viktor Yushchenko, convincing him to fight. “We are involved in Ukraine politics and it touches everyone,” Klitschko said at the time. “It is very painful to read some news and the way they speak about Ukraine like it is a poor country, like a banana republic.” Klitschko fought in orange, in honour of the Ukrainian protesters, and the fight was broadcast in Independence Square. When he won, he dedicated his victory to democracy.
In 2005, he announced his retirement from boxing after damaging his anterior cruciate ligament while training for a fight with Hasim Rahman. The president of the WBC suggested that he might be using injury concerns to avoid fighting.
The next year, Klitschko returned to Ukraine after living in Los Angeles, and ran for mayor of Kiev. He campaigned on an anti-corruption, pro-European platform, using his celebrity and cosmopolitan background to boost his appeal. “I’ve been to many parts of the world and I know by comparison that there’s a better way of life in the United States and in Europe than there is here,” he said. “The traffic in Kiev is terrible because we don’t have real highways for cars to travel. My home is about a mile away from my office and sometimes it takes me an hour to get to work. There’s traffic in New York and Los Angeles, but nothing as incredible as this.” He finished second in the election, but won a seat on the city council.
Klitschko’s prominence, and his having earned his money legally, lent him an aura of being above the pettiness of politics. “I am not entering politics to make money,” he told a crowd last year. “I don’t need money.” Klitschko campaigned in a Volkswagen minivan and took questions at his appearances – both rarities in the elitist world of high-level Ukrainian politics.
He lost his second bid for the mayoralty, as well, but, in 2010, he helped to establish a new party called Udar, which stands for the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reforms, and perhaps just as significantly means “punch” in Ukrainian. The party brought Klitschko together with other prominent opposition figures (although it stood in deliberate, marked contrast to the All-Ukrainian Union “Fatherland” party of the former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko). Udar performed better than expected in 2012’s parliamentary elections and currently holds 42 of 450 seats in the Ukrainian legislature.
Klitschko is the head of a party with roots that are as much Russian as they are Ukrainian. Like many older Ukrainians, he grew up speaking Russian, and his command of Ukrainian is still faulty at times. He recently hired a tutor to assist him with the language, which he speaks at public appearances.
Since the protests against Yanukovych began, Klitschko has made regular appearances in Independence Square, calling for the release of arrested demonstrators and for the resignation of the entire government. He has sought to walk the thin line between protest and provocation, avoiding any action that might prompt the government to use force against him or his followers. Udar helped to set up a camp just outside the square, and Klitschko convinced police officers armed with a backhoe not to dismantle their site. He brought soup to riot police stationed nearby.
Some of the tactics of Klitschko’s earlier career came in handy for his new profession. In a video on YouTube, he appeared in a crowd of protesters, wielding a megaphone, and in the words of a Radio Free Europe blogger, used “a pre-fight stare-down” to intimidate a heckler. Last week, Yanukovych met with opposition leaders, but Klitschko, for one, was unimpressed: “Today, the authorities have not considered any of the opposition’s demands … This round table was for show.”
Yanukovych’s failure to sign the EU agreement and his heavy-handed repression has borne out Klitschko’s long-standing critique of the president, repeatedly stated during last year’s campaign, as backward-facing and beholden to Russia. But the Russian President Vladimir Putin’s announcement of a US$15 billion (Dh55.1bn) economic bailout for Ukraine, along with substantial discounts on natural-gas purchases, has given new momentum to Yanukovych, and it’s unclear whether Klitschko, or any other opposition figure, will be capable of ousting him. Giving up his championship belt, though, is an indication of Klitschko intentions. “The offer of the WBC gives me the theoretical possibility to return to the boxing ring, which I cannot imagine at all in the current state,” Klitschko said in a statement. “Right now, my full concentration is on politics in Ukraine and I feel that the people need me there.”
Klitschko is attempting to mobilise the forces of the Ukrainian opposition in his corner. The Orange Revolution, which had seemed to boot the forces of post-Soviet authoritarianism and oligarchy from power, collapsed into infighting between its two primary leaders: Yushchenko and Tymoshenko. Handsome, famous and wealthy, Klitschko is a logical figure to make the ascent to the national stage. His pro-Europe stance appeals to the more cosmopolitan, Ukrainian-speaking west, and his status as a national sporting hero may appeal to the more conservative, Russian-speaking east.
Even before the current round of unrest, Klitschko mused openly about running against Yanukovych for president in 2015. “My main goal is for Ukraine to be a European, modern country with European standards of life,” he told the BBC in August. “I will decide with people who have the same vision, the same dream, to go into politics and from the inside to change the situation.”
But Yanukovych is a wilier, more potentially damaging opponent than even Lennox Lewis ever was. “Ukrainian politics doesn’t have rules,” Klitschko said. “It’s not like boxing.”
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