A puncher's chance

Heavyweight titleholder Vitali Klitschko aims to become the next president of Ukraine

Originally Published: September 21, 2013
By Brett Forrest | ESPN The Magazine

This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Sept. 16 Fighting Issue. Subscribe today!

A YEAR IS a long time to rest. Vitali Klitschko last fought on Sept. 8, 2012, and his hands have been silent since. He has no lack of challengers. Plenty of them are lining up for the chance to lose to Klitschko or to his brother, Wladimir, who together have ruled the heavyweight class for a decade. Vitali will hold on to his WBC title until he faces a mandatory defense of it next spring, or until retirement.

The reason for his inactivity is simple and fundamental. The champ has no time for boxing. He is 42 years old. As his temples gray, the man has found a more mature pursuit that might lead him to another title. Even though he has yet to announce his candidacy for the 2015 elections, Klitschko is favored to become the next president of his native Ukraine.

Since Klitschko's last fight, UDAR, the reformist political party he founded, has won 42 seats in Ukraine's 450-seat national parliament. Ukrainian politics is a corrupt arena rife with physical peril, so at least Klitschko is trained for this next bout, no less rough. Difference is, in the political ring, his foes are formidable. And, as we discovered while watching his political ambitions sharpen into focus over the past year, losing the vote might be the least of his worries.


IN THE AUSTRIAN Alps, it's easy to forget what country you come from, realizing how pleasant it would be to call this place home instead. It is July 2012. Klitschko has set up camp here in preparation for his Sept. 8 fight against Germany's Manuel Charr. He drives along a newly paved road, past homes of contented moderation, beneath jagged mountains that encourage introspection. "Life is perfect here," says Klitschko, his 6'7½" frame engulfing the steering wheel of his Mercedes SUV. "But we are not from here. We are from Ukraine."

The collective Klitschko speaks of might refer to himself and Wladimir, 37, who between them hold six major heavyweight boxing titles. "We" could also encompass all Ukrainians, heirs to a Soviet history that has prevented their country from developing into the type of stable European democracy Klitschko is now seeing through his windshield. In its 22 years of independent governance, Ukraine has endured violence, theft and pocket-lining so brazen it would cause a Washington lobbyist to plead for restraint. "Being a politician in Ukraine is really something," Klitschko says, stopping at a security gate that reaches across the mountain road. "He steals. He kills people. He makes business for himself and not for the country. I'm the heavyweight champion, and I make good money. But it's nothing compared to a Ukrainian politician."

It is his Charr match that brings Vitali Klitschko to the village of Going am Wilden Kaiser; many experts speculate the fight will be his last. The Klitschko brothers have so controlled their weight class, winning 24 title defenses over the past seven years, 18 by knockout, that heavyweight boxing has spiraled into an identity crisis. Vitali now considers himself a politician foremost, decreasingly so an athlete, with plans to import into his country the egalitarian values that now come naturally to a place like Austria.

Klitschko parks the car and steps onto the gravel driveway in front of a two-story wooden ski lodge. Down the mountain is the Stanglwirt, a five-star resort where the Klitschkos have trained for nearly all of their title defenses, believing the oxygen-deprived mountain air beneficial to their preparations. In Austria and neighboring Germany, the Stanglwirt has become known as the Klitschko base of operations, and fans understand where to find them. Therefore, after an afternoon's open training session at the resort, Vitali migrates to this mountain house, secluded by woods. The location hasn't provided total sanctuary. Over the years, several women have made the hike up the mountain pass, bypassing the security gate, to make a particular offering to Wladimir. Vitali, who has three children with his wife of 17 years, Natalia, never answers the door.

Wladimir is the younger brother, the nicer one. Vitali is less inclined to appeals. This bearing is well-suited to Ukraine's politics. Debates in the Ukrainian parliament, the Rada, sometimes erupt into physical brawls -- a legislative chamber turned into a rumble for cash and property. Klitschko was tear-gassed during a demonstration outside a government building the previous summer, his right hand sliced open by a broken bottle. These are among the prices of politics in his country.

"Being a good guy is not a profession," he says as he settles down to a dinner of grilled chicken and sweet potatoes. The day's sparring, against a trio of younger fighters, replays on the pull-down screen that covers one window of the house. Klitschko is the bigger man on the video, as is customary in the ring and in life. Fighting against him is like fighting your older brother. You lunge and stretch and swing away, but his height and reach advantage render you helpless. In 47 career fights, Klitschko has never been knocked down. Still, his longtime German trainer, Fritz Sdunek, reminds him that Charr, whom Vitali will fight in Moscow, is undefeated at 21–0. Klitschko listens, nods, but other numbers rouse his thoughts.


Vitali KlitschkoAP Photo/Sergei ChuzavkovVitali Klitschko seeks to rid his country of corruption and "reset the system."

UKRAINE HAS THE largest swath of rich soil in Europe, yet its people suffered a devastating forced famine intended to suppress nationalism. It has a sizable, educated workforce, but jobs and prosperity are scarce. Its statehood has a rich history dating to the ninth century, but Ukraine struggles to define its sovereignty. It measures 233,000 square miles, which makes it the largest country located entirely within Europe, yet it often feels Third World in its stagnation. Its positive attributes would predict economic growth were it not for the singular fact of corruption, a legacy of Soviet bureaucracy that has robbed Ukraine of its financial capital.

Klitschko has long known the circumstances. In November 2004, he was training in Los Angeles for his first WBC title defense, against Danny Williams in Las Vegas, while the most significant event in Ukrainian politics was unfolding. The Orange Revolution was a fight between halves, the western half of the country leaning toward the rule of law, the eastern half favoring continued allegiance to Moscow's system of patronage. During his election campaign, the western candidate, Viktor Yushchenko, was allegedly poisoned with dioxins by his eastern political foes, his face grotesquely disfigured. When the Party of Regions, which supported the east's candidate, Viktor Yanukovych, attempted to steal the national election, Yushchenko supporters occupied Kiev's main street; nearly 1 million people camped out for a month in the winter cold demanding a new vote. The country plummeted into social, political and economic crisis as talk of an imminent armed conflict circulated through the nation's largest city.

Klitschko experienced a political awakening.

"I wanted to cancel the fight and fly to Ukraine," he says. During training, he woke up at 4 a.m., seeking updates from friends who were active in the Orange Revolution. Danny Williams had knocked out Mike Tyson in his previous fight, and Sdunek was concerned that his distracted charge would meet a similar result against the British challenger. He urged Klitschko to focus, telling him, "It's better if the world champion uses the boxing ring as a stage for democracy." The next month, Klitschko fought with an orange sash fastened to his black trunks and stopped Williams in the eighth. It would be Klitschko's last fight for almost four years.

The western candidate, Yushchenko, won a revote in January, and many Ukrainians were hopeful that this signaled positive change. "I was very motivated," Vitali says. "I was ready to invest my energy and time." Slowly, however, political realities undermined the Orange Revolution, the idealistic talk of protests gone with the warmth of spring. "The millionaires wanted to trade places with the billionaires," Klitschko says.

While he became disillusioned with politics, his boxing career was about to take a similar adverse turn. Just nine days before his scheduled title defense against Hasim Rahman in April 2005, Klitschko tangled legs with a sparring partner, tearing his right ACL. Klitschko had to cancel the fight. The ACL injury, an old shoulder tear, a bad ankle -- the many ailments of an extended boxing career compounded to push Klitschko to retire from boxing altogether a few months later.

But he wasn't done fighting. Disappointed by the failure of the Orange Revolution yet committed to its principles, Klitschko entered politics himself. "I told Vitali, 'It's too much work,' " Sdunek says. " 'You'll have problems with bandits.' But he's a fanatic." Klitschko ran for mayor of Kiev in 2006. He finished second, with 24 percent of the vote. He hired former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani as a political consultant and ran again in 2008. This time, Klitschko finished third, with 18 percent of the vote, exposing a weak political chin, unprepared for the challenges of this new arena. All he says now is, "A bad loser tries to find excuses."

Klitschko's defeats did yield a consolation prize: He was granted a seat on the Kiev City Council. The council is a den of kickbacks, inside deals and politicians who get rich by embracing the entrepreneurial spirit. "On the city council, I saw from the inside how dirty the game is," Klitschko says. He has been involved in several physical altercations in council sessions. Although he has yet to cock his powerful right hand to settle a legislative dispute, the fact that some colleagues are unafraid to provoke him speaks to the value of the property that is often up for grabs. "It's really a fight," he says. "And it's very important to know the rules."


PREFIGHT WEIGH-INS are usually good for a laugh, and the Sept. 7 weigh-in preceding the bout between Klitschko and Charr at Moscow's Olimpiyskiy stadium provides its own humor. The emcee speaks heavily accented English, accentuated by his attempt at ringside grandeur. When an undercard fighter steps onto the scale, the scale breaks. This is what happens when you are European and the heavyweight champ and you have beaten all the best Americans. You fight in Moscow because Vegas gets a better gate with acrobats or magic shows or Floyd Mayweather.

Still, Charr is treating this as if it's still the big time as the two fighters converge for the obligatory stare-down. When they have ogled each other long enough for neither fighter to be called a coward, a promoter steps between them. But Charr refuses to back away. An uproar ensues. Charr wants to be taken seriously. But he achieves the opposite result, laughter rising from the crowd. And when the challenger leaves the stage, Klitschko breaks into a grin. These fights all end the same.

Klitschko returned to boxing in October 2008 and regained his WBC title by beating Nigeria's Samuel Peter in Berlin. The Klitschkos eventually became the first brothers to hold all of boxing's heavyweight titles. This goal achieved, Vitali could turn his attention to reshaping his political career.

On the Kiev City Council, Klitschko had participated in coalitions, a necessity in a country of 44.5 million with 200 political parties; voting blocs are the only way to pass legislation. But Vitali had a change of heart. "I realized I don't have to support anybody," he says. "We had to build our own vision."

For this, he turned west. The brothers had begun their professional careers in the gyms of Germany, where the fight game was more sophisticated than in scrappy Ukraine. They learned to speak German fluently. They came to identify with the culture of the country, appreciating the higher standard of living. In turn, Germans -- who awarded Vitali the nation's highest civilian award, the Federal Cross of Merit, in 2010 for "strengthening German-Ukrainian relations" -- consider the Klitschkos one of them. In spring 2009, Vitali capitalized on this familiarity to aid his political designs. He arranged a conference with the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the party of German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

"I needed to see how a real political party is structured," Klitschko says. For a week, he and his delegates met with CDU staff at its headquarters in Berlin. "I was afraid," he says. "They have a huge structure. Very complex. It was a dark woods." Unlike highly centralized Ukrainian political parties, the CDU was a web of party councils, regional representatives and advisory groups. It fostered equality by canvassing members, an approach that appealed to Klitschko's sporting sense of fair play. "Vitali Klitschko's primary goal is to introduce Ukraine to the European community of values," says Hermann Groehe, secretary general of the CDU. "He shows great determination." That determination has been constantly tested: In February 2010, the spirit of the Orange Revolution met its symbolic end. The eastern candidate in the 2004 election, Viktor Yanukovych, won the Ukrainian presidency.

Two months later, Klitschko and a dozen of his advisers met in Kiev, intent on turning their growing political bloc into a legitimate party. They wanted greater focus for their mission, a clear brand for the voting public. They needed a name. As the meeting wore on, Klitschko punched a fist into his palm. "We need a name that's like a punch in the head," he said, "something that will wake people up." Victoria Podgornaya, a political scientist and former consultant to Klitschko asked: "Are we Ukrainian? Do we support democracy? Do we agree that we need to make alliances to achieve our goals? And are we not for reform? We should name the party 'UDAR.' " The name stuck, and not just because it was a catchy acronym. The word udar is Ukrainian and Russian for punch.

In the ring at the Olimpiyskiy, Manuel Charr quickly learns what the word means. Fighters will tell you that Klitschko is difficult to defeat because he is awkward. His punches arrive in unpredictable fashion, from odd angles and at random frequency, generated from his ungainliness. Opponents find this cadence confusing, and while they try to figure out a way to combat it, Klitschko wears them down, ultimately sapping their will to compete.

In the fourth round in Moscow, Klitschko's left hand connects and cuts Charr over the right eye. The cut bleeds badly, and the doctor stops the fight. The fans, unfulfilled, whistle their displeasure. The arena feels dark and empty and far from the meaningful things in the world. The Klitschkos have fought everyone there is to fight. They can't be blamed for their dominance. Vitali climbs down from the ring and walks toward the dressing rooms. He might be leaving the boxing arena. But there's hardly much left to leave.


KLITSCHKO RETURNS TO Kiev two days after the Charr fight. It is election season in Ukraine, and Klitschko convenes a news conference, entering the room looking nothing like the fighter he was in Moscow. He wears a crisp suit. He carries a slim brief. He has not even a mark on his face. Klitschko's manner is bright, hopeful even, as he takes a seat on the dais, observes the gathered media and says, "We want politics to work for the people, and not just for the wealthy. Our task is to reset the system."

[+] EnlargeVitali Klitschko
Sebastian Widmann/dapd/AP ImagesLike boxing, Ukrainian politics is a blood sport; even a champ must issue verbal warnings to avoid coming to blows.

More than 60 percent of Ukrainians believe their country has developed in the wrong direction since the fall of the Soviet Union. This is what surveys will tell Klitschko in advance of the parliamentary election on Oct. 28. As its name implies, UDAR says it plans to deliver a shock to the Ukrainian system: radically transforming an ingrained social and political culture of graft and intimidation into one based on the rule of law. Although those closest to Klitschko question undertaking such an overwhelming task when he could easily go into business after boxing, he said simply, to his wife, "This is what I have decided."

He feels driven to this path. In 2007 the mayor of Kiev, Leonid Chernovetsky, manipulated the law to obtain nearly 7,500 acres of state land valued at $10 billion. Chernovetsky and his supporters canvassed members of the Kiev City Council, attempting to gather the votes needed to transfer the land to shell companies under their control. A fellow councilman approached Klitschko, offering him $1 million for every vote he could deliver. Although Klitschko declined the offer ("I told him, 
'F -- off,' " he says), other city council members were more pliant. "They feel these numbers can totally change their lives," Klitschko says. The motion passed. Chernovetsky fled to Tel Aviv and eventually resigned; Kiev is now run by an administrator appointed by the president.

This is the nature of power in Ukraine. "A government representative makes $30,000 a year," Klitschko says, "but he drives a Bentley to work. Everybody knows he's corrupt. But nobody says anything."

His message is one that any politician might offer a discontented voter. Klitschko wants to create an independent board to fire corrupt government officials. He wants to reduce bureaucracy, establish a public veto, open the state's books. Why should Ukrainians believe him when similar Orange Revolution pledges resulted in nothing but backsliding? "In a primitive sense, voters see Klitschko as a strong man who looks like a leader," says Andreas Umland, a political science professor at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Kiev. "The hope is that since he is already rich, and that he hasn't stolen it like the other politicians here, he is different from the others."

Some political observers in Kiev contend that Klitschko will find the implementation of his plans unmanageable, or that he lacks the political brainpower to play such a complicated game. Others fear an even crueler outcome. "Politics is really without rules," Wladimir says. "In boxing, you're gonna get a bloody nose or a bruise under the eye. In politics, you can get a bullet in the head or dioxins in the food."


VITALI WAS FRIGHTENED. It was his first day of basic training in the Soviet military. The year was 1989, and the momentous political changes that were taking place across the Eastern bloc would soon reach Kiev itself. Klitschko's father, Vladimir, a colonel in the air force, had arranged for him to be assigned to a notoriously difficult base in Ukraine. Vladimir wanted his son, already an accomplished kickboxer at 17, to prove just how tough he was.

Klitschko's basic training group was made up largely of conscripts from Azerbaijan, a former Soviet republic. When the lights went out on that first night, the Azeris roamed the bunkhouse, swinging belts, using brass buckles, asserting their control over the platoon. Klitschko was in the ethnic minority, and he had no choice but to stand up for himself, scared as he was. At roll call the next day, the drill sergeant let the group in on a little secret. The towering Ukrainian in their midst -- the one who had doled out his share of black eyes and bruises the night before -- was the kickboxing champion of the Soviet Union. The Azeris suddenly changed their attitude toward Klitschko. "I was 'Bro' from then on," he says. "You have to show your skills. You have to show that you are ready to defend yourself."

He had learned an early political lesson, that to win over his enemies, he first had to confront and defeat them. The October election results only serve to affirm that lesson. In a vote that will be tainted by fraud, Klitschko's UDAR finishes third, winning 14 percent of the vote for seats in parliament (the ruling party won 30 percent) -- giving it a strong foothold in a nation divided by so many factions and bolstering Vitali's presidential aspirations.

For now, Klitschko won't confirm whether he is running; he ducks and weaves the question like the prizefighter he is. His boxing career is no more clear. Age and his body have begun to betray him. In March 2013, Klitschko visited Dr. Richard Steadman, a knee specialist based in Vail, Colo., who operated on Klitschko's knee in 2002, for an undisclosed procedure. Because of a right hand injury he suffered during training, Klitschko will not fight for the rest of the year, at least; the WBC has given him until March 2014 to defend his title.

So what is the future for Klitschko? Back in the summer of 2012, months before the result of the Manuel Charr fight and the October elections were known, he provided a hint of the answer in the peaceful Alps, in a house quiet after dinner. Klitschko's Italian-German physiotherapist was giving the champ's right elbow a rubdown, working strained tendons. As he lay on his back along a massage table, Klitschko spoke, his voice soft and vulnerable. "The Ukrainian people are upset with the game that the government has played with them," he said. "The people want to know why we don't have a better future."

He stared at the ceiling for a while, the physiotherapist working his elbow. "Tell me," Klitschko said, finding the words at last for the thought that preoccupies him, "how many mayors are there in the cities of the world? And how many presidents of countries are there?" He paused. He couldn't help but smile. "And how many heavyweight champions are there?"

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