Ukrainian troubles weigh on Klitschko

Updated: December 8, 2004, 5:02 PM ET
By Thomas Gerbasi |

When two boxers are in the ring, with only gloves, shorts, and fury between them, it's sometimes hard to remember that these are men with families, lives, and interests that are completely separate from what happens between the ropes.

Of course, sometimes it's these paradoxes that make a fighter even more interesting, and it's been the "boxing doctor" persona that has helped WBC heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko crossover into various mainstream media outlets and become the appointed "main man" among the four heavyweight title holders.

But having such a well-rounded life outside the ring can also intrude on matters inside the hardest game, leading a fighter off the track just enough to make an expected victory a life-and-death battle.

That's where Vitali Klitschko stands, just days away from the first defense of his title Saturday night against Danny Williams. What should be a celebration of the new champion on his first foray into the realm of pay-per-view, has instead turned into a bout where Klitschko's odds of winning are directly proportional to how he mentally deals with the current situation in his native Ukraine, where allegations of improprieties during November elections led to protests and a ruling for a repeat presidential runoff on Dec. 26.

It's been a situation close to the hearts of the politically aware and active Klitschko brothers, and when younger brother Wladimir decided to go to Ukraine to make his presence and support known, Vitali pondered pulling out of his fight with Williams to deal with the troubles back home.

"After the elections, the democratic challenger, (Viktor) Yushchenko, and many western observers in Kiev mentioned that the election was not really fair and did not meet democratic standards," said longtime Klitschko PR rep Bernd Boente. "Hundreds of thousands of people were in the streets and are still in the streets in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, and Vitali and Wladimir decided directly after that election that they wanted to fly over to Kiev. Wladimir and Fritz Sdunek, the head coach of Vitali, were here with us. After long discussions, they convinced Vitali to stay here and not postpone this fight."

But even Boente admits that "the situation in Ukraine, in Kiev, is changing from day to day and from hour to hour," and that is far from the ideal way for Klitschko to enter his biggest fight to date, one that could knock him off the top of the heavyweight heap in the time it takes to spell Yuschenko.

So for now, Klitschko says all the right things -- the rote remarks he has been making throughout the promotion -- but it's obvious, at least during his recent media teleconference, that his mind is at least 10 hours away.

"It is 10 hours difference between Ukraine and Los Angeles," said Klitschko. "When I wake up at six in the morning, I have one hour before I start the training to check the news, make calls to my friends and get information. I know that my fight is very important for Ukraine, and it is my resolve to be ready for this fight. I think this fight will be a very important message for everybody not only in Ukraine but in the world. I have kept focused for training and for the fight. But I do get the information on what is happening in Ukraine every day. It is difficult, but in life nothing is easy."

Life seems to be even more ponderous for the 33-year-old Klitschko, who while nearly inseparable from his younger brother, is also as different from Wladimir as two brothers could be. Stoic and suspicious while Wladimir is easy with a smile and gregarious, Vitali is the prototypical big brother -- serious, businesslike, and eager to set an example for his younger sibling. Even Wladimir can laugh about the roles of the two, joking during a summer visit to New York that, "He (Vitali) has three kids. Two by his wife and one sitting next to him."

Yet it seemed to be fine with Vitali that Wladimir was the one taking the bulk of the attention when the younger Klitschko was riding high as the heir apparent of the heavyweight division. But as quick as Wladimir crashed down to earth after knockout losses to Corrie Sanders and Lamon Brewster, Vitali was thrust into the spotlight with a spirited loss to Lennox Lewis in 2003 and a win over Sanders earlier this year.

It's a role that Vitali doesn't seem to embrace as well as Wladimir did. In fact, he carries the weight of being the heavyweight division's savior like an albatross around his neck. This was never more evident than during the buildup to his championship fight with Sanders in April, where Klitschko was visibly tense, even in the early rounds of the bout. And despite some shaky early moments, Klitschko prevailed over Sanders. But directly after the bout, it was Wladimir who was the more excited of the two brothers, with Vitali finally able to crack a smile.

"It was like big and heavy bricks fell down from my shoulders," said Vitali later.

And even though he was able to say, "I want to be world champion for a long time" last week, it doesn't appear to be the be-all, end-all of his existence. He's grown tired of the usual questions ("Vitali, will you ever fight your brother?"), and when it comes to interviews these days, he's downright rehearsed when it comes to the topic of boxing.

"Danny Williams destroyed my dream," Klitschko repeated again this week, in reference to the Brit's knockout of Mike Tyson earlier this year. "Now, I want to destroy the dream of Danny Williams to be world champion."

Some may chalk it up to Vitali's still growing mastery of the English language, but that is far from a valid point, as once you get the champion on a topic that truly interests him, like his life outside of the ring, he can wax eloquently on it in any language, including English.

"I think about the future all the time," said Klitschko. "We try to be an active part of society. We work on a lot of projects. It is very important that we work with UNESCO, in Project Education for children's needs. We support that everywhere in the world. We have good results in sports and we have a great connection in politics and business and we try to use our connections to bring attention to the children who are disadvantaged, children without parents, children who grow up without love. In Ukraine and Russia, this problem is very common. We speak about the children as our future and it is very important that we work for their education."

It's obvious that the married father of two will do just fine without the sport of boxing, as will his brother Wladimir. And he knows it. Yet Danny Williams is another story. Sure, if he loses this Saturday he'll get a couple of decent paydays based on his win over Tyson and can still be a fair attraction back home in the UK, but Williams is strictly a fighter. There are no best sellers, no humanitarian missions, and no Ph.D to fall back on. That's the type of hunger and focus that can show up when you need it most in the rough moments of a championship fight.

This Saturday is such a fight, and while the only thing Williams has to worry about is winning, Vitali Klitschko has an unsettled political situation in his homeland preying on his mind, the pressure of holding up the family honor to deal with, and the burden of being the man many perceive to be "the" heavyweight champion on his shoulders. Add in a hungry challenger, and it could be a long night, especially in a sport where your brother can't help you, and your fans and countrymen can't walk up the four steps with you into the ring. Forget being the hardest game; boxing is the loneliest one, and without complete focus, all the skill in the world can only carry you so far.

Maybe pure boxing skill can allow Klitschko to beat back the challenge of a Williams, but then again, very few thought Williams would be able to knock out Tyson in July.

So make no mistake, this title defense, which many believed to be a holiday showcase and payday for Vitali Klitschko, has now turned into a fight.

And if Klitschko can leave the ring at the Mandalay Bay with his title on Saturday, people may one day look back at the fight as the moment when a titleholder became a champion. Why? Because Klitschko will have to show that he wants to keep his belt, and that the gaudy green strap is what makes him get up in the morning to train, sacrifice, and take the brutal punishment inflicted by his fellow pugilists -- not the money, not the fame, not the ability to influence others.

Or maybe it's the simple fact - maybe a selfish one - that while it's lonely at the top, Klitschko doesn't want to find out how it is at the bottom.