Boxing: Klitschko eager to make final step on laudable journey

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The Independent Online

Outside the La Brea Boxing Academy in a part of downtown which has not been reclaimed by corporate America, an Hispanic kid totters along the pavement before falling to the ground.

He lies a few feet from the entrance to a liquor store, a place where clients of a body tattoo parlour have to step over him. Rap thumps out from a passing hot rod. Inside the gym a prospective heavyweight champion of the world, Vitali Klitschko, says that he will dedicate the traditionally richest prize in sport to rescue in the streets.

"In my own country," says the 6ft 8in Ukrainian, "there are so many young people out on the streets and there is no one to look after them. I am already working with Unesco on this matter and after the fight I'm going to launch a new project."

Klitschko, who fights Lennox Lewis for his World Boxing Council and International Boxing Organisation titles here at the Staples Center on Saturday night, is not entirely altruistic, he admits. He has homes in his native Kiev, Hamburg and Beverly Hills. But if he says that the ring can be an utterly isolating place, it is not ultimately an island. Its rewards - if not its pain - can be shared.

"Having a house in California was a dream," he adds, "but I'm coming from Ukraine and whatever happens to me, wherever I go, I will be Ukrainian all my life because you can't change your mother country. You can't change your mentality. You can't change where you were born and where you took your mother's milk, and you will always want the life there to be better."

Standing beside the 31-year-old doctor of philosophy (sport and recreation) at ringside is his 26-year-old brother Vladimir, another former World Boxing Organisation heavyweight champion. He too talks passionately of his native land, saying: "Many Europeans associate Ukraine with our pain, Chernobyl, and our pride and Kiev Dinamo football team. However, the country is rich in history and culture and talented people, and we would like the world to know this better."

Some of the fight crowd stand around looking a little bemused. This is not the normal pre-fight talk, and when Vitali is asked about the weaknesses of his opponent he is plainly reluctant to talk him down. "Lennox is a nice man and a great champion who makes many great fights. But then no one is perfect and you ask me if one of his weaknesses is his chin, Well, you know that."

You can't help noting the difference between the Klitschko style and that of Lewis's last opponent, Mike Tyson.

Tyson expressed the desire to eat Lewis's unborn children - and bit his leg. Klitschko says that if there had been more time to build up the fight - he comes in as a late replacement for the injured Canadian Kirk Johnson - one of his promotional ideas would have been to sit down and pit his wits against Lewis over a chessboard. "I'm a hobby player, but it might have been interesting."

The fight crowd nod respectfully and suppress a collective yawn. More intriguing for them is the possibility that if Klitschko does land one of his big right hands on Saturday night - he has a record of 31 knock-outs in 32 fights - he will one day step into the ring with his brother. Cain versus Abel would surely represent considerable box office. But the brothers say it won't happen - can't happen.

"It would kill our mother," says Vladimir. "There are three different versions of the title and we can both be champions. The Williams sisters can play tennis against each other. The Schumachers can race cars against each other. But boxing is different. You have to fight for a reason and money is not enough of a reason for brothers to fight. How much would it cost to beat up your mother, because that is what we would be doing.

"People say I am better than Vitali, but they are wrong. He is unorthodox and people don't quite understand his strength. I know it. He is bigger, taller and stronger than me. He is five years older and has more strategy. It will be very difficult and emotional for me in the corner. You feel every blow, it is happening to you as well as your brother. But I know he can do it. I know his strength and courage. He is a strong man inside and out of the ring."

Vitali loses a little of his amiability when the name Chris Byrd is mentioned. He lost the WBO title to the awkward-styled American in Berlin three years ago after cruising into a comfortable points lead. He quit in the ninth round because of the effects of a torn rotator cuff in his shoulder. The doctor of philosophy was at pains to point out the logic of his decision when some suggested he should have gutted out the last three rounds with one effective arm - and clung on to his title. "The problem was that the injury was serious and if I had gone on I could have done serious damage and maybe ended my career right then. After my shoulder operation, I have proved myself five times," he says, stiffly.

He and his camp assert that his courage is beyond doubt, but then, it is pointed out, he has never faced anyone in the class of Lewis, never felt the power of that withering right hand. "You know in life you always have to make steps forward, and some of them are difficult. The question is: are you good enough to make them? I am sure I can make this big final step," Klitschko claims.

"I have fought many times as an amateur [210 with a record of 195-15] and I have tested myself along the way. When I first started I was one of a group of boys gathered together, and after a few weeks I was the only one left. Then I knew I could go a long way."

How far, we will know soon enough, but in the meantime the ground already covered has to be a matter for admiration. He was born, like his brother, in an outpost of the old Soviet empire which their father served as an air force colonel. It was quite a way from Beverly Hills.