Boxing: Klitschko is ready to unleash his political clout
Ukrainian faces 10th defence of his heavyweight crown against Britain's Chisora but these days his mind is more on fighting for democracy in his homeland
Sunday 12 February 2012
Every evening Vitali Klitschko retires to his third-floor suite at the five-star spa resort in the Austrian Alps where he is preparing assiduously for next Saturday's fight with Londoner Dereck Chisora, and dials a number in Kiev, the capital of his native Ukraine. The conversation is of strategy and tactics for a pending battle, though boxing is not on the agenda.
Instead Klitschko spends an hour or so on a regular conference call with activists in the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, the political party he leads in opposition to the government, against whom the gloves are definitely off.
In the Tyrolean mountain village of Stanglwirt we are in the company of one of the most extraordinary sportsmen of the age, not only a long-standing world heavyweight boxing champion but a genuine political heavyweight with a PhD, as fluent in four languages as he is with his fists, now battling aggressively for democracy in his homeland. He is vehemently pro-European and anti-Putin; his supporters believe he is even a future president.
There are several sports figures who have entered the political arena, among them fellow fighter Manny Pacquiao, pole-vaulting compatriot Sergei Bubka, cricket's Imran Khan and, in Britain, the ubiquitous CB Fry, the lords Coe and Moynihan and the former Olympic sprinter "Ming" Campbell.
But none has quite carried the clout of the 6ft 8in son of a former Soviet air force colonel and elder brother of Wladimir – like Vitali that rarity in sport, a gentleman and a scholar – with whom he has dignified and dominated the heavyweight division for more than a decade.
"These days I spend 90 per cent of my time on politics," he admitted to me last week. "Sometimes I don't sleep too well because the brain is burning with what I have to do. The training camp for me is like a vacation. Whenever I come from it my wife tells me, 'Wow, you look so fresh.'
"After training I have this conference call with my party colleagues in Ukraine," he added. "In boxing I am alone in the ring but in politics it is teamwork. I have some good people around me. Alone I can do nothing. Immediately after the fight, I will be going back to Ukraine to do my work there. Ukraine needs to be a European country, we are European with our history and mentality. Geographically we are in the middle of Europe but we are very far away from Europe with our life standards.
"We need to make many changes. In 1991, I was 20 years old. I voted for the independence of our country. Everyone had a dream to build a new, modern Ukraine. Last summer we celebrated 20 years' independence.
"My last fight was in Poland and I saw the big steps that they had taken during their independence, especially for democracy. This is not so in Ukraine. It is a corrupt country. Now I want to stop my home from sliding into tyranny. I believe we can but you just can't sit in a chair and do it. We have seen Ukraine slide down from democracy. It is still my dream that we can be a modern democratic country and that is what I am fighting for."
K1, as he is known, who has represented Ukraine at the Council of Europe, first made his mark in politics in the ring in December 2004, when he wore an orange flag on his shorts in support of the revolution that ousted president Viktor Yanukovych after he was accused of election fraud. Since then he has gained a seat on Kiev's council – which he describes as "run like a banana republic" – and formed Udar, whose initials aptly form the Russian word for "punch". The party now have some 400 councillors and 10,000 members.
"We have big support and right now we are the fourth biggest party in Ukraine and we have the best dynamic. By the next election we hope to be the second or third," says Klitschko. He once ran unsuccessfully for mayor of Kiev and it looks likely he will do so again in November's elections.
Meantime there is a more immediate contest against Chisora in Munich's Olympiahalle next weekend – his 10th defence of heavyweight boxing's most prestigious title, the WBC belt (brother Wlad now holds the four others after relieving David Haye's toe-hold on the WBA version).
Only three of his 45 opponents survived to the final bell, and Klitschko eats Brits for breakfast. Lennox Lewis was the only one of five he found indigestible, suffering a gashed eyebrow when he was ahead in 1993, since when he has barely lost a round.
Yet he is 40 years old now, greying at the temples and clearly more concerned with political infighting in Ukraine than bludgeoning opponents in the ring. He also acknowledges that the 27-year-old Chisora is younger, hungrier and aggressive. "It will be an interesting fight," he muses. "He has a big heart and the motivation."
Boxing has always had its characters and "Del Boy" is among them. Zimbabwe-born, public school-educated and a one-time tearaway, he collects antiques and vintage cars and has just acquired a 1970 London cab. Boxing-wise he is an enigma, abjectly surrendering his British title to Tyson Fury before getting the Finn end of the wedge in Helsinki when he was blatantly robbed in a gutsy European title challenge against the Klitschko-sized Robert Helenius.
He is in great shape, has bottle, a sturdy chin and will give it a go, knowing he cannot knock out the 16-1 on Klitschko but promising to outwork him in what is only his 18th fight. To do so he will have to get under Dr Ironfist's sledgehammer left jab, which another British opponent, Danny Williams, says makes him wince whenever he thinks about it. "It's horrible," says Williams, "like getting hit with a slab of concrete."
So taxi for Mr Chisora by the 10th – unless boxing's political champion has taken his eye off the punchball.
Klitschko v Chisora is live and exclusive on BoxNation (Sky channel 456/Virgin 546) on Saturday 18 February. Join at www.boxnation.tv
Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes
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