Boxing: The curious double life of Wlad, king of the canvases
The world heavyweight champion only starts to get really interesting when the gloves come off
Sunday 12 June 2011
It is rare to encounter any sporting figure these days, especiallyin the fight game, who is both a gentleman and a scholar. Yet the description fits Wladimir Klitschko like the eight-ounce boxing glove which has earned him an Olympic gold medal, three versions of the world title and now the biggest heavyweight showdown since Lennox Lewis dismantled Mike Tyson eight years ago.
However, there will be two men in the opposite corner to Britain's David Haye when they collide before a 50,000 crowd on the Hamburg football pitch in Klitschko's adopted home town of Hamburg on 2 July.
Not just the 6ft 6in, 18-stone Kitschko and his even bigger brother Vitali, but two Wladimirs, one an artisan, the other an artist. For, in a interview with the Independent on Sunday at his Tyrolean mountain retreat last week, Klitchsko Jnr revealed that he has a split personality. "With me there are two people. The one you see now is not the man in the ring. When I climb between the ropes I am driving myselflike an actor playing a part. Boxing is an act that you play. After the fight, I need two weeks to get back to myself, to get out of my role as a fighter. Suddenly you realise there are different qualities inside of you that you can call on when it is needed. I see boxing as simply as an art that I practise. Away from boxing I have a different persona."
Just how different can be ascertained when you discover how the cultured Ukrainian blends those two extreme existences, going from thumping noses to fighting the cause of endangered dolphins, a man from academia who is artist on two forms of canvas.
"Art is really amazing and even though I am just a beginner, I was so proud when I sold my first painting for ¤55,000 (£49,000), it was called 'The Moon' and my technique was very original. I wrapped the canvas around a small heavy bag and worked on different shades of colour. It gave a lot of atmosphere and energy and then I put the boxing gloves on and punched the bag. I took the canvas off the bag and framed it. The image that came up is the perfect shape of a moon. It's pretty cool.
"If people want to buy my paintings for a lot of money it's a great motivation and I am not the one taking punches, I am giving them – and it's all for the benefit of children. I gave all the money to support the education and sport for children through the Klitschko Foundation. I have also auctioned two of my belts and for the first time a woman will carry one of them into the ring for me. This went for ¤55,000 and the money goes to prevent sexual violence against children. The second belt went for ¤370,000 and this money will fight drug abuse and HIV."
So, a philosopher and a philanthropist. His commitment to charitable concerns came through his recent relationship with 21 year-old Hollywood actress Hayden Panettiere, an active environmentalist – though they split last month.
Unlike some, I have always been an admirer of the Klitschkos, men of genuine intellect who are more likelyto be seen with a copy of Goethe under their arm than Ring Magazine, sleaze-free ambassadors not only for their sport but the United Nations.
Americans may dismiss them as robotic ringers for Rocky foe Ivan Drago, but they haven't got anyone better. Indeed, they've hardly anyone at all, which is why they look towards Haye as something of a saviour.
The sons of a former Soviet air force colonel, the brothers Klitschko have rarely been separated in their adult lives, turning professional in 1996 after Wladimir had won an Olympic gold medal in Atlanta. Both are multi-lingual and hold doctorates in sports science and philosophy from the University of Kiev. As Wladimir, 35, admits, the 39-year-old Vitali is the stronger and better accomplished, holding the more authentic WBC version of the heavyweight championship, while Wladimir has the lesserregarded WBO, IBF and IBO which he pits against Haye's WBA crown at the Imtech Arena in an encounter expected to gross $50m (£31m).
Exactly two years earlier we had stood in the same gymnasium, converted from the indoor tennis court at the Alpine spa the Klitschkos have used as a training base for 10 years, when the news came that Haye had pulled out of their then scheduled summer engagement with a back injury. Wladimir may be eloquent in four languages, but when he heard this his one-word reaction was common to all. ''Fuck!" he snapped.
It was an unusual excursion into profanity for someone who picks his words as carefully as he does his punches. "My parents taught me that with words you can hit harder than with a fist. In my life there have been certain situations when I could have used my physical power but I have always found a way to use words instead and you can achieve much more. I don't actually believe in violence, I believe in truth. If you have the truth, it gives you the energy to survive a lot of difficulties.
"Of course it is different in the ring. You can play basketball, you can play soccer, but you can not play boxing. In the ring it's the real world.
"But let me tell you something. I never loved boxing. I wanted to be a doctor and went to medical school but I got into it by accident because my brother was a boxer. Vitali was born to be one, he had the talent. I only became a fighter when I went through the Soviet Sporting School outside of Kiev.
"We were all kids from various Soviet republics. Trust me, it was so tough and hard. I had room-mates who were broken psychologically and physically because they were treated in such a brutal way by the coaches. It was a system you either survived or were done.
"Guys more talented than I never made it. The training system was horrible but you knew that if you made it then you were made of steel."
Which is why they now call him Dr Steelhammer, one of boxing's more remarkable renaissance men. "In 2004 I was on the floor at the bottom of my sport. I was the loser of the two brothers, having lost two fights (against Lamon Brewster and Corrie Sanders) within 11 months. I was taken out of the map of boxing.
"Your Boxing News had a picture of me on the canvas with the headline, 'Broken Man'. Even my brother said: 'Look at your face, where you are right now? I think its time for you to say goodbye to the sport.' But I never lost track with myself and I vowed I would get back where I belonged.
"I still have this bad taste in my mouth from that time which gives me my motivation. There's a good line from Muhammad Ali, 'Eat your words, eat your words,' he said after the first Liston fight because nobody gave him a chance, so that's my attitude now. I am carrying the memoryof those dark days inside me like an elephant. I'm not done yet."
Somehow you get the feeling that David Haye will be appreciating that around 11pm on 2 July.
Haye v Klitschko is exclusively live on Sky Box Office HD & 3D on Saturday 2 July. Book now on sky.com/orderboxoffice
Tale of the tape: How they shape up forthe $50m superfight
Height 6ft 3in
Weight 17st 9lb.
Titles IBF, WBO and IBO world heavyweight champion; Olympic super-heavyweight champion, 1996.
Born Semipalatinsk, Kazakhstan. Now lives in Hamburg.
Record 55 wins, 49 KOs, 3 losses.
Nickname Dr Steelhammer.
Personal life Recently split with US actress Hayden Panettierre. Younger brother of WBC world heavyweight champion Vitali.
Pastimes Painting, work with Unesco.
Head coach Emanuel Steward, trainer of 20 world champions including Lennox Lewis, Evander Holyfield and Tommy Hearns. Runs renowned Kronk Gym in Detroit.
Height 6ft 3in
Titles WBA world heavyweight champion forner WBA, WBC and WBO cruiserweight champion. Former world amateur silver medallist.
Born London. Lives in Bermondsey.
Record 25 wins, 23 KOs, 1 defeat.
Nickname The Hayemaker
Personal life Married to Natasha with two children. Son is called Cassius.
Pastimes Modelling, Millwall FC
Head coach Adam Booth, former university lecturer who planned tactics for defeat of Nicolay Valuev.
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