For those who have followed Vitali Klitschko’s boxing career, it is strange to see the former heavyweight champion at the forefront of the recent political and civil upheaval unfolding in Kiev, Ukraine.
Then again, it is not difficult to believe that one of the most dominant boxers of his generation would spearhead the opposition.
Klitschko, one of the most thoughtful boxers I’ve ever covered, has been torn between boxing and politics for years. Politics scored a unanimous decision victory when he retired as the World Boxing Council champion with a record of 45-2 with 41 knockouts in December.
Now Klitschko, 42, is in the fight of his life and for the lives of scores of other Ukrainians as the leader of the opposition Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR) party.
Klitschko has repeatedly called for the resignation of Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych since Yanukovych rejected an association and trade deal with the European Union in order to maintain close ties with Russia last November. Klitschko views the European Union as a model for the future economic and political development of the Ukraine.
CNN reported that there was uncertainty in the country on Sunday as Parliament had ousted Yanukovych, freed his political rival Yulia Tymonshenko from prison and scheduled elections for May.
The most violence clash between protesters and police since the unrest began erupted last Thursday when police opened fire on protesters who were occupying Independence Square in central Kiev. The health ministry reported 77 people, including police and protesters, have been killed in the unrest since last Tuesday.
On Friday there seemed to be an uneasy peace negotiated. Protest leaders, including Klitschko, and Yanukovych agreed to form a new government and hold elections by December. Klitschko had called for the formation of a new government and elections back in April of 2013. Some protesters said they will continue to stand their ground until Yanukovych resigns.
If the agreement holds, it will be a major victory for the opposition, culminating a week of bloody violence. And it will be one of the biggest victories of Klitschko’s life.
As revolutionary figures go, the 6-foot-7, 240 pounds Klitschko is imposing - no matter the stage. The images of Klitschko emanating from Kiev show how committed he is to democratizing his fractured homeland. In one picture he is shown exhorting the protesters to stand their ground against the police at Independence Square. In other shot he is shown, wearing a suit and tie, sitting at a table with Yanukovych negotiating a truce.
I got to know Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko when I was a sports columnist at the New York Daily News. The newspaper’s promotions and marketing department was trying to make inroads into Brighton Beach, Brooklyn and its large Russian community with a Russian section of the newspaper. They scheduled dinners and lunches with the Klitschkos and community leaders at restaurants in Brighton Beach, ignoring the political and cultural divides between Ukrainians and Russians. The Klitschkos were always gracious. When they came to the offices to meet with editors they were friendly and at ease. But there was always a serious side to them. They were committed to trying to make the world a better place with their work with UNESCO and UNICEF.
Brian Adams, New York Daily News community affairs director and a former boxer, befriended the Klitschkos in early 2000. He anxiously watched as the situation in the Kiev descended into chaos last week.
“I reached out to Wlad on Tuesday and asked him how Vitali was doing. He said he’s good and he’s safe,’’ Adams said. “I know this is something he’s serious about it. He’s been serious about it for quite some years now. They’ve always talked about wanting to do something for their country. They’ve always despised the way the government treated people. He finally got to that stage in life where he felt like he could make a difference.’’
Adams said he isn’t surprised that Vitali Klitschko has stood firm even in the face of the threats to his personal safety to push through reforms. When you know Klitschko’s personal history you understand why he is so committed to his cause.
The nuclear accident at Chernobyl happened in 1986 and his father, Wladimir Rodionovich, a high-ranking military officer in the Soviet Army, was deployed to direct the cleanup. The Klitschkos lived 100 miles away from Chernobyl. His father died on July 13, 2011 at age 64. The cause was cancer. He was one of the last survivors of the group sent in by the government to work on the cleanup at Chernobyl.
If you doubt Klitschko’s ability to lead a political movement, then you have underestimated him. He speaks four languages and has a doctorate degree in sports sciences from the University of Kiev. As a boxer he was a world champion in the truest sense of the word. He and his brother, Wladimir, have been active with the UNESCO for years, traveling to South America and Africa to help provide educational systems for children in developing countries. He was elected to the Kiev City Council in 2006 and became the leader of UDAR in 2010.
For several years he had homes in Germany, Los Angeles and Kiev. He recently relinquished the home in Germany in order to comply with rules that would allow him to run for the presidency of the Ukraine. All three of his children were born in California, which makes them U.S. citizens.
You can be sure that Klitschko is as committed to making the future of the people in Ukraine as bright and secure as he wants to make it for his own family. That is why he has put himself in harm’s way and has fought so hard.
“He’s gotten laced up and he’s running the race to the end. He’s trying to win,’’ Adams said.