How can I think about boxing when the men and women of Ukraine are being murdered in Kiev?
Wladimir Klitschko looks down at the blue and yellow Ukrainian flag he is holding tightly in his huge hands. He is in London for a brief business visit but his thoughts are for his homeland more than 1,000 miles away. And as he contemplates Ukraine’s plight, his face betrays, in turn, his pain, his fear and his bewilderment.
Klitschko is eight weeks away from the 16th defence of the world heavyweight boxing title he has held since 2006. Yet he admits that he has given the fight game scarcely a thought since the start of the crisis which continues to grip his country as it teeters towards division, civil war or, as seems increasingly likely, a full-scale military intervention by Russia.
His concern is not simply that of a proud Ukrainian. For Klitschko it is personal, too.
Apocalyptic: Protesters advance towards new positions in Kiev in renewed violence that shattered an hours-old truce
The toughest fight of his life: World heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko talks to Ian Stafford
His elder brother, Vitali, a former world heavyweight champion himself, has been at the forefront of the political upheaval back home, appearing on the barricades in the Maidan, Kiev’s Independence Square, as one of the key opposition leaders to the corrupt regime of the country’s now ousted president, Viktor Yanukovych, and a candidate to become Ukraine’s next leader when — or perhaps if — elections take place on May 25.
For Wladimir, at 37 five years younger than Vitali, there is no question that his sport, for now, is of secondary importance.
‘How can I even think about boxing when my fellow countrymen and women are being murdered in the streets of Kiev?’ he asks. ‘It is so terribly sad. I want to pay my respect to those tortured and beaten up, to those put in prison and to those who have been killed. They died as heroes.’
Standard bearer: Klitschko is a proud Ukrainian and devastated by the unrest which has sent his country into turmoil
Support: Klitschko is backing the opposition to bring change to Ukraine
As he speaks, his expression changes from sadness to defiance. ‘Let me tell you something,’ he says. ‘I have never been so proud of my country as I am right now. And that will stay the case until the end of my days.’
While Vitali has adopted a high-profile political stance in Kiev, Wladimir has been using his connections in the west to garner support for the Ukrainian opposition and the drive towards what he argues will mean ‘peace, freedom and democracy’ in his homeland.
‘I was there in 2004 during the Orange Revolution and I learned then that our fight for freedom is impossible without support and aid from the West,’ he says. ‘So while my brother has been in Kiev all this time, working day and night for three months with barely any sleep, I have been talking in the West and obtaining influential supporters.’
The bigger picture: Ukrainian presidential candidate Vitali Klitschko is pictured on a screen during a discussion panel in Paderborn, Germany
High profile: Vitali speaks at a mourning ceremony for people killed in the riots in Independence Square
Among those who have given their support are ex-President Bill Clinton, George Clooney and Arnold Schwarzenegger. ‘I’d like to thank them and all the others like Quincy Jones and Klaus Meine, the singer with The Scorpions,’ says Klitschko. ‘I thank the West for all the support we have received. Without it we would have been swallowed up by the East.’
Klitschko says the speed of events in Ukraine took him by surprise. ‘I left Kiev on February 11, when it was relatively quiet,’ he says. ‘I thought there was no chance that anything could happen during the Winter Olympics. But by the time I had returned to Europe from the United States, horrible events had taken place.’
The bloodiest of those events saw 77 protestors shot dead in clashes with security forces. Klitschko says that when he heard of the slaughter his thoughts turned immediately to his brother in the thick of the riots.
‘Every day for the past few weeks I have spoken to Vitali on the phone. It’s been very tough for him. Of course, I worried about his safety during the days when people peacefully demonstrating on the Maidan were being shot by snipers. It is far more dangerous being a Ukrainian politician than a boxer. My brother has a lot of responsibility. He is under a lot of pressure and he is not out of danger.
‘When everything first happened, it was so quick that nobody had a plan. Everyone wanted democracy and freedom but nobody had worked out how they were going to get it. Some were frustrated when my brother and other opposition leaders sought deals with Yanukovych to stop the killing. I can understand their frustration. Those deals were not enough.
Brothers in arms: Wladimir (left) and Vitali pose with their champions belts in 2011
Great minds: Wladimir and Vitali engage in a game of chess
‘I am like them. I, too, am tired of many politicians. In the past they were mostly corrupt, none more so than Yanukovych. You must understand how reckless this man has been with his country and with the people, using them as instruments against themselves. But the killing had to stop.
‘This is something the West must understand. We have taken our first steps in Ukraine but there are still a lot of problems. Yanukovych is on the ropes but we have not knocked him out yet. The new provisional government have a lot to do to prepare for democratic elections at the end of May. We will never go back to the past but the situation remains very complicated.’
The fear for Klitschko now is that Ukraine will be split between the pro-Russian south and east which, with its access to the Black Sea, is of obvious strategic interest to Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, and the more pro-European west. Already the occupation by unidentified armed forces of airports in the Crimea, where those of Russian origin are in the majority, has caused Ukraine’s new Interior Minister to talk of ‘a military invasion and occupation’ by Russia.
Unrest: The regional prime minister of the Crimea claimed power over security forces and asked for Russian help
Process of change: Thousands of pro-Russia demonstrators have demanded the non-recognition of Ukraine’s parliament
Klitschko, some may say naively, remains hopeful that his countrymen will remind themselves that they are Ukrainians first. ‘I don’t believe Ukraine will split,’ he insists. ‘The people won’t let it happen. I believe in them. There is a minority who live in the past. Russia is our neighbour. We have a mutual history. We both have friends and family living in each other’s countries. As always, the politicians are trying to divide and conquer. Ukraine is like Russia’s little brother — but nobody should determine our future except ourselves.
‘It is like my relationship with Vitali. We have the same blood but we are also different, individual people. If I don’t want to do something he wants me to do, he understands and respects me for it. He will never tell me what I can and cannot do.’
Still, Wladimir is concerned enough about the division in his country to recognise his next fight as being crucial to the cause. To outside observers Alex Leapai, a Samoan-born Australian who will challenge the champion for his WBA, IBF and WBO titles in Oberhausen, in Germany, on April 26, is just the latest in a long line of hopeful heavy-weights who stands next to no chance of dethroning the king.
The challenger: Alex Leapai (left) is caught by Russian Denis Boytsov during their WBO Asia Pacific Heavyweight championship fight
Victorious: Leapai beat Boytsov in November to set up the bout with Klitschko
To Klitschko the opportunity is much more about the reaction outside the ropes than inside. ‘Sport has the power to unite. You only have to go back two years to the European soccer Championship to see how Ukrainians, west and east, were united behind their team.
‘I meet Leapai four weeks before the elections. This is not just another fight. It is my stage. I’m expecting the whole of Ukraine to want me to win for our country. More than 150 countries will tune in to watch the fight. I am working on a few plans to help my country in the build-up and on the night. Trust me, I can do a lot for Ukraine on the night of April 26.’
Klitschko has won 61 of his 64 professional fights, is the second-longest reigning heavyweight champion of all time, with the third most successful title defences in the history of his sport but he makes no apology about where he places his next bout against the little-known Leapai. ‘It is the most important fight of my entire career,’ he says. ‘What can be more important than finding a way to keep your country united?’
With events in Ukraine now unfolding at an alarming rate, Klitschko may not get his wish to become a unifying force.
But he has no doubts over what fate should befall the overturned president and where the future power should lie. ‘Yanukovych hides and gets shelter from Putin,’ he says. ‘I hope and pray that there is no more bloodshed. The dictator has run. For three days it was a war, with the dead lying where they had been shot. Yanukovych needs to be arrested and tried. Then natural justice will decide his fate. He must face the consequences. The truth will come out.
‘The same must be said for the gangs of young men working for Yanukovych by beating up people and spreading fear to stop them going out on to the streets. They, too, must feel the full force of justice.’
Strong message: Klitschko says Viktor Yanukovych (right) receives ‘shelter’ from Vladimir Putin and should be tried and punished
Special relationship: Yanukovych and Putin are close personal friends, much to the chagrin of Klitschko
He is less than enthusiastic for a return to power of former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko. The heroine of the Orange Revolution was imprisoned by Yanukovych in 2011 but freed last week and addressed 50,000 in Revolution Square to a mixed reception. ‘Tymoshenko is a card that’s been played many times,’ says Klitschko. ‘I don’t want us to go back into the past.
‘After the Leapai fight I will return to Ukraine and encourage people to vote in the elections. I want to motivate people to go and make their own choice. The more the people do this the harder it is for them to turn back. This is the people’s chance.
‘I have campaigned for my brother. I have made hundreds of speeches on his behalf. I have always said you can vote for my brother but the more important thing is to just vote. I won’t be brainwashing people about him. I will simply be sharing my opinions. But what I do know is that my brother will do everything in his power, whether he is President or not, to see that our country is successful again.
‘We speak every day on all issues, personal and political. I have my own opinions. We argue over some of them and we agree on others. I am not a member of any political party in the Ukraine, not even my brother’s. When I write my cross in the election it is my choice and I will have the freedom to make it in a democratic constitution.’
Many believe that Wladimir’s days at the top of his game are numbered and he should follow his brother into retirement from boxing. The younger Klitschko begs to differ. ‘I hear it all the time,’ he says, laughing for the first time in our hour-long conversation. ‘That and the other thing people say — that there aren’t any great challengers out there. I say every boxer who fights me knows it is their chance to become the new heavyweight champion of the world. Just think of their motivation. It makes every single opponent dangerous, especially at heavyweight level when it can take just one punch.
All talk: Klitschko demolished David Haye in Hamburg
‘What can I do except beat them? It does some of them good. Look at David Haye. I can say now that he was a great fighter, smart, sneaky and quick. But he is a better person now because of that fight with me.
‘The truth is I don’t feel any older, slower or weaker. As long as I keep my motivation and health I will carry on fighting.’
His thoughts return to Ukraine and his father, Vladimir. He was a Soviet Air Force major general and one of the military commanders charged with the clean-up following the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986. He died of cancer in 2011.
‘My father was a proud Ukrainian,’ says Wladimir. ‘Somewhere, right now, he will be very proud of his people and of his sons. He will have faith in us and the people. He knows we won’t let Ukraine slip back into its past.’
With that, Wladimir Klitschko heads off to Heathrow Airport, from where he flew to his training camp in Florida before moving on to the Austrian Tyrol. As he bids farewell a passer-by in a pin-striped suit shakes his hand and wishes both him and his brother good luck.
‘Thank you, thank you,’ says Klitschko. He watches the stranger walk down Piccadilly and then adds, under his breath: ‘We’re going to need it.’
Source : Daily Mail