By D. Allan Kerr
If you’ve watched TV coverage of the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine, you’ve likely seen Vitali Klitschko, the mayor of Ukraine’s capital and largest city, Kyiv.
I mean, he’s pretty hard to miss.
Klitschko is not your typical politician. He stands 6-foot-7 and even at the age of 50 seems pretty close to the chiseled fighting weight of 250 pounds he carried when he was the heavyweight boxing champion of the entire world.
Some Americans are becoming aware of Klitschko for the first time, but I’ve been observing and even cheering this guy on for more than 20 years.
And for the record, if Russian tanks were rolling into my town, he’s one person I’d want standing beside me. Or better yet, in front of me.
The former champ seems to be on every corner of Kyiv these days as his city – home to more than 3 million people – faces a massive Russian assault.
Here he is touring the Kyiv subway system, towering over constituents as he dispenses hugs of comfort and words of encouragement, and listens to their concerns while they shelter from Russian bombs.
There he is on the front line as a longtime couple, both now serving in uniform, decide to hold an impromptu marriage ceremony, Klitschko kissing the bride for good luck after she momentarily replaces her army helmet with a veil. And now he’s on camera with George Stephanopoulos for ABC’s “This Week.”
“We defend our city, our houses. our families,” Klitschko says in heavily accented English, adding that Ukraine needs more global support. “We’re fighting for the whole modern world. We have to stop Putin, all together.”
And meanwhile, a mighty Russian convoy said to be 40 miles long continues to inch its way to the nation’s capital.
His name might already sound familiar to many. For more than a decade, Vitali and his younger brother Wladimir absolutely dominated boxing’s heavyweight division.
In fact, they were so dominating the sport’s popularity in America waned because few fighters here could compete during what is still called the “Klitschko era.”
Their father was a Soviet military general who helped lead cleanup efforts after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster of 1986, and his death at the age of 64 has been attributed to those aftereffects.
Vitali was born in what is now Kyrgyzstan but the brothers grew up in Ukraine and operated out of Germany during most of their professional boxing careers. They’re considered national heroes in both countries.
Vitali Klitschko in a boxing ring was a fearsome sight to behold – almost a real-life, dark-haired Ivan Drago of Rocky film fame.
He was a brutal puncher whose blows were precise and devastating rather than wild looping bombs. His strategy was to methodically pound away at his opponents until they either went down, gave up, or were rescued by others.
The fists of his foes, however, were typically shrugged off as a minor nuisance. Klitschko was never once knocked down in his professional career, and I actually don’t remember seeing him even on the brink of going down.
Ultimately, the brothers won all the heavyweight belts offered by the various boxing organizations who rule the sport. As they had vowed never to fight each other, they proceeded to just beat up every other worthwhile contender who challenged them.
Vitali Klitschko ended his Hall-of-Fame career with an amazing 41 knockouts among 45 professional victories in the ring. He suffered just two defeats, both due to injuries.
If you want to get an idea of how imposing he was as a prizefighter, just take a few minutes on YouTube to watch him annihilate Herbie Hide in less than two rounds to win his first world title in 1999, or destroy Britain’s Danny Williams in 2004, months after Williams had knocked out Mike Tyson.
Klitschko was also a champion kickboxer in his younger days and served in the military. But he earned a Ph.D. in sports science as well, and is articulate and fluent in at least four languages. His fighting nickname of “Dr. Ironfist” was a tribute to both his academic prowess and his crushing power in the ring.
Still, although I realized Klitschko is a supremely well-rounded individual, it was stunning to see him emerge on the nightly news as a leader of the 2013 demonstrations, which led to the overthrow of a corrupt pro-Russian dictatorship in Ukraine.
There was even talk of his presidential candidacy, but he instead supported eventual president Petro Poroshenko and ran for mayor of Kyiv, a post he has held since 2014.
Klitschko also founded his own political party, the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (the acronym in Ukrainian means “punch.”) He was re-elected mayor in 2020 with more than 365,000 votes, exceeding 50%. Among his five opponents, the next highest tally was less than 69,000.
Wladimir, five years younger than his brother, is considered the more glamorous of the two. He’s the won who won an Olympic gold medal in 1996, appeared in the star-studded 2001 Ocean’s Eleven remake and had a long-term relationship with American actress Hayden Panettiere (I know her best as the badass cheerleader in the classic 2000s TV show Heroes), with whom he shares a 7-year-old daughter.
Now Vitali in particular has stepped up as one of the symbolic figures of Ukraine’s heroic resistance to Vladimir Putin’s invasion, along with the country’s president Volodymyr Zelensky.
As Russian troops massed on his nation’s border last month, he told interviewers he had “no choice” but to fight to defend his country. Wladimir even joined the nation’s armed reserves.
“I believe in Ukraine, I believe in my country and I believe in my people,” Vitali said.
I have to admit, I’ve been surprised by the Ukrainians’ vigorous defense against the more powerful Russian military, but I guess I shouldn’t.
In recent decades, the country has become famous for its warriors. In addition to the Klitschkos, both Vasily Lomachenko and reigning world heavyweight champion Oleksandr Usyk are considered among the best pound-for-pound boxers in the world.
And both have returned home to exchange their boxing gloves for automatic weapons.
“My soul belongs to the Lord and my body and my honor belong to my country, to my family,” Usyk said. “So there is no fear, absolutely no fear. There’s just bafflement – how could this be in the 21st century?”
News reports have aired footage of Zelensky, a diminutive former standup comedian, rallying his citizens in the streets of Kyiv and updating the world via video. When the U.S. offered to help evacuate him to safety, the president famously replied, “The fight is here. I need ammunition, not a ride.”
He bluntly told other European leaders in a video conference last week it might be the last time they see him alive, as the Russians rolled toward Kyiv. Instead, he has become a global icon of courage and perseverance.
Both Zelensky and Klitschko are said to be top targets on a Russian “kill list.” As of this writing, his government has confirmed at least three failed assassination attempts against Zelensky already.
He recently posted a photo of a missile fragment near his home with a one-word message: “Missed.”
And Poroshenko, the man Zelensky defeated to become president, was seen giving TV interviews in the streets of the nation’s capital while carrying a Kalashnikov rifle.
“Putin will never conquer Ukraine, no matter how many soldiers he has, how many missiles he has, how many nuclear weapons he has,” the politician told reporters.
Ukrainians have now taken to posting an ominous welcome to the advancing Russian invaders via signs and graffiti: “Welcome to Hell.”
Vitali Klitschko had to fight alone during his legendary boxing career; you don’t have the luxury of someone beside you in the ring. This time he isn’t alone, but the stakes are higher than any he or his countrymen have faced in generations.
But he’s definitely the right man for the job.