In the Ring
Here's What It's Like to Fight Vitali Klitschko, Ukraine’s Revolutionary Champ
In 2012, he stunned the world by beating a defending heavyweight champion at age 41. Now, he’s throwing his punches at Ukraine’s crumbling government.
The press had been saying that Vladimir Putin was expected to attend the big prize fight at Moscow’s Olympic arena back in October of 2012.
But the Russian president was a no-show at the Olimpiyskiy as the 41-year-old Ukrainian boxer Vitali “Dr. Ironfist” Klitschko defended his World Boxing Council heavyweight title against the challenger Manuel Charr.
“I heard he was very curious to see me fight Klitschko,” Charr says of Putin. “I can only speculate why he didn’t come, but the political issues maybe weighed in too heavily. That’s of course as sad as it is understandable.”
The political issues arose from Klitschko’s life outside the ring as a leader of the Ukrainian democratic opposition movement. Putin would no doubt have been delighted to witness firsthand the defeat of a champion of democracy and he may have considered attending on the theory that Charr had a an edge in being 13 years younger than his opponent. No world champion other than George Foreman had fought to defend his title when over the age of 40.
But anybody who knows boxing would have brought Putin’s attention to Klitschko’s stats. Klitschko is six-foot-seven and 250 pounds, and has an uncommonly long reach. He won 44 of his 46 professional fights, losing once when the fight was stopped because of a cut over his eye and another time due to a shoulder injury. (Even in those two losses he had been well ahead on points.) He had never been knocked down. His ring name, “Dr. Ironfist,” is a testament to both his hitting power and his status as the only world champion ever to hold a Ph.D.
In another first, the Ukrainian champ arranged for his wife and the mother of his three American-born children, Natalian Klitchko, to stand before the crowd with a violin quartet and sing “Power of Love” as fight time neared. Klitschko then stepped into the ring, looking not at all like a champion of democracy on his way to defeat. He had always been remarkably disciplined in his training and he appeared to be in as good condition has he had been in his younger years. Charr recognized him as a formidable opponent.
“He was a very strong boxer with extraordinary physical and psychological strength and one of the best world champions of our time,” Charr says.
As the fight began, Charr still apparently hoped to capitalize on the age difference. He went largely into defensive mode from the first bell, seemingly with the hope of letting Klitschko grow fatigued.
“My strategy was to take over in the second half of the fight,” Charr says. “Obviously a man around 40 has not the same energy reserves as a man in his late 20s like myself.”
On his part, Klitschko counted on simply being Klitschko, with his great power, speed, and focus so sharp he acts even as he thinks. All of it was delivered with an advantage of three inches in height and two inches in arm length.
“He is not just physically strong and a top strategist but has a great height with matching reach to show,” Charr says.
In the fourth round, Klitschko opened up a cut over Charr’s right eye. The referee for some reason directed Charr to Klitschko’s corner, where he was examined by a ring doctor.
“Sorry, but that to me is like a car race where a Ferrari has a technical issue and is being sent to the opponent, let’s say the Mercedes box, for fixing,” Charr says.
But the ring doctor was not working for either side and almost certainly would have made the same ruling in the other corner. He called the fight.
“I was just absolutely stunned and yes, outraged!” Charr says.
Some observers contended that the fight could have continued, insisting that the cut was not nearly so bad as the one that had caused Klitschko to lose by a TKO to Lennox Lewis in 2003.
Charr strode around the ring in a fury for a few minutes, his chest spattered with blood. He then regained his composure and joined Klitschko in standing on either side of the referee at as the result was announced over the PA system.
Klitschko had another win, for a record of 47-2. He gave a brief wave to his younger bother, Wladimir Klitschko, who holds five other world heavyweight boxing titles. The brothers had honored a pledge to their mother never to fight each other. Their father had been a military officer in the former Soviet Union who reportedly was among those who oversaw the cleanup after the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. He telephoned his family in Kiev during that time to remind them to reduce the ingestion of radioactive particles by regularly washing their hands.
Wladimir planned to keep using his hands as boxer. Klitschko was retiring from the ring to concentrate on politics, where he had a 0-3 record in bids to become mayor of Kiev. He had been in the midst of a campaign for parliament when he paused to prepare for the match with Charr.
“My (campaign) team gave me the chance to devote myself to sport,” Klitschko had said as he stood beside Charr at a press conference before the bout. “Once the fight is over I will play a more active role in the politics so that Ukrainian voters back our political force to represent them.”
A few days later, Klitschko was elected to parliament. He was a prominent voice in favor of formally affiliating with the European Union, putting himself along with likeminded Ukrainians at odds with Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych as well as Putin.
Sixteen months after stepping into the ring in Moscow, Klitschko strode into Independence Square in Moscow, where dozens of protestors had been killed.
“This is an island of freedom, and we intend to defend it,” he declared on Wednesday. “And if it’s a bullet in the forehead, then it’s a bullet in the forehead.”
He made a video later that day in which he called for Yanukovych to step down.
“The sooner this happens, the less blood is shed,” he said.
Where his last fight was stopped because his opponent had a cut over an eye, this fight continued as 82 protesters were killed. Yanukovych then apparently realized that he was not going to prevail by killing.
After Yanukovych signed a peace deal guaranteeing new elections by the end of 2014, he shook the right hand of the boxer whose 45 victories in the ring seemed like nothing compared to this.
Klitschko returned to Independence Square
“It’s very important to struggle,” he told the crowd “Only those who struggle can win.”
He then said, “May the memory of those Ukrainians who fought for our common goal live forever. Glory to Ukraine!”
As is the way with revolutions, there was somebody more radical who jumped on the stage and declared that the rest of the year was too long to wait.
“He must resign by 10 o’clock,” cried the man, who was reportedly affiliated with a group called the Right Sector.
As it happened, Yanukovych took it upon himself to flee to the eastern, traditionally pro-Russian side of the country. He complained that he had been deposed by a “coup” in an apparent bid for intervention by Russia.
The Voice of Russia, the Russian government’s international broadcasting service, reported that something called “Anonymous Ukraine” had supposedly released emails proving that Klitschko is “a puppet of the West” drawing on bank accounts in Germany to fund a “coup d’etat” by “Nazi killers” and “gangs of robbers” who “pose a threat to the free and security of Ukraine.” We should hope this only sounds like a prelude to an intervention.
On Sunday, Klitschko was back at Independence Square, urging protestors not to leave until their victory is assured. He has talked in the past of running for president and may do so again. He is not likely to pay much heed to Assistant Secretary of State Victoria Nuland who, along with saying “F—- the EU" in a taped phone call, reportedly opines, “I don’t think it’s a good idea,” regarding the prospect of Klitschko being in the Ukrainian government.
One person who holds a much higher opinion of Klitschko is somebody who learned his finer qualities while facing him in the ring. Charr says his onetime opponent is smart and brave and determined.
“All of that,” Charr says, “which is why it comes as no surprise that he is also successful in the political arena.”
Charr allows that the circumstances of his loss still rankles and that he has asked Klitschko for a rematch.
“But that has not happened yet and given Vladimir Klitschko’s successful involvement in politics, I can only assume boxing is not his first priority anymore,” Charr says.
Charr has heard that his supporters include someone who was a no-show at the 2012 match in Moscow.”
“According to what I heard about the press reviews in Russia, he was supportive of me after the fight,” Charr says of Putin. “So it seems I gained a powerful Russian fan.”