Kiev's mayor Vitaliy Klitschko (centre) surveys the scene of a residential apartment block that was damaged after a Russian rocket was shot down by Ukrainian air defences as his brother Wladimir Klitschko (2nd L) stands beside him on March 14, 2022. Picture Credit: Chris McGrath/Getty Images

The Klitschkos’ greatest fight

The boxing brothers are proving their mettle in the battle against Putin

Artillery Row

For casual boxing fans like myself, the average Wladimir Klitschko fight inspired all the excitement of a wet weekend in Hull. Klitschko, who was sometimes not-so-affectionately referred to as “Grabimir”, bullied his opponents with his jab and pulled them into the clinch. When he knocked them out he would rarely flatten them a la Mike Tyson but jab, jab, jab them into a state of advanced fatigue.

Vitali, his brother, was a more exciting fighter but suffered from the other drawbacks of the “Klitschko Era”. The brothers did not have especially exciting competition. Ali had Frazier. Holyfield had Bowe. Fury and Wilder have each other. The Klitschkos had—?

They were too good and too nice. When boxers tried to draw them into bitter feuds, like the Englishmen David Haye and Derek Chisora, they were simply outmatched by the hulking Ukrainians. When they faced serious threats, like the imposing Russian Alexander Povetkin, they were too courteous and professional to really sell the fight.

Man mountains stomping mournfully around the ruins of their home

Worst of all, the Klitschkos never fought each other. Here they were, the two greatest heavyweights around — brothers — and we never saw them on opposite sides of the ring. As a human being you respected it — their mother asked them never to fight — but as a fan of combat sports it was disappointing. If it had been professional wrestling that could have been your Wrestlemania main event three years in a row.

I doubt that anyone disliked the Klitschkos. We respected their skill, and their discipline, and their dedication. Hell, we respected how polite and professional they were. Floyd Mayweather might have been a more exciting showman, but he was an asshole. 

Still, if one thinks of the Klitschko Era it is hard not to think of adjectives like safe, conservative and, well, boring. Don’t take my word for it. Wladimir Klitschko awarded himself a backhanded compliment when he said the current heavyweight scene is “not as boring as it was…during all those years”. “You can like me or hate me but when one person conquers it all, it is boring. I totally get it.”

Vitali Klitschko and brother Wladimir Klitschko. The pair never boxed against each other, honouring a promise to their mother that they would never fight. Picture Credit: Florian G Seefried/Getty Images

Safe is not a word that comes to mind when you think of the Klitschkos now. The Ukrainians retired with tens of millions of pounds. They could have bought their own private islands somewhere tropical, slept on a bed of money and been fed gold leaf by scantily clad supermodels.

Instead, Vitali threw himself deeper into politics. A holder of a doctorate degree in sports science, and, like his brother, a keen chess player, he had been advising Ukrainian politicians since the mid-noughties. In 2014, he became Mayor of Kiev, running against corruption and institutional sclerosis. Inevitably, this being Ukrainian politics, he was later accused of corruption himself, and locked horns with President Volodymyr Zelinsky.

No doubt the men have shelved their disagreements now. Klitschko remained in Kiev as the Russians invaded, and his brother has been with him. Wladimir, who did not even have official responsibilities, joined the Ukrainian reserves.

They were always men of action more than men of words

Have the brothers, as Vitali is reported to have claimed, killed half a dozen Russian soldiers between them? I’ll leave that to the judges. If nothing else, it would seem incredibly unwise for one of Ukraine’s leading politicians and one of its most internationally famous sons to be so close to the front. But the brothers have been filmed walking through the rubble of Kiev this weekend — man mountains stomping mournfully around the ruins of their home. One can imagine how inspiring it is for Ukrainians to see such giants of sport and culture beside them.

At times like this, one realises the preciousness of peace. How dearly one wishes that the only Russian hostility Ukrainians face came from the fists of Povetkin or Sultan Ibragimov. How dearly one wishes our abiding image of the Klitschkos was of the safe, cautious, endlessly talented athletes who dominated boxing for so many years.

But this is where people prove themselves maximally — not with how many hours they spend in the gym, or how many millions they earn, or how many belts they collect, but with how much courage and fortitude they can summon up in the defence of the people and places they love. Whatever else one said about the Klitschkos, they were always men of action more than men of words, and rarely is the virtue of that clearer than now. One hopes that fate is on their side and shielding them from harm.

The Klitschkos are not alone among the boxers who have thrown down their gloves and taken up arms. Oleksandr Usyk, a world champion in two weight classes who beat Britain’s Anthony Joshua in 2021, has entered the fight, saying, “My soul belongs to the Lord and my body and my honour to my country.” Vasily Lomachenko, who has been a world champion in three weight classes, has also enlisted. Admiring their courage, one reflects again on how privileged we are that much of the violence in our societies is consensual and controlled.

War inspires vivid displays of bravery and honour. There is nothing like it when it comes to testing character. But that does not change its grotesque essence. Among other evils, it chews up and spits out talent, leaving it as tragic waste. 

Yevhen Zvonok was a decorated young kickboxer who was killed by air strikes in Chernihiv. Yulia Zdanowska was a young mathematician who had won a silver medal at the 2017 European Girls’ Mathematical Olympiad but was killed in Kharkiv. Who knows what the children who have died could have become. They never had the chance to show it.

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