You would be hard-pressed to find someone who enjoyed watching the fights of Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko less than me. Their play-it-safe, pawing jabs drove me nuts. Their throw a punch or two, and then hug and lean into their opponents until they wore them down from the sheer weight of their hulking frames style of fighting was brutal to watch. I cannot think of a single time I rooted for either of them to win a bout.
Vitali exited the fight game with only two losses and in both of those in fights, he was ahead on points- only to have the bouts stopped due to serious injury (his shoulder against Chris Byrd and his eye against Lennox Lewis). At the age of 41, Vitali left the world of boxing holding the WBC title belt after winning his final 13 fights. It wasn't age or marketability that took Vitali away from the sport where he made his fortune; it was duty to his country.
Upon announcing his retirement, Vitali stated, “My focus is on politics in Ukraine, and I feel the people there need me.” Vitali was elected to the Ukrainian parliament in 2012 and became the mayor of Kyiv-Ukraine's capital and most populous city.
In the ring, Vitali was tougher than his arguably more talented brother Wladimir, whose body part that failed him most consistently was his chin.
Wladimir had already suffered two TKO losses to lesser lights, Ross Puritty and Corrie Sanders, when he signed legendary trainer Emanuel Steward to guide him in the ring. Their union got off to an inauspicious start upon suffering an embarrassing fifth-round TKO loss to journeyman Lamon Brewster. The ever-brilliant Steward realized both what he had in Wladimir (superior size, athleticism, and power) and what he didn't (a good beard).
Steward tamped down on all the ring maneuvers Wladimir committed in the past that left him open to getting hit in the face and moved his charge to a completely risk-averse style of hit and hug that paid Wladimir great dividends. After the switch, Wladimir went on a twenty-two-match winning streak. I saw nearly all those fights, and the only memories I have from any of them is how unfortunate it was that my chair was pointed at the television screen. The absolute nadir of his career ended that streak with a miserable loss to Tyson Fury.
Ironically, the final fight of Wladimir's boxing career was the most exciting. Calling upon all his reserves and fighting more boldly than I can ever remember, the Ukrainian gave everything he had against the young and hungry Anthony Joshua at London's O2 arena in 2017.
Once again, his jaw let him down. While Wladimir did drop Joshua in the sixth, it was the old head who went down three times (once in the fifth, twice in the twelfth) before succumbing to referee stoppage while being pummeled on the ropes. It says something about Wladimir as a boxer that the most enjoyable fight of his career is one he lost.
And with that, a pretty miserable era in heavyweight boxing ended and I assumed that, other than the occasional promotional appearance, my eyes had seen the last of the Brothers Klitschko.
I was wrong.
Those who call boxing matches and those who watch boxing matches can be quick to use the term “war.”
“That fight was a war!” They'll say. “He's a warrior!” They'll shout. And of course, this isn't intended literally—it's just the way we talk when we watch boxing. But no matter the brutality of any given bout, it pales in comparison to that of a real war.
And Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko are at war.
Since Thursday, February 24 of this year, Ukraine has been under siege from a relentless attack by the Russian military which cares not whether their targets are soldiers, civilians, animal shelters, or famous boxers. The Russian president/oligarch/dictator/war criminal/thug has sacrificed his nation's economy and vast personal treasure to start a needless war waged for no other purpose than to create a new Soviet Union. As mad as it may seem, it should be no surprise that the former head of the KGB should choose such a ruinous path.
But a funny thing happened on the way to taking Ukraine: the much smaller, less well-armed nation led by President Volodymyr Zelenskyy didn't just roll over when confronted with Russian tanks and fighter planes-they resisted. And two of the leaders of that resistance are Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko. These two men who, to my mind, were careful and boring in the ring are now in the fight of their lives with every single thing they care about at stake. Their combined net worth is roughly 160 million dollars. They could have made an exodus to Poland, Belize, Trinidad, and Tobago, or the dark side of the moon, but instead, they are risking their lives and fortune to stay in Kyiv and fight.
A real fight.
Not the kind where there are rules, gloves, and timed rounds, but the kind where at any moment you could meet a gun blast from a tank, a hail of bullets, or death from above. Regardless of the risk, Brothers Klitschko have staked their claim on the soil of their country. The toll on their nation, and I'm sure on themselves, has to be staggering.
“There are human bodies on the ground that no one picks up; it's just too many dead. Too many,” Wladimir has said. “This is brutal war. It's unimaginable what is happening here. This is hell.”
Just yesterday, Vitali told the press, “It doesn't matter who you are on the Ukrainian soil now… if you have a press badge, or you're a little girl or boy, an adult, man or woman… or an old person… you are a target from Russia, from the Russian army.”
One has to wonder how long Ukraine and the Brothers Klitschko can hold out. It's not just that the Russian army has greater numbers and superior ammo; they also have a despot perfectly willing to send off countless young men as cannon fodder. When you outnumber your opposition by a nearly four-to-one ratio, you can sacrifice a lot of lives to reach your objective. Furthermore, when you have nuclear weapons, you can keep the rest of the world's democracies at arm's length in the face of a genocidal land grab. And yet Ukraine, this nation, with 100 million fewer inhabitants than its oppressor, persists and resists. In part, because of men like Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko.
Whatever my opinion of these two brothers in the ring, there's a big world outside of the squared circle. In that world, the real one, Vitali and Wladimir, two risk-averse boxers, now inspire their nation. Not with athletic courage-the kind we fight lovers opine about frequently-but with humanitarian courage. This type of courage is the kind that gets you killed. There is no one in your corner, no referee to keep order, no scorekeepers at ringside to tell you who won, and no one to save you with a ringing bell.
There is only hell.
Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko are living in hell, and they are doing it by choice. Because there are things worth living for and things worth dying for-namely, the men, women, and children of their besieged nation, the concept of freedom, and the desire to tell Vladimir Putin that he can go fuck himself. We won't surrender. We'd rather die.
For the first time in my life, I am in awe of the Brothers Klitschko. God knows they've earned it.