Vitali Klitschko, heavyweight champ and Renaissance man, harbors dreams of world domination
Forget your preconceived notions, your visions of Mike Tyson-like characters, and meet Vitali Klitschko, World Boxing Council heavyweight boxing champion.
He lives with his wife and three children in Bel-Air, speaks four languages, quotes French philosophers, has a doctorate in sports sciences and speaks passionately about the need to improve the lives of people in his childhood home of Kiev, Ukraine.
Klitschko has a foundation that has raised millions of dollars toward that goal and will be his main focus when his boxing days have ended.
He dotes on his little brother, an inch shorter at 6 feet 6 and a similar fighting weight of 255 pounds -- and who holds two other world heavyweight titles.
“He is the closest person in the world to me,” Vitali, 38, says of Wladimir, 33.
Vitali says he won’t ever fight his little brother, mainly because his mother, back home in Kiev, “might have a heart attack.” Another reason, he says, smiling with much more pride than fear, is that Wladimir “is a dangerous opponent.”
Right now, the heavyweight division in boxing is the Klitschko Division. That has served the sport well in Europe, especially Germany, where their fights sell out soccer stadiums and bring huge TV ratings. But in the good ol’ USA, fans remember the Ali-Frazier-Foreman era and wonder whatever happened to Tyson. The Klitschkos are barely on the radar.
If they are at all, it is because of Vitali’s battle with champion Lennox Lewis at Staples Center on June 21, 2003. Two rounds ahead on all three cards after six rounds, Klitschko lost the fight when the ring doctor took a long look at an ugly cut over his left eye and said no mas.
It took 63 stitches to close the cut. Today, Klitschko has no scar and only memories of what might have been, from a fight that created perhaps the most buzz of any heavyweight title fight since Tyson chomped on Evander Holyfield’s ear in 1997. Klitschko says the cut had not caused him any vision problems, that his handlers had it under control by the sixth round, and that the doctor summoned to his corner by the referee had been called to look at a cut on his lip, not his eye.
Still, even Klitschko has to admit it was gruesome.
“When I looked at the film later,” he says, “I said: ‘Oh, my God.’ ”
He says his wife, Natalie, watching from ringside, was horrified.
“She was sitting next to Sylvester Stallone,” Klitschko says, “and he told her this was bloodier than the movie.”
When Klitschko fights again at Staples, that memory may actually sell some tickets. That will be Sept. 26, against local favorite Chris Arreola of Riverside, who is 10 years younger than Klitschko and has 24 knockouts in his 27-0 record.
It is a fight that has a chance to return some of the attention to boxing’s heavyweights. It certainly has a chance to shine some light on the fascinating story and personality of Vitali Klitschko.
The son of a Soviet air force colonel and a schoolteacher, he moved to Kiev in 1985. It was the year before the nuclear accident at Chernobyl, 100 miles to the north. He and Wladimir were the family’s only two children. Vitali was 14 when the accident took place. He recalls his father, as a member of the military, having more information and a better idea of how serious it was, calling home and telling the family not to open their mouths, to breathe through their noses.
“He said to wash our hands a lot, to stay inside,” Klitschko says.
The accident happened April 26, and the sacrosanct Soviet May Day celebration on May 1, with children parading through the streets of Kiev, went on as planned.
“We had to go,” Klitschko says. “There was no choice.” Four years later, one of his friends who seemed completely healthy, suddenly became ill and died within a week. “It was leukemia . . . the radiation,” Klitschko says.
He says when he and his brother are together they often get teased for being so big. He says he just tells people they are products of the radiation, that they are “a Chernobyl side effect.”
More seriously, he says his father, now 62, has cancer.
In addition to his home in Bel-Air, he lives part of the year in Hamburg, Germany, site of many of his fights, and another part of the year in Kiev. All three children -- Egor Daniel, 9; Elizabeth, 7; and Max, 4 -- were born in the United States and so are U.S. citizens. Max was born several days after the death of Max Schmeling, the former German heavyweight champion and Klitschko’s friend, and was named for him.
It is Schmeling’s influence that brings Klitschko to his third fight at Staples, more than any other boxing headliner there, including one whose statue is out front, Oscar De La Hoya.
“Max told me one time,” Klitschko says, “if you want to be a real world champion, you need to fight in the United States.”
Tyson had an influence too.
“I was 15,” Klitschko says, “and we would find a TV to watch Tyson’s fights. In those days of the Soviet Union, fighting professionally was not allowed. Everything was for the state and for the Olympics. But we would watch, and when I saw Tyson win the heavyweight title [at age 20, over Trevor Berbick] and I saw how young he was, I stood up in front of my friends and told them I would one day win that title. I was just a skinny kid and they laughed at me.
“Then, when I won the title, I went home to Kiev and called up all those same friends who were there the night I said that. I invited them to a restaurant. They got there, we sat down, and I took out the same belt that Tyson had won and put it on the table.
“I have a memory like an elephant.”
Klitschko fought three more times after the Lennox Lewis fight, then was out for nearly four years after rotator cuff surgery. He returned to take back his title with an eight-round technical knockout of Samuel Peter on Oct. 11, 2008, in Berlin. His most recent fight was March 21 in Stuttgart, where he beat Juan Carlos Gomez with a TKO in the ninth.
Of the four most-sought heavyweight belts in a sea of alphabet soup sanctioning groups, the Klitschko brothers have three -- Wladimir the International Boxing Federation and World Boxing Organization and Vitali the WBC. The fourth, the World Boxing Assn., is held by Russian Nikolay Valuev.
“My dream is for the Klitschko brothers to hold all four at the same time,” Vitali says.
Klitschko avoids predictions for his match with Arreola, other than one that befits a boxer who has never been knocked down, never taken a standing count and whose 37-2 record includes 36 knockouts.
“I promise one thing,” he says. “I do not know who the winner will be, but the fight won’t go 12 rounds.”
That’s as much trash-talking as you’ll get from a man who plays chess, ran for mayor of Kiev in 2006 and was once honored by the United Nations for his work as a humanitarian.
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CURRENT HEAVYWEIGHT TITLE HOLDERS
*--* WBA WBC IBF WBO Nikolay Valuev Vitali Klitschko Wladimir Klitschko Wladimir Klitschko *--*