The Ring, the Ropes, a Hope, and the Orange Revolution

Mary Katharine Ham
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Posted: Jun 01, 2006 8:45 AM

I was doing some reading on the beach this weekend. I know, rough life, huh? When I read on the beach, I generally like to steer away from politics or else I feel all worky.

So, I was reading Rick Reilly's column. This week, it was about heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko of the Ukraine. Klitschko is something of an anti-Tyson:
(Sorry, subscription-only link.)

There are two ways to be heavyweight champion of the world.

You can do it the Mike Tyson way: Surround yourself with mooks and thugs, guys who would rather dance Swan Lake than say "no" to you about anything. Blow millions filling seven-car garages, sleeping under sable bedspreads and feeding your pet white tigers. Harass and molest your groupies.

Or you can do it the Wladimir Klitschko way. The current IBF champion, Klitschko is so lame he doesn't even have a posse. He has a Ph.D., a jones for chess and there are stuffed Easter bunnies on the lawn of the place where he stays in L.A. He doesn't even munch ears. Single, he doesn't sleep with his groupies, mostly because he doesn't have any.

Sounds like a cool guy, right? I do love a classy athlete. I didn't know much about Klitschko besides his name until I read this, so when I got back on the web, I Googled him and found out some more about him and his brother, Vitali.

Both brothers stand over 6'6", speak four languages, and have Ph.Ds. They served in the Ukrainian army, hold helicopter pilots' licenses, and excel at chess. They are described as intelligent, charming, and well-mannered in a sport that hasn't recently put a high premium on those qualities. They sometimes catch flak for it from opponents and critics who say they're too soft for boxing-- they lack the killer instinct.

Nonetheless, the two have both been heavyweight champions--Wladimir most recently beat Chris Byrd for the title in a bout that avenged his big brother's loss of the title to the southpaw American 6 months earlier. Inside the ring, the brothers combine for a record of 70-2 with 66 KOs. (Not positive that's a current stat, so don't quote me on it; I read several different stats on that, but that's the ballpark.)

Vitali is about five years older. He quit the ring recently to go into politics. He was a force in the Orange Revolution and ran for mayor of Kiev in 2006:

At the height of the Orange Revolution mass protests, Vitali Klitschko wore a small orange sash on his boxing trunks while pummeling British challenger Danny Williams in Las Vegas, then flew home to take the stage alongside President-to-be Viktor Yushchenko at the height of the revolution. Yushchenko made Klitschko an adviser.

Now he is running not only for mayor but for Parliament in national elections on March 26, the same day as the mayoral race. He heads the candidate list of a new anti-corruption, pro-Orange Revolution political bloc.

Both brothers have been recognized by Yushchenko for their contributions to their native country and the Orange Revolution.

Yushchenko has thanked the Klitschko brothers' activity in public and political life of Ukraine and their "assistance to the Ukrainian people in fight for freedom and democracy. You have contributed to the fact that the whole world saw another face of our country and Ukrainians strive for freedom."

Vitali spoke about the Orange Revolution after he and his brother received the Ukrainian Institute's Persons of the Year award in 2005:

"The whole world watched the development of events in our country, as Ukrainians fought for freedom and were victorious." He acknowledged the important role played by Ukrainians beyond the borders of Ukraine, especially those in the United States, giving encouragement and support during a trying time in Ukraine's history, and paid tribute to Ukrainian American institutions like the Ukrainian Institute of America, which promote Ukrainian culture by offering numerous programs in Ukrainian arts, history and traditions.

"We feel great pride today, pride that Ukrainians are spoken of as a nation, that we finally stand on our own," he declared, promising that he and Wladimir, as sportsmen, would do everything possible "that every time we get into the ring, Ukrainians can be sure that our flag is the flag of victory."

The brothers were both born in Central Asia while their father was in the Soviet Air Force, but are Ukrainian citizens. They moved to Germany as young men to train when it became apparent Ukraine did not have the facilities they needed. When both became successful, they remodeled their hometown gym, and established a fund to help young talents train.

Wladimir now lives in L.A. I enjoyed this anecdote from Reilly's column:

Growing up in Ukraine, he dreamed of American riches for too long to blow it now. One time, a family member brought back a bottle of Coke from America. Klitschko's eyes went as wide as Frisbees. "There's U.S. air in that!" he yelled. He put his face over the top, flipped the cap and sucked in, smiling hugely. Wlad the Inhaler.

I just thought it was a neat story about the value of freedom and the opportunities it affords. And, to find heavyweight champions who speak eloquently about it seemed a rarity worth pointing out. Here's to the anti-Tysons.

UPDATE: Reader Stoo tells me that Michelle Malkin wrote about some other admirable athletes today. The Colorado Rockies, an organization that puts an emphasis on Christian values and character. Let's hope classy athletes are the new thing.