BOXING BROTHERS

Between Punches and Politics

Klitschko brothers
Two brothers, two champions, two visions for the future: Vitali (left) and Vladimir (Klitschko).
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    The Klitschko brothers are attempting to use their Ukrainian-Russian roots, and their experience in the boxing ring, to launch second careers.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • The Ukrainian brothers moved to Germany in the 1990s to pursue boxing careers.
    • They were once offered $100 million to fight each other.
    • Their mother is from Siberia and their father is Ukrainian, so they grew up speaking both languages.
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  • Audio

    Audio

  • Pdf

In an office complex at the edge of the harbor in Hamburg, all glass walls and trophies, is the headquarters of the Klitschko Management Group. As the brothers’ boxing era winds down, Vitali sees his future in politics. The 43-year-old former heavyweight champion is the leader of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform and was elected mayor of Kiev this May. The younger Vladimir will defend his title as heavyweight world champion on November 15, but he too is preparing for a future outside of the ring. The brothers recently spoke with Thomas Tuma and Mathias Brüggmann about career planning, war in Ukraine — and magic.

Handelsblatt: Can the two of you still remember why of all careers you became boxers?

Vitali Klitschko: Actually, I would have preferred to become a cosmonaut. As children, we often sat on the rooftop and watched rockets being launched nearby. Back then we lived near a large Russian space facility, the Baikonur Cosmodrome. I can still remember how fascinating it was when rockets blasted off. Sometimes you could see them glowing until the next morning.

Vladimir Klitschko: Our parents were not very pleased when we started boxing. But they let us do it. My most important role model was always my brother. If he had become a cosmonaut… I would have tried to do the same. But he ended up a boxer.

Your father was an officer in the Soviet Air Force. How did you fall for a sport that traditionally seeks its recruits from the working classes?

Vitali: We didn’t have that kind of class-consciousness in the Soviet Union. It didn’t matter at all if someone played tennis or boxed. I remember how a trainer came to us at school and asked, “Boys, who wants to box like Muhammad Ali?” Everyone’s hands shot up.

Vladimir: In contrast to Vitali, I’m a different sort of boxer. For him it was a calling, for me it became a job. I had to learn boxing just like you learn a foreign language. He, on the other hand, had the talent for it in his blood. I was always rather the softer one of the two of us. The sport was simply my key for getting out of the Soviet Union.

 

Vladimir Klitschko
Fierce fighter: Vladimir Klitschko soon has to defend his title as heavyweight champion. Source: AFP/Getty, John Macdougall, Pablo Castagnola, Frank Beer

 

You had to promise your mother once that you would never fight against each other. Were there offers over all the years?

Vladimir: That was never an issue between us. We didn’t waste any thoughts on it.

Vitali: The promoter Don King once offered $100 million. But there are things that are priceless. I can’t fight against my little brother, because I love him. And I love my mother as well. Unfortunately, the goal of boxing is that the opponent should end up flat on the ground as soon as possible. That’s not what I wish for my brother. And I don’t wish that for myself, because I know how strong he is.

So you’re not certain who would win if you fought each other?

Vitali: The outcome was unclear, and that’s why we were offered so much money. But you always have to be aware of the border between show and reality. The show ends at one point, but reality doesn’t. And the reality in a fight like that is that one of us would be hit hard and go down.

Vitali, you have turned your back on sports and entered politics. This year you were elected mayor of Kiev. Is the conflict between Russia and Ukraine also a battle between brothers?

Vitali: Civil wars are the bloodiest. What happened this year between Russia and Ukraine is war on many levels. There is a media war and propaganda war. There is an economic war with sanctions, and a political war in which Russia supports Ukrainian separatists with money and weapons. Unfortunately, too few people in the West are interested in the fact that Ukraine is transforming itself into a country with Western values and standards, one that desperately needs support.

What does Russia mean to you today?

Vladimir: I pretty much grew up in the West because of the sport, but my soul also has an Eastern European side. Our mother comes from Siberia, our father was Ukrainian. Both of us speak Russian better than Ukrainian. We have both nationalities in our blood. That doesn’t change because of the current conflict. It’s not two peoples who are fighting against each other, it’s a conflict fueled only by a small group of power-focused politicians.

Vitali Klitschko
Third time lucky: In May, Vitali Klitschko was elected as mayor of Kiev, Ukraine. Source: AFP/Getty, John Macdougall, Pablo Castagnola, Frank Beer

 

Vitali: The two countries are actually so closely linked that I would have never considered it possible how devastating propaganda could be for citizens of both sides. I’ve always been interested in historical processes and have wondered how one of the most intelligent nations in the world could collectively become so crazy at the beginning of the 1930s…

You’re talking about Germany…

Vitali: … which was overrun by the manipulation machinery of someone like Joseph Goebbels. That’s how I experience Russia today. Unfortunately, the propaganda coming out of the Kremlin is also strong and loud, and just as successful as during the Third Reich.

When you both were growing up, the Iron Curtain fell. Why did you move to Germany? You could have gone to the United States.

Vladimir: In 1990, when the Soviet Union collapsed, I was 14 years old. Back then, I didn’t give much thought to where I would live in the future. I just wanted to get out of the daily grind of garrison cities and the perpetual moves to the farthest corners of the Soviet Union. We started boxing for Flensburg in the German League. That’s how things started.

Vitali: In Germany, both of us quickly found many new friends, and more: We got an idea of what democratic society means. In comparison, the Ukraine of today is not only another country, but also another world. It has potential, but only if it becomes modernized and emancipated. The Ukrainians don’t live. They simply survive.

Why did you get into politics?

Vitali: Just enjoying life is boring for me. Even back in 1991, I dreamed of revitalizing my country. Now we have the opportunity to do just that.

Vladimir, you are 38 now. How much longer do you intend to box?

Vladimir: Please don’t remind me of my age! I feel a lot younger. Mentally perhaps somewhat older than 38, but physically like a teenager. I have a great motivation to keep on boxing.

 

Klitschko brother children
Big Klitschko and little Klitschko: Vitali (right) with his younger brother Vladimir (left). Source: PR

 

You are also said to be a good magician. What is your favorite trick?

Vladimir: Directing people’s attention to my right hand while my left hand takes something out of their pocket! No, seriously: Magic has something to do with humor and psychology. With an illusion, you can make people laugh — or swindle them. That has nothing to do with magic, just psychology.

Vitali, you once said politics is much more exhausting than any training camp. Why?

Vitali: In sports, everything is much more transparent. In politics, many decisions are made in back rooms. In young democracies like Ukraine, politics is often a dirty business — and more brutal than any boxing match. It’s a match with no rules. Things are clearer in the ring.

But Ukraine is also dominated by oligarchs. How do you intend to break their power?

Vitali: The oligarchs still have an enormous influence on economic and political life. Both (business and politics) must be transparent. The media have the most important task here, even if up to now they have been under the influence of some oligarchs.

Where will each of you and your country be in five or 10 years?

Vladimir: I see myself as an entrepreneur with my own brands and products that help people be successful as part of a team.

Vitali: We will be part of Europe, because we are Europeans. Poland showed us how the path into the European Union can be successful. And Kiev will become an outstanding tourist and cultural destination in Europe. My first job was as a 14-year-old tour guide in Kiev for other pupils. I am familiar with the beauty of the city.

 

Mathias Brüggemann learned Russian in high school, is married to a Russian and sees the role of Vitali Klitschko far less optimistically than many do in the West. Thomas Tuma was “downright enthusiastic about the brothers’ coolness” – and not simply because Vitali could open a soft-drink bottle with his eye socket. That’s the sort of thing you learn in Russian barracks, Vitali explained. To contact the authors: brueggmann@handelsblatt.com; tuma@handelsblatt.com.

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