By Alan Hubbard
Thankfully the days are long gone when it was thought that old boxers retired to Palookaville along with their slurred speech, twisted noses and fading memories. Advances in safety measures and medical science mean that the flight game is no longer a repository for washed up pugs. Indeed, as I have mentioned before, these days you will see more rugby players with cauliflower ears than boxers.
You will find ex-boxers high on the list of lucid, in-demand pundits, successful businessmen or national icons with faculties intact. Yet I doubt if there has ever been anyone, in any contact sport, to have achieved the same political distinction as the former world heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko, whose equally erudite younger sibling Wladimir is also an outstanding example of defying the long held belief that boxing is a simple equation of matter over mind.
The Kazakhstan-born Klitschko brothers, brought up in Ukraine under the old Soviet regime and coached in Germany always brought dignity respect and sportsmanship to their respective ring careers, both winning versions of the world heavyweight championship and the younger Wladimir achieving an Olympic gold medal in Atlanta for Ukraine in 1996; along the way both collected PhDs from the University of Kyiv (they prefer to use the Ukrainian version of the capital’s name rather then the Russian Kiev), became fluent in four languages, speaking out in all of them against injustice is beyond the roped square. Remarkable is an understated adjective, perhaps most notably so in the case of Vitali now currently the mayor of his home city where his foresight is acknowledged to have prevented a multitude of casualties in what he considers the toughest opponent he has ever encountered – COVID-19, aka. coronavirus.
Vitali, 6ft7in was possessor of one of the most potent punches of his era. with an 87% knockout percentage from his 47 bouts, he holds the third highest ko ratio of any world heavyweight champion in boxing history, behind Deontay Wilder and Rocky Marciano. No wonder they called him Dr Ironfist. And there is no doubt his mental prowess matches his physical prowess.
Under his leadership Kyiv, has so far managed to avoid the worst of coronavirus.
To date the city, which has a population of 2.8 million, has suffered just 15 virus-related deaths, a rate which is attributable in large part to Dr Ironfist, who while bigger nations like Great Britain and the United States were caught on the hop, was alreay ahead of the game.
It so happens that Kyiv, where he has been mayor for six years since serving as an MP in the Ukrainian parliament, is twinned with Wushun, the Chinese city where the pandemic is strongly believed to have spawned in a wet market. When he got early wind of this in January the 48-year-old Vitali reacted swiftly, creating a taskforce to buy life-saving equipment and enforcing an early lockdown of the city.
Shortly after moving into politics Klitschko stood up confrontationally against Russia’s President Putin over the annexation of the Crimea. He has been strongly touted as a future president if his country.
Now Mayor Klitschko sees Covid-19 as his greatest fight to date. He told London’s Daily Telegraph “For instance, while Ukraine issued the quarantine order on March 12, by March 10 Kiev had received the first pre-ordered batch of coronavirus testing kits. The first pandemic measures in Kiev were taken on March 11 and escalated by March 17.
“By the end of March seven hospitals had been set up as dedicated coronavirus facilities. Now there are 14 such hospitals which can hold up to 1,700 infected people. We continue to stockpile the protective gear, medications, ventilators and equipment. I want to underline that the city budget covers all expenses related to the coronavirus pandemic, including those purchases.”
“You know, Wuhan is one of Kiev’s sister cities. We contacted the experts there and they kindly shared their expertise and practices that helped them contain the spread of the virus. They also provided guidance on how doctors and nurses who are at high risk of becoming infected can stay protected and safe. We used their guidelines and recommendations in our coronavirus-related decision-making process.
“I also asked the opinion of the chairman of the Berlin-based Robert Koch Institute. I am certain that early imposed severe restrictions bought us the time we nееded to slow down the spread of the disease.
“The situation here is still stable and we have escaped the Italian or Spanish scenarios for Kiev so far.
“The responsibility is enormous. We are talking here about the health and lives of millions of people. As mayor of Ukraine’s capital city, every day I have to deal with plentiful problems. Now Kyiv is under strict quarantine which means I am facing absolutely new and the most pressing challenges, things I have never encountered before. At the moment we all are working non-stop, 24 hours a day, and I almost live in my office.”
Klitschko likens his current battle to those in the ring. ”The will to win, persistence in the face of difficulties aplenty, a willingness to fight tooth and nail are equally important in public service as well as sports. I never hesitate to seek advice and learn new things. It is no easy task. Behind the tough decisions are economic losses a low level of ordinary people’s well-being, cutbacks in many municipal projects, disruption to normal life and the frustration of city residents.”
Many will remember his epic battle with Lennox Lewis in 2003 when he lost because of an horrendous eye wound after being ahead on points. He adds “This is a matter of people’s health and lives. Tough times demand tough decisions. My top priority is that Kyiv gets through the hardships with minimum damage. We will restore the economy, but no one can resurrect people.
“Every day I appeal to Kyivans and the Ukrainians. Everything I say to them can be said to people across the world. Take good care of yourself, respect the restriction rules.
“No one could have ever predicted the huge human and economic toll for all countries worldwide. Even the most well-developed public health systems such as the one in the United States is unable to deal with a growing number of critical care patients.
“No one can predict how the pandemic will progress. But I think it is feasible to reduce the pandemic risk. And so much of that depends on our actions. Such simple things as hand washing, staying at home, and seeking medical help early can save lives. The virus is indifferent to your skin colour, race or religion. This is a global threat against which we must stand together. And Mayor Klitschko sees this as his greatest fight to date Once a fighter, always a fighter, they say.”
He is being backed totally by his 44-year-old once multi-belted brother who holds the record for the longest cumulative reign if any world champion – 4382 days. Like Vitali he is an ambassador of Unesco, and also an accomplished artist, selling many of his paintings for charity. Since his retirement three years ago after title losses to Britons Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua, he has been proposed as the man to unify professional and amateur boxing but the czars of the respective governing have declined to descend from the gravy train.
‘Dr Steelhammer’ is not as politically ambitious as his big brother but there is no doubt his considerable talents are being wasted. Perhaps when the current crisis is over, the world of sport will have to regroup, bring in some necessary reforms. Hopefully the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will see that boxing, currently without anyone fighting its corner, will recognise that there is no one better equipped than the highly intelligent former Olympic champion to bring innovation and fresh impetus to the a staid movement which needs more dynamism.
Wladimir Klitschko a wealthy and relatively young man with time on his hands. A true heavyweight in every sense. Who knows, like his brother, he might even be presidential material one day.