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The first time I met Mike Tyson he erupted and physically threatened a fellow reporter. In my naiveté, I told him, “Stop degrading yourself, Mike. What would Cus have thought of that?”
Mention of Cus D’Amato, Tyson’s legendary trainer, might have caught him with his emotional guard down, because a few minutes later he whispered, “It’s all about putting fannies in the seats.”
“You’re a great fighter,” I protested, “and don’t need to do that kind of thing.” The former champ laughed, rolled his shoulders and quipped, “You’d be surprised.”
Tyson was right, a boxer has to put on a sideshow in order to command attention, at least in the US. Witness the case of Vitali Klitschko, the WBC heavyweight champion of the world who has just retired on account of repetitive knee and back injuries.
Despite the fact that the Ukrainian holds a doctorate, speaks four languages, and was the most politically active boxer this side of Muhammad Ali, the 34 year old Klitschko never captured the imagination of US fight fans.
Tabbed Doctor Iron Fist, the 6’7” boxer who was an important figure in support of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, had a record of 35 victories. Remarkably all but one win came by way of knock out. A devastating puncher, Klitschko’s height and crab like movements, developed in his former career as a world champion kick boxer, rendered him very difficult to hit.
Klitschko, whose younger brother, Wladimir (who also holds a doctorate) is a top heavyweight contender, was the pugilist who sent champion Lennox Lewis into retirement. In their 2003 encounter, Klitschko staggered Lewis with right hands and was ahead on points when the bout was stopped due to a severe laceration over Klitschko’s left eye.
In his only other defeat, he was giving Chris Byrd a drubbing when Klitschko tore his rotator cuff in the seventh round. Blind with pain and unable to lift his arm, he threw in the towel after round nine.
The doyen of boxing commentators, Larry Merchant, who has since retracted his comment, snapped that Klitschko lacked a certain part of the male anatomy. Ominously enough, given the recent death of Leavander Johnson, Merchant would later explain that Americans expect their heavyweights to be willing to die in the ring.
As perceptive as he is powerful, Klitschko was profoundly puzzled by the idea that US boxing fans would consider him a softie. And yet, as Merchant himself acknowledged, “Vitali quickly learned to fight in an all or nothing style.”
After Lewis retired, Klitschko knocked out the power punching Corrie Sanders to become WBC champ. He defended his title once, halting Danny Williams in November 2004.
A showdown with top heavyweight contender Hasim Rahman was in the offing but had to be postponed three times because of injuries Klitschko incurred in training. Alas, the long awaited bout was set for November 12th. Klitschko stood to earn in excess of US$7m dollars and Rahman more than US$4m.
However, toward the end of his training camp, Klitschko twisted his knee which made the pivot required for punching impossible. Surgery was necessary and rather than tie up the heavyweight division for another six months to a year, Klitschko stepped aside at the very pinnacle of his powers.
Klitschko was actually not born in Ukraine but in Belovodsk, Kyrgyzstan, and lists as his home towns Los Angeles, California and, in germany, Hamburg. Last March in New York, the influential Ukrainian Institute of America honored he and his brother as Persons of the Year.
It was not just their stand in the Ukraine that ensured the award. They were also involved in philanthropic efforts, including work for Unesco, anti-drug campaigns, and helping to rebuild Kiev’s St. Michael’s cathedral, leveled by Stalin.
Hundreds of well-heeled children of the Ukrainian diaspora were at the awards dinner, scant few of these mostly suburbanites ardent boxing fans. Yet, I got the strong sense that they do not miss a Klitschko bout. When he stepped to the rostrum to accept his award, (his younger brother was in Germany on a visit with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko) the throng broke out into the chant that always resonates ringside at their bouts: “Klitsch--ko, Klitsch--ko, Klitsch--ko”.
He smiled, thanked the gathering and began his speech on the future of Ukraine. After a few minutes, Vasal Kavatsiuk, the editor of the US and Canadian Ukrainian-community newspaper Svoboda, whispered to me, “And to think that he only learned Ukrainian a few years ago.”
Kavatsiuk went on to say that the brothers are like Schwarzenegger in two parts: Vitali is the politician, Wladimir, the actor.
Another guest ribbed me, “You are looking at the next president of Ukraine.” “Really?” I reacted in surprise. “Only kidding,” he answered, paused and then added, “Make that half kidding. Give him ten years.”
He may already be on the way. Klitschko is running for mayor of Kiev next year.
Gordon Marino, a former boxer, is a professor of philosophy at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota.