A football club that avoids relegation is said to have secured its “survival”. A fast bowler delivering bouncers at lower-order batsmen is said to be “bombing them out”. Opponents are “conquered”, goals are “besieged”, teams triumph on “enemy turf”, things are said in “the heat of battle”. Since its earliest days, sport has never been shy of lapsing into the terminology and tropes of war. Which is all fine, until the real thing comes along.
Ironically, few fighters ever made boxing look less like war than the brothers Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko. During their long careers in the ring, they approached this bloodiest and most visceral of sports almost as an intellectual exercise, a business of angles and geometry, levers and pulleys, economy and efficiency. Their dominance of the heavyweight division was supreme: between 1999, when Vitali won his first world championship, and 2015, when Wladimir finally relinquished his, losing to Britain’s Tyson Fury, there were only 18 months in which a Klitschko did not hold some portion of the world title.
Their records – a combined 40 wins in world title fights, more than a decade each as world champion – will stand for a long time. Yet among many fight fans, certainly in the English-speaking world, the Klitschkos are admired rather than genuinely loved. Many scoff that they profited from a historically weak era in men’s heavyweight boxing. Their fighting styles were technically masterful and fiercely intelligent, but rarely thrilling to watch, based largely on their impenetrable reach and immaculate defence.
Even their nicknames – Dr Steelhammer for Wladimir, Dr Ironfist for Vitali, referencing their PhDs in sports science – felt vaguely naff at the time, out of step with a boxing culture that was one part sport to two parts entertainment. Yet what has never been in question is their heart and desire, their gravity and dignity in a sport so often defined by braggadocio and corruption. It is these qualities that are now most in evidence as the Klitschko brothers face the biggest fight of their lives in defence of their country Ukraine.
Vitali, now 50, is the mayor of Kyiv, a city engorged by a shocking and irredeemable war. Wladimir, the younger brother by five years, has enlisted in the Ukrainian army and pledged to fight the Russian invasion. Together, two of Ukraine’s most recognisable faces have found themselves at the vanguard of the resistance, using their fame and their platform to draw the world’s attention to the plight of their nation.
Perhaps the reason the Klitschkos were so reluctant to treat sport as if it were war was that from an early age they knew what war really looked like. They came from an itinerant military family, their father Vladimir a colonel in the Soviet air force who was constantly being forced to relocate for his job. The brothers were raised in garrison schools, lived in barracks, grew up surrounded by military hardware, played among piles of rifles and ammunition, grenades and mines. None of this was metaphorical.
Vitali’s fighting skills were sharpened by the school bullies who would prey on him every time he moved to a new town. There is a scene in the 2011 documentary about the brothers, Klitschko, in which their mother Nadezhda recalls the day another mother and son turned up on their doorstep, the boy bearing a broken nose. “He threw my hat in a puddle after I’d warned him not to,” Vitali explains coolly, as if reading out a statute. “When he did it again, I punched him.”
The military shaped the brothers’ understanding of the world in other ways too. In 1986 their father was stationed near the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, and in the days after the explosion flew missions to drop lead blocks on the smouldering reactor. These were the dog days of the Soviet Union, and even within its hard borders there was a growing awareness of the mendacity and inefficiency of totalitarianism. “We were told everything was fine,” says Vladimir in the documentary, filmed a few months before his father eventually succumbed to lymph node cancer, a product of the radiation poisoning he suffered at Chernobyl.
Instead, the Klitschko brothers looked to the illicit West for inspiration. In Kyiv they attended illegal karate and kickboxing classes (martial arts were seen as a Western decadence), and idolised Chuck Norris and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Hesitantly at first, Wladimir began to follow his older brother into the boxing ring. “Fighting is in Vitali’s blood,” Wladimir has said. “He was born a fighter. I became one.”
And so here they are now: sportsmen turned statesmen and soldiers. It feels trite and self-absorbed to point out that events such as war “put sport into perspective”, yet rarely has that contrast been presented more starkly. The whole commercial edifice of sport is predicated on the idea that what we’re seeing is real: real enmity, real conflict, real stakes. When commentators refer to a “bloody war” in boxing, they’re talking about flying fists and flying gumshields, punters on their feet, tired fighters staggering around on theirs. It’s a show, and we all suspend our disbelief a little to be moved by it.
Somehow, you feel the Klitschkos never entirely bought into that. At their mother’s behest, they turned down unimaginably lucrative offers to fight each other, a contest that would have been one of the biggest in the history of boxing. “Our opponents don’t know our secret weapon,” Vitali said once. “Even with only one person in the ring, they’re fighting two people.” Even as they bestrode the world of sport, the Klitschkos always seemed to realise that there were bigger things at stake.
This article appears in the 02 Mar 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Hero of our Times