Brothers in Arms
The Klitschkos bring heavyweight passion to defending their country
Note: This article was first published in The Miami Herald on February 28, 2022.
Perhaps you have heard by now that, as Russia’s military approached, Ukraine’s president refused the United States’ offer to evacuate with asylum, saying instead, “I need ammunition, not a ride.” And perhaps you have also heard that, as an estimated 100,000 people fled explosions and gunfire in major cities in Ukraine, two former heavyweight boxing champions, the Hall of Fame Klitschko brothers, did not flee the fight ... but rather enlisted in the army reserve, grabbed weapons and headed into it.
Russia wanted war.
But does it know exactly what it is up against?
We cover the holy hell out of sports without knowing sometimes what burns at the core of even our greatest champions. We throw words like “tough” or “mentally strong” around without knowing what they really mean, without understanding the pain and obstacles and opponents that must be conquered to arrive at the jewelry and the throne. Basketball and football, for example, mine the desperation of our inner cities, so the fight isn’t merely for money but for an escape hatch and survival for you and your loved ones. This is even more pronounced and brutal and lonely in boxing, where the participants are disrobed down to only their courage and must fight not only the desperation of the inner cities and the world ... but all the attendant fear that comes with fighting someone else who has run out of options .. and is a rabid mix of nothing to lose ... and everything to lose. It is an insanity, fighting other men for money as a career choice, feeding your family with only what resides within your hands and heart. It is a choice made by men who often have no others.
The Klitschko brothers dominated that desperate, cruel landscape in the weightiest division for a decade.
They kept all the championship belts unified in the family but never fought each other because they promised their mother they would not.
Vitali was 45-2. He knocked out 87 percent of his opponents. He was never so much as knocked down. He is the only heavyweight boxer to have reigned as world champion in three different decades. And he was 34-2 with 22 knockouts in kickboxing before that.
But he wasn’t even the most successful fighter in his own family.
Wladimir holds the record for longest cumulative heavyweight title reign ... 4,382 days. He holds the record for most fighters beaten consecutively for the world heavyweight championship ... 23 ... breaking a record held for 67 years by Joe Louis. He defeated 12 undefeated fighters, also a record. And he had a record number of heavyweight world title fights ... 29 ... as many as Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson combined.
There is, in our most violent of athletic conflicts, in a sport where the objective is to cause brain damage, something known as the Klitschko Era.
It lasted from 2004 to 2015.
This promises them nothing now, of course, because war’s cruelty and danger extend far beyond rings and rules. Boxing is not quite as life and death as war, obviously. But LIFE isn’t quite as life and death as boxing, either. The Klitchkos represent their rugged people, as leaders, as symbols for Ukranian might and Ukranian fight, and now these powerful men, 45 and 50 years old, have nonetheless chosen to enter the fight of their lives as if they didn’t have a choice at all.
Would you be willing to die for what you believe in?
To protect what you love?
What would you do when surrounded on all sides if you were rich and famous with kids?
Would you flee to freedom? Or would the fleeing not feel much like freedom at all?
Warriors are forever imprinted by their environments, and have the scars to show for it. Basketball’s reigning most valuable player, Nikola Jokic, remembers the sirens and bomb shelters when NATO troops bombed Serbia for 11 weeks in 1999. He lived in the dark, always turning off the lights to avoid detection. He was 4 years old. As you wonder how he does what he does now, how he conquers our sport from another land, that’s as good a place to start as any ... at the beginning .. and in the dark.
The Klitschko brothers both hold Ph.Ds and speak multiple languages. Their business empire includes athlete and artist management, film distributions, hotels and internet startups. Vitali has been the mayor of Kyiv, the capital and largest city in Ukraine, since 2014, but last weekend was the first he had to order a curfew because, in his words, “We are hunting these people, and it will be much easier if nobody is on the street.” He said six Russian saboteurs were killed Saturday night.
It is a good deal easier to pledge allegiance to a flag and freedom than it is to defend it, easier to love your country than to protect it with your life, and war is too bloody and messy and real to be wrapped neatly in the easy mythologies we drape atop our sports winners. Pat Tillman showed us that most recently, when he left the quote-unquote safety of the NFL after 9/11 because he felt silly playing games as a descendant of a family of military veterans. He didn’t do interviews or explain himself. He just left for the fight. He couldn’t have known then that he and his ideals would be a casualty of a war in Afghanistan that America would abandon, or that his fight was a loser from the start.
The NFL tries to milk his heroism still, the idea of it, the bravery in defending a utopian ideal, even as Tillman was killed by friendly fire ... and it was covered up by our government ... and his youngest brother got so tired of the glittery generalizations about peace and God and heaven made by speechmakers at the funeral that, beer in hand, he got up in front of everybody and spit, “Make no mistake. He’s not with God. He’s dead. Thanks for your thoughts, but he’s f---ing dead.”
Big brother’s purple heart did little to mend baby brother’s broken one.
The L we use to symbolize loss in sports, it can be the thinnest of letters and the thinnest of lines, separating the glory from the gory.
But valor without victory remains valor nonetheless.
Once upon a time, many of our sports heroes were also war heroes. Willie Mays missed 266 games after being drafted to serve in the Korean War. Yogi Berra was a gunner’s mate on a rocket boat in the Navy during the D-day invasion at Omaha Beach. Jackie Robinson served in the army as a second lieutenant but his military career was derailed after he was nearly court-martialed for refusing to give up his seat on a bus to a white officer. And then there was Ted Williams, who lost years of his baseball prime to become a fighter pilot in World War II and the Korean War. He flew 39 missions with the Third Marine Air Wing, 223rd Squadron, emerging from one crash landing with but a sprained ankle. He won the Triple Crown just before that. And again just after it.
We can’t know how any of this will end for the Klitschko brothers, of course.
But the bravery in the choice is quite the awe-inspiring thing to behold.
The Russians are coming for their freedom and their country.
But they will have to pry it from the gnarled fists of two old warriors who have spent their lives learning what is required to win the unholiest kinds of fights.