WBC heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko has an unrivalled record of knocking out opponents in the ring but today he faces the biggest challenge of his life as he leads his party in tightly contested parliamentary elections.
Klitschko’s aptly-named UDAR (Punch) party is hoping the elections will make it a nationwide political force for the first time and even the main challenger to the ruling Regions Party of President Viktor Yanukovych.
Some polls have shown UDAR coming second in the election ahead of the main opposition force of supporters of jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko, which would be a remarkable achievement for a man who only fought his last title defence in September.
“My methods in politics are the same as in sport: teamwork and confidence in yourself. And they work,” Klitschko said.
Klitschko’s populist-tinged political message plays on the desire of most Ukrainians to live lives comparable to their counterparts in the European Union.
He has also sought to harvest votes throughout a deeply-divided country, speaking up for the promotion of the Ukrainian language that pleases nationalists but also emphasizing his native language is Russian.
“I am one of many, of six million Ukrainians, who could not realise their potential and who went abroad to earn money,” he said. “That’s why I am in politics, to change this situation, so that every Ukrainian can find a decent job and wage, and doesn’t seek a better future abroad.”
Klitschko first became involved in local Kiev politics in 2006, gaining a seat on the city council and twice unsuccessfully running for the post of mayor.
He founded the UDAR party in 2010 and the legislative elections represent its big chance to raise its status from a force in Kiev to a big national player.
Klitschko’s party, whose full name is the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (UDAR), accuses its foe Regions Party of rampant corruption and promises a European future for Ukraine.
He already enjoyed a reputation as an unusually intellectual sportsman, fluent in several languages and boasting a PhD from his thesis on “Methodology for evaluating the performance of boxers in a multi-stage sport selection system”, according to his party.
This and his devastating punch have earned Klitschko the nickname Dr Ironfist.
The son of a Soviet air force major general, Klitschko was born in the former Soviet republic of Kyrgyzstan in Central Asia where his family were serving at the time.
The family lived around the Soviet Union before moving back to Ukraine in 1984.
Vitali began his sporting career as a kickboxer before becoming a professional boxer in 1996. His younger brother Vladimir is, like Vitali, a heavyweight boxing champion although they have vowed never to fight each other.
In a glittering career, most of his victories have been achieved by devastating knockouts. There have only been two defeats, the most famous his 2003 loss to Britain’s Lennox Lewis who stopped him while Klitschko was ahead on points.
Less than two months ahead of the elections, Klitschko stopped Germany’s Manuel Charr in the fourth round at a fight in Moscow that showed he had lost none of his prowess. The future of his boxing career after the elections remains unclear.
“The voters are disappointed with the authorities, the opposition and politicians. People need to believe in something and Klitschko has now become the hope,” said Volodymyr Fesenko, director of the Penta centre for political studies.
In the febrile world of Ukrainian politics, some Ukrainian media have aired suspicions that Klitschko is secretly in league with Yanukovych rather than a genunine opposition force, accusations that the boxer hotly rejects.
“I have never sold myself and I never will sell myself,” he insisted recently.
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