Vitali Klitschko is a very rare bird, and at 6 feet, 7 inches and 245 pounds a very big rare bird. He holds a Ph.D. in sports science, boxing’s world heavyweight championship title, a seat in the Ukrainian Parliament, and is head of one of the main opposition parties, UDAR — which in English means “Punch.”
In October, Mr. Klitschko, whose popularity has surged in the turmoil enveloping Kiev, announced his intention to run for president in 2015. But is a man who has spent decades studying the “sweet science” of cracking heads in the sometimes seedy realm of professional pugilism really prepared to take the helm of a rudderless nation? Perhaps.
In the world of flying fists, the 42-year-old Mr. Klitschko, who began his professional boxing career in 1996, is something of an enigma. He has always been a strategic and cautious combatant, yet he is a deadly power-puncher with a record of 45-2, with 41 knockouts — the highest knockout-to-win ratio of any heavyweight champion in history.
When studied carefully, the sweet science (a term coined by the 19th-century British sportswriter Pierce Egan) has a lot to teach about life outside the arena. Teddy Roosevelt was a lifelong student of boxing and while president participated in many sparring sessions in the White House. In his autobiography, “Long Walk to Freedom,” Nelson Mandela recalled his rigorous training in the ring. He wrote: “I did not enjoy the violence of boxing so much as the science of it. I was intrigued by how one moved one’s body to protect oneself, how one used a strategy both to attack and retreat, how one paced oneself over a match.”
You cannot be successful in the bruising art without learning to control your emotions. Boxing teaches how to read others, how to husband your energies, how to turn with the punches that life and politics deliver, and above all, how to scrape yourself off the canvas.
Last spring, I pressed Mr. Klitschko to explain how he thought boxing had prepared him for the gloves-off world of politics. “Success in any sport requires concentration, training, determination and talent,” he told me. “Sports gave me the will to win, the ability to make quick decisions, to realize their full potential. These qualities are very important in politics.”
Mr. Klitschko demonstrated some of these talents this week, when he persuaded police forces menacing a camp of UDAR protesters to back off. At another tense confrontation, during the first days of protests in Kiev over President Viktor Yanukovich’s refusal to sign political and trade agreements with the European Union, the man popularly known as Dr. Iron Fist made a quick decision that helped avert bloodshed. As a large angry mob marched on the presidential palace, Mr. Klitschko, towering over his fellow demonstrators, called for restraint and warned his followers to avoid the trap of initiating the kind of mayhem that would legitimize a violent crackdown.
Although he has shown the ability to walk the line between protesters and the police, Mr. Klitschko is taking a tough line with the government. He and other opposition leaders have called on Mr. Yanukovich to resign and make way for early elections. They are also demanding the immediate release of all political prisoners and protesters, and the prosecution of government forces who used violence against peaceful demonstrators.
Even though professional boxing was outlawed in Soviet days, Vitali Klitschko and his younger brother Wladimir, also a heavyweight title holder, are sources of national pride. When either of them fight, Ukraine watches. Video of Vitali’s victory over Danny Williams in 2004 was piped into Independence Square during the Orange Revolution.
Mr. Klitschko emerged from that year of turmoil as a courageous figure, while many other prominent leaders from that time used their victory to line their pockets. Rampant corruption has been eroding Ukrainian faith in democracy. But because Mr. Klitschko has made his fortune in the ring and is financially independent, there is a common perception that he does not need to engage in the underhanded ways of his political brethren.
Still, he is in a difficult situation, says Damon Wilson, executive vice president of the Atlantic Council: “On the one hand, he has supported the demonstrations demanding that President Yanukovich step down, and on the other he has consistently insisted that there is nothing more important than establishing the rule of law in the Ukraine.”
Mr. Klitschko is widely admired for his iron will and self-discipline. But the kind of self-control that boxing demands might be of a different ilk than the sort required for governance. After all, boxing is not about team building. You are out there alone.
In contrast, the art of politics requires the ability to make compromises and bind people together with conflicting opinions and interests. And if the sports hero is going to become a beacon for his people, he will need to have the discipline to put together a competent team of advisers. “We need to find out if Vitali Klitschko can do that,” Mr. Wilson said. “We need to find out if he has that kind of discipline.”
So far, Mr. Klitschko has shown himself to be better at mano-a-mano than at coalition building. On Dec. 3, Mr. Klitschko and his allies in Parliament found themselves 40 votes short of a no-confidence vote in the government. The setback may have strengthened Mr. Yanukovich, but Mr. Klitschko is no stranger to defeat.
In his epic losing battle with Lennox Lewis in 2003, Mr. Klitschko was ahead on points when he suffered a cut over his eye that required more than 50 stitches. Over his fierce protests, the referee halted the contest. A year later, he was heavyweight champion, and since then he has successfully defended his crown 11 times. Mr. Klitschko learns from his experience and is resolve incarnate. After the defeat on Dec. 3 he vowed to press on. It would be wise for his opponents to take him at his word.
Gordon Marino is a professor of philosophy and the director of the Hong Kierkegaard Library at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. He is editor of the The Quotable Kierkegaard.