“Sport has the power to change the world.”
Nelson Mandela uttered that line in a speech in Monaco in 2000 and if one sport has proven the saying to be true, it’s boxing.
Muhammad Ali used his fame as the heavyweight champion to call attention to various injustices in the United States in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Some 40 years later, Wladimir Klitschko is hoping to accomplish a similar feat in his native Ukraine.
Ukraine has been mired in chaos since November in protest of former president Viktor Yanukovych's decision to back out of a deal to strengthen ties with the European Union and instead work more closely with Russia. Almost four months later, the situation has only gotten worse, with recent controversy over the Crimea and its possible annexation to Russia.
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When Klitschko enters the ring April 26 in Germany against Alex Leapai, he hopes he will be able to unite a country wrought in civil and political unrest.
“I don’t want the separation [between eastern and western parts of Ukraine],” Klitschko said Thursday morning after a training session in Hollywood. “Sport will put it back together, and this event will give positive emotions. I know both the East and the West [of Ukraine] will support me. I’m representing those that want peace and have it all glued back together and stay together and stay strong.”
Klitschko said the circumstances in Ukraine are worrisome and has triggered emotions that include anger and disappointment. Yet, when he was delivering combinations in the ring or showcasing his quickness on the speed bag Thursday morning, the Ukraine seemed to be the furthest thing from his mind.
“My mind is over there and my body’s here,” Klitschko, 37, said. “I know I have to stay focused 100 percent for the fight, but everything that’s going on in the Ukraine worries me a lot. There are human lives on the line.
His older brother, former heavyweight champion Vitali, has been a member of the Ukrianian Parliament since 2012 and is gearing up for a run at the presidency in May. The brothers talk daily and Klitschko said he will let his brother represent his interests politically and he will represent his brother’s championship boxing spirit in the ring.
With so much on his mind, Klitschko acknowledged it is difficult to keep his focus on the fight in less than 40 days. The ability to block out distractions can make or break a bout for a fighter and Klitschko said he was going to do everything in his control to not overlook Leapai, who continues to surprise the boxing world with his results.
“It is distracting and it’s not easy [to concentrate], but it’s even more difficult for people in the Ukraine. I know that if I lose my focus, I’m going to lose the fight, and that’s not going to happen.”
The laser focus was tested early Thursday morning when he was hit in the face by a flying red shoe from Shannon Briggs. The former heavyweight champion went on a three-minute rant about why Klitschko was a fraud and didn’t deserve to be the world champion before he was restrained and escorted out of the gym.
Throughout the entire scene, Klitschko sat in a chair while he had his hands taped by one of his trainers. Briggs continued to goad Klitschko into a response, but the Ukrainian sat there with a steely-eyed gaze before laughing off the encounter with the assembled media once Briggs left the building.
The ability to defuse tense situations would be useful in a political career like his brother when he finally hangs up his gloves. When asked about making the same transition as his brother, Klitschko said there are other ways he can help Ukraine without going into politics.
“It’s not really important to be a politician to do something for your country,” Klitschko said. “You can do a lot if you’re not a politician. … For now, I’m going to focus on my sport and from that stage I will send messages.”