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A Boxing Champ Rises In Ukraine's Bare-Knuckle World Of Politics

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A Boxing Champ Rises In Ukraine's Bare-Knuckle World Of Politics

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A Boxing Champ Rises In Ukraine's Bare-Knuckle World Of Politics

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Heavyweight boxing isn't known for being a squeaky clean sport. There are promoters with big egos, lots of money, scandal. Then you compare it to Ukrainian politics. It is telling that a heavyweight boxing champion has emerged as an opposition leader in Ukraine, largely because he won his fortune in the ring, a less corrupt place than many of the businesses Ukrainian politicians dabble in.

The boxer is Vitali Klitschko. He's 6-foot-7 and when he speaks, people tend to listen. At a critical moment in Ukraine's ongoing anti-government demonstrations, he shooed protesters away from the president's office. Still, overall, he is finding politics a bit tricky, as NPR's Corey Flintoff reports.

UNIDENTIFIED ANNOUNCER: Ladies and gentlemen, the former two-time heavyweight champion of the world - Dr. Eisenfaust, Vitali Klitschko.

COREY FLINTOFF, BYLINE: That's how Vitali Klitschko is best known to the world - as Dr. Ironfist, towering over opponents at a full 2 meters tall - 6 feet, 7 inches - with a punch that delivered 45 victories, including 41 knockouts and only two defeats. Klitschko is the current World Boxing Council heavyweight champion, but he has his eye on a bigger title: president of the Ukraine.

Now 42 years old, Klitschko isn't exactly new to politics. He's already made two unsuccessful bids to be the mayor of Kiev, Ukraine's capital city, and he's an elected member of Parliament. But the country's current political crisis provides a new arena for the boxer and his political party - the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform, or UDAR, a word that also translates as punch.

VITALI KLITSCHKO: (Foreign language spoken)

FLINTOFF: That was Klitschko speaking to the huge crowd that's been occupying Kiev's central square. He got a warm welcome from the crowd but in terms of fiery rhetoric, he was eclipsed by two opposition politicians who shared the same stage.

OLEKSIY HARAN: He's not experienced politician yet and during campaign, he will need to answer many, many questions about economy, about reforms, about how to introduce changes. So, you know, there will be some challenges.

FLINTOFF: That's Oleksiy Haran, a professor of comparative politics at Kiev Mohyla University. Despite concerns about Klitschko's experience, polls taken last month show that he could beat President Viktor Yanukovych in the likely event that a presidential election would go to a second round. Klitschko's brother, Vladimir, also a heavyweight boxing champion, deflects questions about his brother's political experience in an interview with NPR.

VLADIMIR KLITSCHKO: Well, my brother is a politician, and he's leader of his party. And everyone that is involved in this peaceful, democratic movement is a politician.

FLINTOFF: Vitali Klitschko says he's more than just an athlete and sport celebrity. The doctor part of his Dr. Ironfist nickname comes from the fact that he has a Ph.D. in sports science. Not everyone in the crowd seems that impressed with Klitschko's intellectual prowess. This is Maxim, a 30-year-old computer programmer who didn't want to give his full name.

MAXIM: I think he is not - maybe not that good as a politician. But he is quite honest, so people trust him.

FLINTOFF: Still, Maxim says if he had to vote tomorrow, he'd probably choose one of the more experienced opposition leaders. Alexandra(ph), a 25-year-old wedding planner, says Klitschko missed his chance to show leadership on the day after a violent police crackdown left dozens of protesters severely injured.

ALEXANDRA: Unfortunately, we are not taking him seriously now because we were disappointed by his actions on Sunday because when all people came to the streets, they were waiting for some leaders to take responsibility and to tell, exactly, people what to do.

FLINTOFF: More than 300,000 people came to the square that day, and Klitschko helped dissuade them from storming the president's office. It was the professional fighter who said the protest must remain a peaceful demand for justice.

Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Kiev.


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