I have to count my 2008 interview with reigning WBC heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko as one of my best interviews ever. Not because I was being an especially intrepid journalist asking the 45-2 (41 wins by knockout) boxer about his run at the time for mayor of Kiev, but because it’s hard to get fan-level excited about an ordinary politician. And Klitschko, dubbed “Dr. Ironfist” because of his power punch and PhD, is awesome inside the ring and out. Simply put, he feels deeply about fulfilling the promise of true democracy and free markets after growing up in the Soviet Union.
From the Los Angeles Daily News column I wrote about the Klitschko interview back then:
The boxer, who was born in what is now Kyrgyzstan and whose dad was a colonel in the Soviet Air Force, noted that his bond with Kiev runs deep as he grew up there and worked as a tour guide as a teen. “I know every building,” he said proudly. “…It is a beautiful city, one of the oldest.
“Kiev has problems like any other city in the world,” Klitschko said. “We see Kiev as a modern city like Paris, Berlin, New York, Los Angeles.”
After the Orange Revolution that brought President Viktor Yushchenko to power, Klitschko wants to keep the ball rolling. “People go to the streets to demonstrate against totalitarianism – fighting for freedom, fighting for democracy – and democracy won,” he said. “Just two years old, we have a lot of problems. People want to change.
“In a couple years, Ukraine will be part of the European Union. Geographically it is a European country; we have to feel European inside Ukraine.”
It’s that Soviet upbringing which makes Klitschko so committed to helping forge a more perfect democracy.
“I remember my first visit from the Soviet Union in 1989 to the U.S. It opened democracy world for me,” he said. “I see the life standards in the U.S. and what we have to bring here to Ukraine. People want to be part of the modern world. It’s one point to speak, another point to be.”
To Klitschko, that can’t be accomplished without knocking out corruption and developing a strategic vision and general development plan for the city. For this, he’s now got Rudy Giuliani’s firm working in his corner.
“Infrastructure, traffic problems; we have so many social problems, but the main problem is corruption,” he said. “People in business are afraid to invest money in Kiev, afraid to work to invest money in infrastructure for the people.
“We need to breathe fresh air into our city.”
…And when it comes down to it, Klitschko’s time in the ring can only help his efforts to champion democracy.
“You fight for ideas, fight for your dream in boxing,” he said. “Actually, boxing is not as complicated as politics. Politics is much more difficult, totally different roles.
“The will to win, the will to go through help me in politics as well. (These) help not just in boxing, but help in life and politics.”
Klitschko has already mastered the art of politicospeak: I asked him if he had ambitions for higher office down the road, privately envisioning – OK, dreaming of – a President Klitschko sending uber-socialist Hugo Chavez flying off the rostrum at the United Nations.
“I have ambition to make my city much better and comfortable for everyone coming here,” he responded gamely.
Klitschko is currently leader of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform of Vitali Klitschko, which holds 40 seats in parliament. He won his seat just last fall and announced in a floor speech Thursday that he’s running for president in 2015, and he’s steadily gaining in the polls.
Until then, I can dream about the first bilateral meeting of the heavyweight champion — with the second-to-best knockout-to-fight ratio after Rocky Marciano — and the judo-chopping self-styled machismo president Putin. Anti-communist to the core, Klitschko is described as “vehemently” anti-Putin.