Ukrainian world heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko has an unrivaled record of knocking out opponents, but appears to have undergone a baptism of fire in the no-holds-barred ring of Ukrainian politics.
Klitschko’s aptly-named UDAR (“Punch”) party is on course to send lawmakers to the Ukrainian parliament after Sunday’s legislative elections, a major breakthrough for a force seen as marginal only months before.
However, exit polls predict the party is still some way off its ambition of being the main challenger to the ruling Party of the Regions of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, with the party of jailed opposition leader and former Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko set to take second.
“I had said that we had tremendous potential,” said Klitschko, who only fought his most recent title defense last month, on national TV after exit polls gave his party no more than 15 percent of the vote.
“We must still analyze everything: why we could have won more votes, but failed to do so,” Klitschko said.
He now faces the challenge of forming a workable alliance in parliament with Tymoshenko’s forces and even the nationalists of the Svoboda (“Freedom”) movement.
Klitschko’s populist-tinged political message had played on the desire of most Ukrainians to live lives comparable to their counterparts in the EU and see a country free of the scourge of corruption.
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 that his first language is Russian.
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 Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform (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.
He already enjoyed a reputation as an unusually intellectual sportsman, fluent in several languages and boasting a doctorate from his thesis on “Methodology for evaluating the performance of boxers in a multi-stage sport selection system.”
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, Wladimir 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 on cuts while Klitschko was ahead on points.
Less than two months ahead of the elections, Klitschko stopped Germany’s Manuel Charr in the fourth round of a fight in Moscow that showed he had lost none of his prowess. The future of his boxing career after the elections remains unclear.
In the febrile world of Ukrainian politics, some Ukrainian media have aired suspicions that Klitschko is secretly in league with Yanukovych, rather than a genuine opposition force, accusations that the boxer hotly rejects.
“I am one of many, of 6 million Ukrainians, who could not realize their potential and who went abroad to earn money,” he said in an interview during the campaign. “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.”