April 15, 2014

KO Digest Interview: Wladimir Klitschko - "My mission is not done"

Dr. Steelhammer speaks politics and pugilism
To boxing fans around the world, Wladimir Klitschko’s career needs no explanation or introduction. Boasting a heavyweight title reign that ranks behind only Joe Louis in calendar length and with a staggering streak of 15 consecutive defenses, the Ukrainian has held the division in check since April 2006, having firmly entrenched himself into history as one of the sport’s most dominant champions. Outside the ring, particularly to fans in the United States, Klitschko’s life and approach to the sweet science is largely misunderstood. To some, the champion is robotic and boring, but to the close-knit camp that has surrounded him for years, boxing resembles chess. Wladimir and his brother Vitali teamed up to clear the board of all potential challengers, complementing each other as King and Queen to protect their titles and each other from threats.

With Vitali now fighting a different battle, one for political reform in Ukraine, the younger Klitschko has been left to fend the board himself against Alex Leapai on April 26 and later against a budding crop of rising stars that include undefeated American Deontay Wilder. At 38, he is still going strong in defense of his legacy and his titles, but as new pieces sprout up on the opposition’s board, new opportunities have arisen on his side as well. Claiming that his biggest battle is still to come, one must wonder whether or not the defining fight in his career will come in his native country, fighting not for sport but for a brand new start in Ukraine—once again, alongside his brother.  

KO Digest's Joel Sebastianelli: This very special KO Digest interview is being conducted on April 10 the 10th anniversary of your lowest point in boxing, the KO loss to American Lamon Brewster. It looked like you were done in boxing, your brother Vitali advised you to retire, fans lost hope and all looked lost. What a difference a decade makes, 10 years later, you are undisputed world heavyweight champion having beat anyone and everyone and on the verge of another title defense, this time against Alex Leapai, an unknown opponent. What were the key elements of this decade long transition that saw you possibly being down and out to now being undefeated for a ten year span?  

Wlad lost the fight and he lost respect
Wladimir Klitschko: I never was paying attention to how many years I was undefeated or how many title defenses or anything like that because as an insider, you don’t really keep track of it. But as an outsider, you guys remind me of that—and you’re right, actually. When I think about it, on the tenth of April 2004, I was fighting for the WBO title to get back the WBO title against Lamon Brewster, and I lost that fight. As a matter of fact, that was also the first fight that I started to work with Emanuel Steward. Actually, I was watching that fight lately and I was watching through the years as motivation. It’s always something that I wanted to pay back because I really got a lot of criticism after that fight and I was written off the stage of boxing. I was just someone that was over and done and nobody would even think that I could come back and make my sporting career a big success. So, even this first fight with Emanuel, that also kind of gives a lot of respect to Emanuel because he stuck with me. I lost respect from a lot of people, my opponents included, and to gain that respect back, it takes some time. It takes some strength. I said “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” and that’s exactly what happened. I was almost killed in that fight, killed with the way of my desire for a win, my ambitions in sports, and my ego is the most important part. As an athlete, you have to have a big ego, and I do have a huge ego that helped in the past to get where I am today. Even at 38 years old, I haven’t achieved what I have in my mind. I’m not going to share it with you, but I’m not done with my mission yet because my payback for all the criticism I received from everyone is not over yet. I’m on my way to where I want to be, but I’m not there yet.

KOD: Alex Leapai isn’t viewed by much of the world as a real challenge to you. How do you feel about your opponent’s skillset and worthiness of fighting for the heavyweight title against one of the most dominant champions ever: you?

The pure violence of Alex Leapai
WLAD K: There’s always a consistency in failure or success. If you take a look at the three fights I lost in my career, I lost against the guys I shouldn’t lose to. The first was Ross Purity; nobody had heard anything about him except for the fight he won against me. Corrie Sanders gave a great fight for Vitali, but those days I remember, even TV didn't want to show that fight, he was a complete underdog, but you know, he made it. No disrespect to Corrie—I really respect the guy and liked him a lot, rest in peace Corrie. No disrespect to Lamon, but I shouldn’t lose that fight. Those three fights, I lost against guys nobody thought at the beginning I was going to lose to. If I fought some champion such as David Haye, Sultan Ibragimov, or Chris Byrd, people would understand that’s a great challenge. But to lose against guys nobody expected me to lose to? I definitely don’t want to have a reputation in this consistency of losing to guys I shouldn’t lose to. The less my opponent is known, the less people expect for him to give a challenge to the champion, the more the person is an underdog, the more I’m focused because I still have an aftertaste in my mouth after I lost the fight against Brewster ten years ago today. I haven’t forgotten about it, I know exactly how I need to stay focused and I will achieve my goal to defend my titles. It took me a lot of time to collect those belts and to be where I am today. I’m not going to take easy Alex Leapai. He doesn't have a lot of knowledge about technique and strategy and neither does he coach, but he has tremendous health. Physically, he’s just a violent guy in the ring. You can see the pure violence, and he's been very successful with it. That’s how he became the number one mandatory. I didn't chose to fight Leapai. He surprised a lot of guys who never thought he’d make it with Denis Boytsov, who I was supposed to fight as a mandatory but instead I am fighting Leapai. He wants to make Australian boxing history and shock the world and shock the champ. Congratulations to him. I’m taking this challenge very seriously.

KOD: In the outstanding 2011 documentary “KLITSCHKO” you said "Since 2005, it hasn't been boxing, but PURE chess." This seems to be a much different approach than many other fighters take. Please explain that strategic mindset in greater detail and which chess piece best describes you, the KING? 

WLAD K: Through the years, you have to get flexibility to fight tall guys, short guys, skinny and a little heavier, and with good technique or pure violence like Leapai. A lot of different guys that were as technical as David Haye— Haye was really, really technical in the fight, the same as Ibragimov. Very quick and very technical, same as Chris Byrd. Or strength and confidence from Sam Peter in 2005. His confidence was as big as a building, and he was just tremendously strong and a heavy handed guy. Anyway, there are different guys with different techniques, including southpaws and different tactics so I would say probably the Queen because the Queen can move anywhere—if you know about chess. A combination of the Queen and the horse, a Queen that sits on a horse, because I think that makes perfect sense with the figures that I chose this flexibility—you need to make moves that are unexpected. Many guys when they fight me, they see only robotic and one side of me, which is good probably because it’s better to be underestimated than overestimated.

KOD: For both you and Vitali, your “secret weapon” was, for a long time, each other. Without Vitali in your camp and without him in the sport of boxing at all, how and why do you continue your career in the absence of your brother? 

WLAD K: It’s a déjà vu because I’ve been in this situation before. In December 2004 after the Danny Williams fight, Vitali retired. He was absent for four and a half years until he came back. So for four and a half years, I was the only Klitschko fighting. And now it’s kind of the same situation. Now he’s retired again and the focus is on me. I’ve been there and done that, and it’s repetition again. Do I miss my brother being in the sport? Yes. But, I think right now, he’s having much more complicated goals that he wants to achieve in politics. I admire his desire, his courage, and what’s he’s doing. He’s definitely someone who needs to stay focused on the politics in Ukraine, especially with all the circumstances we have in the country. You can’t do both and sit with one butt in two chairs at the same time simultaneously, so he chose to retire and continue his life with politics. But, I’ve been there before and I'll continue to defend my titles. I don’t want to talk about the future too much. The first and next step is Leapai and that’s what I’m focused on right now.

KOD: Upon venturing to America professionally, both you and your brother met with promoter Don King in 1996 and decided to reject his contractual advances. In a foreign land and having the largest sum of money ever thrown at you, why did the two of you elect to stay away from King? Has your perception of him changed at all over time? 

Klitschko shows no emotion for Don King
WLAD K: Well, after the Olympics in Atlanta in 1996, we received a lot of different contracts from different promoters and one of them was Don King. We were comparing all the contracts and trying to get the best possible deal that made the most sense, and King’s contract was not one of them. That didn’t satisfy our imagination of how things should work, and that was it.

KOD: As an indirect result of rejecting his offer, you gradually forced King from the upper echelon of the heavyweight title picture, but for the first time in years, he has possible in-road back into the division with his WBC title challenger Bermane Stiverne. Do you feel any responsibility or need to defend the division, the titles, or yourselves against King?

WLAD K: I have nothing to do with Don King—fortunately, because he never was my promoter. He was the promoter of other guys I fought, so we had some fights and some contracts with Don King Promotions. I’m not going after Don King in this case. I’ve never had anything to do with him and I am totally emotionless in regards to his name. I care about fighters that I fight, that’s it. But just to take away the opportunity from Don King to hold one of the titles, that’s probably the idea, to hold all the titles under one name, but who stands behind the fighter as a promoter—that’s important in negotiation and eventually when you negotiate not with the fighter, you deal with his manager and promoter, but honestly, I have zero emotions in regards to Don King. I’m not interested and I don’t care.

KOD: Looking at the rest of the heavyweight division, three other names I would conclude have the most potential and would perhaps be deserving of a title shot are Tyson Fury, Deontay Wilder, and Kubrat Pulev. 
What’s your take on each of those fighters?

Klitschko respects Wilder for his knockouts
WLAD K: Honestly, I’m impressed with the record of Deontay Wilder. He was in my camp before the Marius Wach fight, and he’s a very athletic guy. It looks like he really wants to become a champion. He has the desire, strength, and talent to become one. Tyson Fury was also in my camp but I can’t say much about him because I think he’s kind of young and green behind his ears. It's always been in the history of boxing that suddenly some guy just pops up and conquers. You mentioned some names and so did I, but maybe there is somebody that we didn’t even talk about. Who knows, like a Mike Tyson. Who would have thought a 20 year old kid could become the heavyweight champion? Nobody. So suddenly he was right there in the picture. In boxing it's the same, if you look at the scale of the markets, it goes up and down, up and down. You have some times that are exciting, and you have some times that are less exciting. It’s always been like that. Any of them can show their skills. But I know boxing well, and I’m really impressed with Deontay’s record of 31 wins with 31 knockouts. Whatever people say about him not fighting great competition, it might be this way, but to have the skills and the ability to knock all of these opponents out spectacularly, it deserves some respect from my side.

KOD: You’re a dominant and dangerous giant of man. Do you ever worry about seriously hurting an opponent and to your knowledge have you ever? How would you even know if you were seriously hurting somebody? Nobody seemed to notice that Magomed Abdusalamov was being internally destroyed in the ring against Mike Perez in November. 

Haye disrespects Klitschko with his antics
WLAD K: Fighters are one family. We need each other obviously to make the excitement of boxing, and we need to compete with each other, but that doesn’t mean that I wish to hurt someone that after the fight with me, he’s going to become handicapped or worse. My goal and my task of course is to dominate and conquer any opponent that is going to be with me in the ring, but at the end of the fight, I wish they’re going to recover well and that there are going to be no downsides in their life outside of the ring. Sometimes, I get upset and emotional when opponents think it's a part of the promotion that some of them want to send my brother and me to the hospital because they want to beat us up so badly, or say some stupid things. I’m looking at them and thinking “seriously guys, do you even know what you’re talking about?” I think mentioning things like that is just stupid. It’s a full contact sport so there are things in boxing history where unfortunately guys end up handicapped or even killed in a fight so I definitely hope they recover well and maybe get even better with their skills and learn from fighting me, or sparring me.

KOD: Growing up in a Soviet Republic, the world was a different place, particularly in regards to the USSR’s relationship with the United States. Many kids in schools were taught a very different reality of life in the States, and although the boundaries and ideologies of nations have shifted over time, some Cold War sentiments remain among individuals old enough to remember this time period—with that being said, your relationship with America is rather enigmatic, because in boxing, it seems that you love the US but the US does not necessarily love you back. Why does this relationship exist? Does this have more to do with the fact that you are viewed as a Russian fighter who beat all the best Americans and killed the heavyweight division in America—a traditional American domain—and took the title overseas? Is it because of residual Cold War feelings, or is it something else? Why are you not embraced in the States?

Klitschko and his American fiancée at a Miami Heat game
WLAD K: I disagree with you about not loving. When my brother and I are in the United States, we meet people and people meet us, and most of the time, if not all of the time, people are excited and we receive only positive emotions. The Klitschkos haven’t fought in the States since Vitali in 2009 against Arreola. Even if we haven’t been present with our fights, we still have a following in the States and people know who the Klitschkos are, and we receive only positive emotions from the fans. I think there’s also—if we talk about politics right now, politicians are trying to divide and conquer. Politicians are trying to brainwash people with their system, their agenda, and their propaganda. I’ve seen it, I’ve been around in this world for long enough. I grew up in the Soviet Union and I was born in the Soviet Union and I know what ‘Soviet times” means. I see what’s going on in Ukraine, and the Ukraine is coughing out the Soviet times, that's what is happening right now. It’s like a side effect after a certain illness, when you have a cold and you’re coughing out things like that. Eventually, we’re going to get healthy. On the other hand, also why I haven't been fighting in the States is because of the world [economic] crisis. We do have a huge following in Europe and it’s amazing to watch where, in two days, you sell 50,000 seats in a stadium. This still amazes me how people watch boxing matches in a stadium. If you sit in the last row you really can’t see a lot, but people get excited about it. There is a following also on the economical side because of the difference between the Euro and the US dollar, by 30 to 40 percent, so on the economical side, it’s something that made us fight in Europe more often than the States. With that considered, I look forward to going back to the States and fighting so boxing fans and Klitschko fans can see me perform on American soil and I look forward to it. There’s definitely a connection with the United States because I do live in the US and my fiancé is an American, et cetera, and I spend a lot of time with my friends in the States as well, and part of my career is connected. My team has Americans, Italians, Germans—I have plenty of guys from the States on my team that have been with me for ten years, so there is definitely a connection. But as I said, on the political side, politicians are trying to use propaganda, as it was in the past, to say some of the countries are good and some are not good like in Cold War times.

KOD: To what extent were you influenced by the film Rocky IV? Who did you root for?

Yo Klitschko!
WLAD K: I’m very happy you mentioned Rocky. I’m also a co-producer of the Rocky musical that’s hitting Broadway with Sylvester Stallone. We started in Hamburg which was very successful for over a year, then Broadway was the next step. I'm a fan of Rocky and I’m thinking about Alex Leapai because he’s an underdog. In a way, he’s kinda Rocky with the things he’s trying to do in his life. But Rocky, at the end of the day, is a story about love between Adrian and Rocky because eventually, as he said, “Yo, Adrian, I did it!” With Ivan Drago and all the propaganda from the West side, seeing the Soviets through Drago, and presenting it in a different way, it’s a part of history now with Rocky.

KOD: You’re greeted by loud cheers and over 50,000 fans at your fights in Europe. Your last fight in the US in 2008 against Ibragimov was not met with many cheers, and despite holding the heavyweight championship of the world, many Americans even in the media don’t seem to latch on to you like they have other heavyweight champions like Ali and Tyson. What do you think about the American boxing media? Do you feel as though you’re misunderstood?

WLAD K: I’m not done with my career. I can’t really look back and say what was good and what was wrong. Hopefully I’ll be back fighting in the States soon. Florida is my home state in America. There’s another line: “you have it, you don’t care about it. You don’t have it anymore, you miss it.” There’s a lack of competition and good names in the States. Deontay Wilder and Bryant Jennings are both undefeated fighters from US and they’re building up themselves. That’s something that’s eventually going to come up with a fight for the title. It’s very complicated when you don’t have challengers. If David Haye had been from the States, it would be a different story but he's British. There’s a difference on the promotional side as well. Or, maybe it’s a boring style. But I was influenced by the American style through Emanuel and I still have American culture with Jonathan Banks who is following in Emanuel's footsteps.

KOD: In your childhood, your family was small and closely knit—mainly just your mother, your father, your brother Vitali and youreself. Even as your career moved overseas and progressed professionally, your team was kept small. But in the last few years, that team has diminished slightly, as both Emanuel Steward and your father tragically passed away. How have you carried on through those losses in your personal life, and in particular, how has the transition to Jonathan Banks been carrying on as the spiritual heir to KRONK and as your head trainer?

The world heavyweight championship coach
WLAD K: If you think about Jonathan, even to me it’s kind of interesting because he’s coaching the champion, he’s seven years younger than the champion, he never was working as a coach, and then he followed in the footsteps of Emanuel, taking over Emanuel’s job in a big fight while he was preparing for his first fight with Seth Mitchell that he fought one week later after my fight in November 2012. It’s pretty amazing that he can coach and it’s a big picture when preparing not just a regular guy, but working with the heavyweight champion. I think his story is amazing and he’s doing a great job. I think he has this analytic mind that is important for a coach, and he learned from Emanuel a lot because he has been in my camps over and over and over; and he was my sparring partner. Jonathan met my father as well, and he spent a lot of time with Emanuel and he was around me for a long time. In a certain way, he was learning from Emanuel and me because he was much younger when he got in our camp for the first time ten years ago. He was 21 years old ten years ago.

Manny lives on through Mr. Banks
It’s very tough to lose someone that you’re close with, but in a certain way, we’ll end up meeting each other later on. Whatever was taught before, and I learned a lot, I feel Emanuel’s presence when I’m in training camp and in the gym. Even the gym is set up the way he wanted it. For example, the clock and the boxing clock stays together in one spot, and then you have TV screens around the ring, the fights of the opponent needs to be shown over and over and the more you watch it for weeks, the more things you see and study. There’s a lot of little details, even like how to meet with fans and how to approach people, and how to set up the camp and sparring partners that need to be sharp and the best you can get. There are a lot of things I learned from Emanuel. In a certain way, when I train in sparring or do whatever work, he’s whispering in my ear. I hear his voice. I’m not psycho or anything—I hope—but I’m just saying that his presence is still there. It’s not something where the man is gone and everything is gone. It’s not like that.

KOD: Despite Vitali being gone, the name Klitschko still holds the heavyweight division in check.
But for how long can this go on? When you eventually do retire, what do you see in life after boxing?

WLAD K: It is too early for me to say anything right now but I am preparing myself for that period of time. I don’t want to say something that is going to affect anything in my official life after sport. Just wait for it and you will know about it.

KOD: If things don’t go according to plan politically, do you think your brother would consider a return to boxing?

Brother Vitali now fights on the front lines in Ukraine
WLAD K: Well, for right now, there is not any question that he will be back in boxing. All his time and his concentration and his focus is on the politics because people expect this certain performance from him in the political field, not in the boxing ring. 

KOD: For a while, your brother was pursuing Ukrainian Presidency but is now seeking the role of Mayor in Kiev. What don’t Americans see about what’s going on in Ukraine? We can view the television reports, but there’s always something that’s lost in translation through the media. From what you see of what’s happening in Ukraine, what would you want people around the world to know and understand about the situation in your country?

King Klitschko's most difficult fight lies ahead
WLAD K: The Ukrainian people want to live in a country without corruption and dictatorship like we had with President Yanukovych. Eventually, Yanukovych is running for his life after everything that happened. There was a lot of death, over 100 people got killed and shot by the special police force with sniper rifles and AK-47s, which is unbelievable to even imagine. People that had no guns and no weapons got shot during the day on the 17th and 18th of February. Today we’ve got a geopolitical problem because Crimea is now taken by Russia, which is a  tremendous historical mistake. It breaks international and geopolitical law. You cannot just take over part of a country because you think it belongs to you. Alaska is probably going to be the next one. Alaska might be reconsidered about loopholes in the contract that were not done right. So, Ukraine is going through a lot of crisis right now: political, geopolitical, and economic. Fortunately, the world was talking about it and paying attention. Observers and news reporters have come to the country, and what is going on in Ukraine, the world is getting to know. It’s very simple to know through social media or the news—it’s not complicated. In all the propaganda that is going on in Russia, that in the Ukraine everybody demonstrating are fascists, is totally nonsense. Do I look like a fascist because I was there at the barricades and I was there and involved in the country? My brother is a part of the opposition and I was observing it at the beginning when it was just a 100 people on Maidan in Independence Square to over half a million people, and I haven’t seen any fascists. The complication of the situation is out there. I hope this evolutionary process of democracy in our country is going to proceed faster than slower.

KO UPDATE: (5/25/14) - Wladimir's brother Vitali was elected Mayor of Kiev, Ukraine's capital city.

The Future of Boxing

KO Digest Interview conducted by Joel "The Future" Sebastianelli

Joel joined KO Digest in January 2013 and has been a fixture on press row in the New England area for three years. In 2012, he served as the host of “The Boxing Fix” on Leave it in the Ring Radio. Sebastianelli is the future of boxing journalism and broadcasting.

Joel can be found Tweeting on Twitter @JJSebastianelli