Ukraine is in the midst of a border brawl, fighting for its territorial integrity. In one corner is the weakened Kiev interim leadership, trying to make it through Sunday’s elections peacefully and hoping the country emerges a unified state.
In the other corner, wearing a self-conferred championship belt, stands a bearlike Russia aiming to crush any hopes of Ukrainian-European integration and claw away any dangling appendage or territory.
Ukraine is fighting for its survival. The good news is the country has a natural fighter in the ring, a champion boxer named Vitali Klitschko, Ph.D., aka “Dr. Ironfist.”
As recently as February, sniper fire took down Kiev demonstrators, felling them onto the street as fires smoldered in their opposition camps. Among the leaders of the successful anti-Viktor Yanukovych forces stood Klitschko, head of the UDAR party, the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform. In Ukrainian, the word “udar” literally means “punch.”
Once Yanukovych fled to Russia, Ukraine quickly transitioned to a caretaker government. Despite early success, the interim leadership has suffered a series of significant setbacks: the de facto loss of Crimea to Russia, the fake independence referendums in the east and daily separatist pro-Russian violence from Odessa to Donetsk all aimed at undermining Kiev’s authority.
Klitschko, a World Boxing Council heavyweight champion, is not new to politics, once representing Ukraine at the Council of Europe. Although early polls had him leading as a presidential candidate, he swallowed his ambition and decided to join forces with Petro Poroshenko, a billionaire confectioner known as “The Chocolate King” a former foreign minister who advocated NATO membership.
Klitschko threw his weight behind Poroshenko for president and decided instead to run for Kiev mayor. Polls show both the boxer and the chocolatier likely to win their offices Sunday. A win would be a dissident-turned-politician one-two punch.
As Russia begins to intimate a turn eastward, exploring a potential strategic China relationship via the Beijing natural gas deal, Klitschko faces firmly west, saying the EU is Ukraine’s “model for our future political and economic development.”
Boxing enthusiasts are still wounded after losing the 42-year-old Klitschko to politics. And there is also one judo enthusiast who wishes Dr. Ironfist had not retired from boxing, Vladimir Putin. In his youth, Putin won a Leningrad judo championship and as president he keeps his judo buddies close.
The Moscow News wrote that “being a judo sparring partner of Vladimir Putin’s is clearly a good career move,” enriching some and putting others in powerful Kremlin positions. Putin’s new political sparring partners in Kiev, however, will not be as pliant as his black belt pals in Moscow.
Boxers may seem unlikely political players, but a closer look reveals they often fight for their countries with an iron will. The late Nelson Mandela is often thought of as a peace-loving elder statesman. But in his prime he was an amateur boxer who would cut down anyone and anything in his way. Vigorous shadow boxing kept him fit during his 27 years in prison. In his autobiography, Mandela identified that “boxing is egalitarian. In the ring, rank, age, color and wealth are irrelevant.” The lessons of boxing informed his politics and his presidency.
Less philosophical boxing leaders include the former Slovak prime minister, Vladimir Meciar, and Australian boxing champ and controversy-attracting Anthony Mundine, who wants to run for prime minister. There are other, less repellant, more appealing boxers still actively seeking to lead their countries. A shining example is world boxing champ Manny Pacquaio, who currently serves in the Philippine legislature and hints at a future run for president.
Political pugilists are not strictly an overseas phenomenon. Lest Americans forget, the Senate majority leader is a soft-spoken hard-hitting guy named Harry Reid. Never a professional boxer, he was no stranger to the ring and fought in plenty of amateur bouts and his autobiography is “The Good Fight.” House Speaker Denny Hastert, R-Ill., was a college wrestler; U.S. congressman, senator and judo Olympian Ben Nighthorse Campbell, former Democrat turned Republican from Colorado, regularly got his way. Pro-wrestler Jesse “The Body” Ventura became Minnesota governor.
Looking ahead, actor and World Wrestling Entertainment star Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson recently said, “I can become president … one day, and that day will come, I can impact the world through politics.” Hercules one day; POTUS the next?
Back in real time, Putin is backed by a massive military and a few tricks up his judo gi sleeve that could take Klitschko’s team down. In a one-on-one physical match, I would put my money on Klitschko. In an unfair fight, I am pulling for the underdog – the Ukrainian people.
Kounalakis is a research fellow at Central European University and a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. Contact him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @KounalakisM.