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The two tall men standing side by side in the Associated Press photo taken in the mayor’s office in Kiev, Ukraine, on Sunday were instantly recognizable to most boxing fans.
Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, the sons of a Soviet major general, are both former heavyweight champions and whenever one was in the ring the other was always helping out from around the corner.
Now they are in a fight like they never imagined. The prize for this one is not a showy championship belt but the survival of their country.
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Vitali Klitschko helps him lead as mayor of Kiev. His younger brother plays the role of second in chief.
They form a formidable duo, ready to do anything to defend their country against the Russian invaders. So far, that hasn’t included armed combat, but the two have made it clear that they’ll fight in the streets if that happens.
And, in a rich community of Ukrainian boxers, they are not alone.
Vasiliy Lomachenko, a two-time Olympic gold medalist considered by some to be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, hastily returned from Greece to don combat fatigues as a member of a defense battalion. He was photographed on his official Facebook page over the weekend with an assault rifle slung near Odessa.
“The Belgorod-Dnestrovsky Territorial Defense Battalion has been formed and armed,” the caption reads. “In territorial defense, boxer Vasiliy Lomachenko informed the mayor.”
The current heavyweight champion is also in the game. Oleksandr Usyk returned from London when Russia invaded his country and instead of preparing for a possible rematch against Anthony Joshua this spring, he is preparing to fight the Russians in his homeland.
The two potentially lose millions in paydays – in Usyk’s case, the biggest purse of his career in a rematch with Joshua. But defending a belt and defending a country are two very different things.
On Sunday, Usyk posed not with gloves but an automatic rifle, flanked by three other gunmen from Kyiv’s Territorial Defense Force.
They are all great fighters with a proud heritage in the ring. When Wladimir Klitschko last fought in 2017, he and Joshua engaged in a thrilling fight before 90,000 at Wembley Stadium in London. Klitschko came out of the canvas that night to take down the British champion before finally being stopped by the young fighter.
And boxing people are still talking about Vitali Klitschko nearly getting the better of Lennox Lewis in their 2003 Los Angeles heavyweight clash that ended only because the ringside doctor stopped him while There was so much blood running down Klitschko’s face that he couldn’t see.
None of the Ukrainian fighters ever backed down with gloves. And they show no signs of backing down now, even with so much stacked against them.
“Go home,” Vitali said when asked what he would say to Russian soldiers. “You have nothing to find here.”
Usyk was even more outspoken with his message.
“You are not at war with our government, our army,” he said in a video posted to Twitter. “You are at war with the people. This is our land. We are home.”
Vitali Klitschko has been mayor of Kyiv since 2014, two years after finally ending a boxing career that won him Olympic gold and a world title. His brother was arguably even more successful, holding chunks of the heavyweight title while going 11 years undefeated.
They grew up fighting in the Soviet amateur system and, although their technical styles did not sit well with boxing fans around the world, they were extremely popular in Germany where they sold out arenas and stadiums for big fights.
They are also very intelligent. Both have advanced university degrees and speak four languages.
And both have friends in high places.
“Thinking of you friends,” actor and politician Arnold Schwarzenegger tweeted, along with a photo of the brothers. “You were my heroes in the ring and you are my heroes now.”
On the Boxrec.com website, which is boxing’s closest thing to a record book, Monday’s homepage featured a photo of Vitali Klitschko holding an automatic rifle above the leaderboards.
“#1 – Vitali Klitschko,” the caption read.
Unfortunately, this is war, not sport. There are no referees, very few rules, and extremely lethal weapons.
Yet as Russian troops threatened the city on Sunday, the brothers tried to remain optimistic inside the mayor’s office even as Vitali Klitschko warned of a looming humanitarian crisis as supplies of food and medicine of the city are drying up.
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“Right now the most important issue is to defend our country,” he told the AP’s Francesca Ebel and Efrem Lukatsky.
They will be there for that defence, like so many brave Ukrainians. The courage they show in the face of a great force is the same courage they took in the ring, multiplied by a factor of 10.
Knowing them, it is not surprising that they are ready to shed blood to defend their country.
They are fighters, and they are in the fight of their lives.