My 2014 Sportsman nominee: Former boxer Vitali Klitschko
This essay is one of more than 20 nominations for SI's 2014 Sportsman of the Year. You can see all of this year's nominees here.
There are no stats to back up this nominee, no significant sporting accomplishment to tout. He didn’t break any record, didn’t win any championship. Hell, he didn’t even compete. Vitali Klitschko is my choice for Sportsman of the Year because, well, he quit.
Some context: In 2013, Klitschko was one of the best heavyweights in the world, the best to some, the runner up only to those who favored his younger brother, Wladimir. He was a world champion and a knockout artist, a television ratings grabber and a significant draw in Europe, where he routinely sold out venues in Germany, and in the U.S., where his last fight, a 2009 title defense against Chris Arreola, drew 14,500 fans to the Staples Center in L.A. He had a corporate sponsorship and pocketed millions every time he fought. He was 42 but, thanks to a decaying division, had lost only a handful of rounds since coming out of retirement to reclaim his belt in 2008.
Some good days -- and great money -- were still ahead of him.
Only Klitschko didn’t want it. Soviet born and the son of a soldier, Klitschko calls Ukraine home. And for decades Klitschko has struggled with the corrosive effect of corruption in his country. He watched as social standards fell and the economy suffered. He witnessed the judicial system degrade and the violence escalate. More than anything, Klitschko wanted to help. He wanted to lead. So last December, Klitschko walked away from boxing.
"Right now, my full concentration is on politics in Ukraine,” Klitschko said. “I feel that the people need me there.”
Klitschko has tried to help before. Three times he ran for mayor of Kiev. Three times he lost. In 2010 he founded the political party Udar -- which in Ukrainian means “punch” -- and has slowly grown its ranks in parliament. For years he immersed himself in his country’s problems. Think a boxing ring is scary? Try being a recognizable 6’7” figure in a violent mob filled with people who despise you. In 2012, Klitschko was sprayed with tear gas by police while peacefully protesting the Ukrainian government’s decision to make Russian the official language. Last January, Klitschko was blasted by a fire extinguisher while trying to break up a melee.
In giving up boxing, Klitschko has gone all in. He has passed on a life of luxury for one of uncertainty, dangers in the ring for perhaps even more perilous ones outside of it. Last May, Klitschko, after a brief campaign for president, was elected mayor of Kiev. He promised to help end the violence that has paralyzed his country and declared that Russia, which he firmly believes wants to absorb the Ukraine, will never have his city.
Klitschko’s boxing days are behind him; he has promised there will be no mid-40’s return. But just because he won’t compete in 2014 doesn’t make him any less worthy of being named SI’s Sportsman. In many ways, it makes him more.