in the multiplex in Vitali Klitschko's mind is a coming attraction in which he boxes Lennox Lewis into a corner from which there is no escape. At the end of a display of tactical fireworks, Klitschko imagines hovering over the heavyweight champ like the specter of death, ready to deliver the final, fatal blow. "That is how I see chess match we play before fight," says the WBC's No. 1 contender and mandatory challenger. "First I beat Lewis on board, then we meet in ring."
As it turns out, both punchers are also patzers. Klitschko appears to be more accomplished than Lewis, having hung in with former world champ Garry Kasparov for 31 moves during a 2001 exhibition. This year he played both Vladimir Kramnik and Deep Fritz--the reigning human and computer champs, respectively--to draws.
Reared in Ukraine and based in Germany, he polishes his game against his kid brother, Wladimir. The 31year-old Vitali is a cautious technician who relies on cool calculation; Wladimir, 26, is more adventurous, though he, too, enjoys slowly entrapping opponents in a fine mesh of hazards. "Approach to chess, boxing very similar," says Wladimir, who happens to be the WBO heavyweight champ.
November 18, 2002
If any contest reveals the limits of ego and courage as nakedly as chess, it is boxing. In either game you can run, but you can't hide. "When you make mistake on chessboard, it snowballs--more and more mistakes," Wladimir says. "Boxing is same."
The English of both Klitschko brothers is heavily accented, seldom perfect and sometimes eccentric, but it still reflects the often-impressive reasoning of intelligent men. They are surely the only ranked prizefighters with Ph.D.'s. Theirs are in sports science, conferred by the University of Kiev for physical training and sport. "In weeks before bout I study opponent's mistakes and prepare for him my counterarguments," says Wladimir. "When I see weakness, pounce."
Vitali adds, "If take too much time to make quality analysis, lose."
The sweet scientists making these pronouncements are roughly the size of the Carpathian Mountains. Vitali is 6'8"; Wladimir's an inch shorter. They each weigh about 250, with muscles that seem ready to rip through their clothes. When they sit down for lunch at a Hamburg souvlaki joint, they fill the room. In the ring, with one boxing and the other working the corner, they fill the arena. The Klitschkos have presence.
These brawny, brainy brothers are the future--the very near future--of a painfully lightweight division. "They're the best heavyweights to appear since the 1988 Olympics," says Lewis's trainer, Emanuel Steward, a fan ever since Wladimir won super heavyweight gold at the '96 Games. "For the last decade heavyweight boxing has seen a lot of oversized American bodybuilders with no body control or fundamentals. The Klitschkos are highly coordinated big guys with solid amateur backgrounds. They're the only ones who make me nervous."
The Brothers K fit neatly into the great tradition of merciless Russian strongmen. Together they have knocked out or stopped 66 of 72 opponents. Each has one defeat: Vitali in 2000, when he tore his left rotator cuff against Chris Byrd (he was comfortably ahead on the scorecards but couldn't answer the bell for the 10th round); Wladimir in '98, on a TKO to unheralded Ross Purrity (when the younger Klitschko ran out of gas in Round 11, he too was leading on points). Both blots on the family record were later avenged by the other sibling.
The Klitschkos' plan for world domination has them ruling side by side. "Two title belts apiece," says Vitali, who hopes to snatch Lewis's in early 2003 after dispatching Larry Donald on Nov. 23 in Dortmund, Germany. Wladimir next defends his WBO crown on Dec. 7 against Jameel McCline in Las Vegas. "Like Russian champ in Rocky IV," Vitali deadpans. "We Ivan Drago One, Two."
A sweet, sardonic father of one, Vitali has a Ukrainian wife and the heart of a Russian novelist. He is as enthusiastic when quoting from the works of Mikhail Bulgakov as he is mimicking the moves of Muhammad Ali. In the summer of 2001 he read from Bulgakov to a crowd of literati in Hamburg, his adopted home. A week later more than 300 academics packed a Bundeswehr University lecture hall to hear him read from his doctoral thesis--The Ways to Define Sportsmen's Capabilities in the System of a Multi-Step Sportive Selection--in German, no less.
"Boxing exactly like life," Vitali says with a slightly professorial air. "In either, can be knocked senseless. Every day is fight with problems, every day is fight for dreams. Sometimes must clench teeth, sometimes must take low blow, sometimes must fall to canvas, stand up, go forward again."
A highly eligible bachelor, Wladimir is quieter, more self-contained. He thinks deeply before he talks, carefully spooning out a word at a time when he speaks English, one of the four languages that he knows. (Wladimir also speaks German, Russian and Ukranian.) He recites Shakespeare as if the bard were a boxing muse. "Shakespeare, I read in Russian," Wladimir says. "He writes, 'Life is big theater, and we're all the artists in this thing.'" Well, maybe it loses something in the translation from the translation.
Actually, Wladimir doesn't say much--he mostly just smiles encouragingly. He's elusive in the way a cagey welterweight is elusive, or a magician. In fact, his hobby is magic. "Trick to success in life is to produce positive fluids," Wladimir says, a fat grin pasted to his face. "I can feel more than positive fluids: I can feel psychic energy. Can smell it. Concentrate and can make coin appear in hand." He waves his arms like a sea anemone, then plucks a Euro out of the air with a dexterity that would dazzle a three-card-monte dealer.
"Heard of Magic Johnson?" asks Vitali. "Well, we magic brothers. Soon make Lennox Lewis disappear."
As close as the Klitschkos are, they don't step into the ring together. They haven't even sparred in eight years. "Would never fight one another," Vitali says. "Love mother too much. Fighting would break her heart."
Nadezhda Klitschko is a schoolteacher; her husband, Wladimir, an air force colonel. "Father six-foot-two," says Wladimir.
"Mother look like Mike Tyson," adds Vitali. He's talking height, we hope.
The Klitschko family was constantly on the move, from air base to air base. Wladimir's ambitions tended to mirror Big Brother's. "When I say, 'Want to be cosmonaut,' he say, 'Want to be cosmonaut,'" Vitali recalls. "When I say, 'Want to be air-traffic controller,' Wladimir say, 'Me want, too.'"
"He want to be boxer, I become boxer," Wladimir agrees. "He make Ph.D., I make Ph.D. He have baby, but for me, without wife or girlfriend, very difficult."
Kickboxing is another of Vitali's interests that Wladimir did not share. A onetime world champ in the sport, Vitali took it up partly so he could travel beyond the Iron Curtain. At 19 he did, for a competition in the U.S. "I went Florida," he says, "bring back Wladimir gifts." The booty: a pack of Bubblicious and a bottle of Coke.
Back then, bubble gum and Coca-Cola were as prized in the Ukraine as beluga caviar is here. "I would have sold soul for them," says Wladimir. "I wanted to smell air in America."
Wladimir saw boxing as the ticket to the States. But he was so afraid of hurting his opponent that he lost his first two amateur bouts. "I was all defense," he says. "Finally, in third fight I realized if I hit back, I win."
After winning 133 of his next 137 amateur bouts and Olympic gold, he and Vitali were courted in Vegas by Don King, the Houdini of promoters. King invited them to his lavish suite. "Don was impressive," says Wladimir.
"Was artist," says Vitali. "Showman."
King plopped down at a baby grand and, with a Liberace-like flourish at the keyboard, crooned, "Sign with me, just sign with me." The Klitschkos watched slack-jawed until Vitali noticed something funny. "Piano had two moving pedals," he says, "but Don's feet not on them."
The baby grand was computerized. "Don pretended," chortles Vitali. He and his brother weren't fooled: They turned pro in 1996 under the banner of a German promotional group and now hawk everything from fitness books to cereal.
When Fritz Sdunek started training them that year, they were all power, no finesse. And no guile. Sdunek taught them how to set up an opponent in Round 2 for a haymaker in Round 5. The thrill of the kill is what he tried to impart. "Most important thing is not muscles, power," says Vitali. "It's psychology, mentality."
Vitali needed convincing. Once, after decking an opponent in the amateurs, he peered into the crowd and spotted the loser's family. "See horror in eyes of wife, children," he says, still shaken by the memory. "Have such bad feeling. Feel like not winner."
Fear was the bugaboo Wladimir had to overcome. "Fear is like poison from cobra," he says. "Little bit can kill or make you well. Too much is death, just enough is success."
Of the two Klitschkos, Wladimir is the more elegant boxer. His punches are sharper, his feet quicker. "He moves forward, backward and sideways like an agile middleweight," says Joe Goossen, the trainer of heavyweight Lance Whitaker. "Vitali is stiff."
Wladimir's combinations were at their best in a June 29 fight with Ray Mercer. Though tight at the opening bell, Wladimir loosened up midway through the first round and unleashed a burst of crisp jabs and sledgehammer hooks that dropped Mercer like a wrecking ball. He got up and somehow hung in for five more rounds, but his eyes were vacant and as swollen as blueberry popovers.
Vitali knows that Lewis will be no pushover. "Fight against him not so easy," Vitali says, "but nobody perfect. Lennox have glass chin. Smash chin very hard, shatter."
Lewis and Wladimir have already squared off, albeit on the silver screen. They got to feel each other out while filming a fight scene in Ocean's 11. Between takes Lewis told Vitali, "I'll have you for breakfast and your brother for lunch."
"We too big to swallow," countered Vitali. Laughing about that now, he says, "Never boast you strongest, because person will come along stronger than you."
How strong are his chances against Lewis? Views on that run the gamut from Wladimir's "Brother win big" to Goossen's "He'll freeze like a deer in headlights" to trainer Lou Duva's "He don't got what a champion takes--when the going got tough with Byrd, he didn't look like he wanted to fight." We'll defer to Tommy Brooks, the ex-trainer of Mike Tyson and Evander Holyfield who helped Vitali get in shape this spring. "The guy won't stick to a fight plan. He's overly cautious. Get him in trouble and he'll ad-lib--he'll drop his hands and think. Try that against Lennox, and he'll come right at you. I don't see Vitali beating him, but he won't embarrass himself." Brooks is much higher on the prospects of Klitschko the Younger. "Wladimir's something different," he says. "He'd clean Lennox's clock."
After lunch on this autumn afternoon in Hamburg, Wladimir has his eye on a chess clock. He's losing a speed game to his brother. "I make history with Lewis," says Vitali. "Win mental part, then physical."
The point, after all, on the board or in the ring, is to kill the king.
"I don't see Vitali beating Lewis," says Brooks, "but Wladimir's something different. He would clean Lennox's clock."