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Ukraine Boxing Superstar Prepares for City Hall Arena

  • Anita Powell

Vitaliy Klitschko is recognized as a Ukrainian icon for his incredible boxing prowess. But the heavyweight hero says he dreams of a different legacy, as the cleanest, most progressive mayor the city of Kyiv has ever had. He has put his pugilistic pursuits behind him, but says he plans to knock out corruption and clean up this city, in more ways than one. He's making the transition from "Dr. Ironfist" to "Mr. Mayor."

Vitaliy Klitschko has made history as a boxer. The two-meter-tall heavyweight won 41 of his 45 career fights by knockout, and has himself never been knocked down. At one point, he and his brother - both of whom vowed never to fight each other - held every single one of the world's major heavyweight titles.

But he's recently left the ring for a far more dangerous arena: City Hall.

On a recent June day, he led his first city council of Kyiv's 120 representatives.

Since being elected mayor of Ukraine's capital city in May, Klitschko's inherited a Kyiv that has been rattled - and also galvanized - by political protests earlier this year that unseated the allegedly corrupt former administration.

Klitschko played a pivotal role during those protests, supporting the cause in Kyiv's central square and urging the crowds to rise up against corruption.

Today, just weeks into his term, he's trying to put the pieces back together.

One of his main efforts now is also to clear central Kyiv of the detritus of the protests, which remains months later. Many protesters have settled in tents and have not heeded an earlier call from the mayor's office to clear the main square.

Kyiv City Hall, seen as a symbol of bad governance, was defaced and looted during the protests. Klitschko said he was relying on donations to repair the stately, historic building. He said it would cost about $340,000 - cash the city just doesn't have.

Even as mayor, he is still a showman at heart, obliging journalists with countless requests for photo opportunities and answering questions without reserve.

In return, local journalists have shadowboxed around him, avoiding difficult, possibly alienating questions about his business connections. His estimated worth is about $65 million, much of it thought to be honestly earned through boxing, though he opened a boutique hotel in Kyiv during the heydays of the corruption-ridden former administration.

He told VOA that his aim as mayor was to be transparent in a country with deep corruption issues.

"It's a huge challenge in [every] way. But anyway, I have huge support from the people. People want clear, understandable rules. Rules of law, equal opportunity for business. [A] good chance for every Kyiv citizen, the citizens of the capital of Ukraine, for the future," he said.

He said he aspired to more glory - but it's not what one might expect from a heavyweight champ.

"I have this dream. Personal ambitions, as they say. To do so much good for the city that someday one of the Kyiv streets will have the name “Klitschko,” but not because of my sport merits. I will do everything for it and it's a big challenge, which would be really hard to accomplish in today’s situation," he said.

This thoughtful, business-minded Klitschko may come as a surprise to his heavyweight opponents, who know him by his extremely unsubtle ring name, "Dr. Ironfist."

Dr. Ironfist brutally vanquished his opponents with robotic efficiency and a walloping right hand. But Mr. Mayor, looking over his damaged city from above, knows this fight will not be so easy.

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