Heavyweight champ Wladimir Klitschko continues to be inspired by older brother

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports

It takes a great deal of courage for anyone to slip between the ropes and compete in a professional boxing match. That almost goes without saying.

Heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko, though, got a clear vision of what true courage really is, thousands of miles from any ring.

Wladimir Klitschko, left, celebrates with older brother Vitali after a win in April 2014. (AP)
Wladimir Klitschko, left, celebrates with older brother Vitali after a win in April 2014. (AP)
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His older brother, Vitali Klitschko, was one of the leaders of the 2013-2014 protests in Ukraine. Now the mayor of Kiev, Vitali Klitschko led a group that fought against the administration of then-President Viktor Yanukovych, against Russian control and for closer relations with Europe.

Riots raged in Kiev's Independence Square, where the protesters battled with police and many people lost their lives. Front and center, leading the fight for freedom and human rights, was Vitali Klitschko.

That is what true courage is all about.

And Wladimir Klitschko, who will return to fight in the U.S. for the first time in seven years when he defends his IBF/WBA/WBO belts against Bryant Jennings on April 25 at Madison Square Garden, noted that what his brother did is bigger than anything that could occur in a sporting event.

"What I feel about [what Vitali did] is far beyond just respect," Wladimir Klitschko told Yahoo Sports. "Many people in the history of human beings have looked for people who had a vision and had the guts to stand up for their rights. It's like that Bob Marley song: 'Get up! Stand up! Stand up for your rights. Don't give up the fight!'

"Vitali stood with many Ukrainians in Independence Square to demand their rights. Many people were killed and a lot of them were injured. Vitali is such a great leader and incredible man and he deserves a lot of respect for what he has been willing to do on behalf of what is right."

It was the lifelong influence of Vitali, now 43, that helped spur Wladimir Klitschko to heavyweight dominance after a disastrous loss to Lamon Brewster in 2004.

But the journey was about more than just that one fight. Wladimir had struggled for a little more than a year, beginning with a stunning second-round technical knockout loss to Corrie Sanders in 2003.

Klitschko had lost his conditioning when he was stopped in the fifth by Brewster in Las Vegas on April 10, 2004. He also looked tentative and shaky in his next bout, a win over DaVarryl Williamson. He didn't really come back fully until defeating Samuel Peter on Sept. 24, 2005.

He said it was all part of the maturation process, inspired by Vitali, that helped him become one of the most dominant heavyweight champions in history.

He's won 21 in a row since losing to Brewster, winning 16 of those by knockout. He's 18-0 in title fights and appears at this point to be nearly unbeatable.

"I've learned in my life how to get through some difficulties," Klitschko, 38, said. "I had some failures in my life, but they've made me tougher. What doesn't kill me makes me stronger. We forget about it maybe now when everyone talks about [my dominance], but in 2004, I was on the bottom of the sport. I was written off. If you watch my first fight against Brewster from Las Vegas, where after five rounds I collapsed and lost the fight, listen to what the commentators on HBO were saying.

Wladimir Klitschko, left, will face Bryant Jennings, right, in New York in April. (Reuters)
Wladimir Klitschko, left, will face Bryant Jennings, right, in New York in April. (Reuters)

"That's where I was at that point, at the bottom. I still have the aftertaste in my mouth of what happened and I'm not going to forget it. As I said, it didn't kill me and so I learned from it and used that experience to make me better."

He's also using another of his brother's experiences – fatherhood – to make him better.

Klitschko and his fiancée, actress Hayden Panettiere, had their first child, daughter Kaya, on Dec. 9.

The heavyweight champion of the world now is gleefully staying up at night and changing diapers, just as any other new father would. But Kaya's birth has inspired him.

"Vitali is the father of three and he shared a line that he got from his life and his experience that resonated with me," Klitschko said. "He said, 'As a father, you punch harder.' I definitely feel great motivation and energy in everything I'm doing to be the best for her.

"James Cameron, the creator of Avatar and Titanic and many great movies, is doing a documentary where he went on the bottom of the ocean. He knew it was a dangerous mission, but he said, 'I don't just want to be present in my children's lives. I want to be an example.' And that is great motivation for me. I want to be an example to my daughter and I'm going to be the best I can be every day in whatever I do to set the example for her."

He's returning to the U.S. for the first time since defeating Timur Ibragimov in 2008 because of what he said are demands for his services here.

He's excited, he said, to challenge himself against Jennings and to prove his worth as heavyweight champion.

"I fought at the Garden 15 years ago on the undercard of Lennox Lewis and Michael Grant, and it's kind of incredible to me to think that I'm coming back now as the champion and still doing this," he said. "Fortunately, knock on wood, I don't feel my age. I'll be 39 by the time we fight but I don't feel that way. I feel good and I want to show the people here in the U.S. how far I've come since I was last here."

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