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The Globe and Mail

Pugilist thinks outside the box, steps into Ukraine’s parliamentary ring

WBC Heavyweight boxing champion Vitali Klitschko of Ukraine, left, and Manuel Charr of Germany face each other during the weigh-in in Moscow, Russia, Friday, Sept. 7, 2012. The opponents will compete for the WBC heavyweight title in Moscow on Sept. 8.

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP

In one of the world's most combustible parliaments, MPs had better watch out. A putative new member is coming who can do more than look after himself. They call him Dr. Ironfist and for good reason: Vitali Klitschko is a heavyweight boxing champion, the first ever to hold a PhD – and not a man to pick a fight with.

After two decades in the ring, the 41-year-old faces perhaps his most bruising challenge: taking on President Viktor Yanukovych and the elite of Ukraine's corrupt political system.

With elections next month and some expecting Mr. Klitschko to hang up his gloves after a fight against Manuel Charr this weekend, the boxer appears poised for that most enigmatic transformation: sports star to politician.

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"We are trying to make politics more open," Mr. Klitschko said. "It became a Ukrainian tradition to make decisions behind closed doors [but] ... we are trying to apply European standards in politics." Having dabbled in local politics for several years, he has jumped into the ring of national politics with his aptly named party Udar, meaning "punch".

The party is emerging as a third force in Ukrainian politics, with about 11 per cent support – sufficient to win seats and shake up the established parties: Mr. Yanukovych's Party of the Regions and the Batkivshchyna (Fatherland) party, which dominates the bloc led by the jailed opposition leader Yulia Tymoshenko.

His supporters are known in Ukraine as "the disappointed" – people who don't believe in the authorities or the opposition, and feel bitterly let down by the failure of the 2004 Orange Revolution to bring lasting change.

Mr. Klitschko, who spent years training in Germany, takes its political system as an example: "I'm very happy to co-operate with the [German chancellor Angela Merkel's] Christian Democratic Union. We are trying to build the same structure for our party."

Speaking to journalists, Klitschko can deftly switch from Ukrainian to Russian, English or German – a rare quality for a Ukrainian politician. "Now we have pretty good support from the people. We are the number three party in Ukraine and we are number one for growth."

The analyst Volodymyr Fesenko said Mr. Klitschko's poltical rise was because he was a Ukrainian who had succeeded abroad. "People expect that he could do something like this here, that he would bring part of Germany into this country," Mr. Fesenko said, adding that Mr. Klitschko has also managed to avoid becoming embroiled in any significant scandal during six years in politics.

Some observers say Mr. Klitschko may be backed by Ukrainian tycoons, pointing out that several names on his party list have links to the authorities. Mr. Klitschko denies these allegations, saying he pays much of his party's expenses.

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Mr. Klitschko said politics and sport require the same skills, such as willpower, responsibility and teamwork. "I'm a big expert in boxing, but in politics I'm a beginner, so I try to use other people's experience," he says.

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