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31 KOs) vs. VITALI KLITSCHKO (32-1, 31 KOs) Saturday,
7 p.m., HBO, at Staples Center

June 17, 2003|Steve Springer | Times Staff Writer

The family crowded around the strange can, unsure how to open it.

They looked at it, admired it, poked at it.

Finally, they figured out how to open it and heard the hiss of escaping air.

Seventeen-year-old Vitali Klitschko, who had brought the can of Coca-Cola back from the United States to their home in Ukraine, beamed.

His brother, 12-year-old Wladimir Klitschko, held the can to his nose, inhaled and asked, "Is this what America smells like?"


Looking at the Klitschkos today, it's hard to be believe that, only 14 years ago, they were so innocent, so naive, so insulated from the world.

Today, they are educated and worldly, each holding a PhD and fluent in four languages, goodwill ambassadors for UNESCO and residents of Los Angeles.

The sights, sounds and smells of America now are second nature to them.

So are the sights, sounds and smells of a boxing gym. They are heavyweights with a common dream of winning a major championship and a common vow never to defend those titles against each other.

Wladimir, 27, was thought to be the more likely of the two to realize the dream. It was he who was matched against heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis for a scene in the movie "Ocean's Eleven," a fantasy fight for the screen that was considered a sure preview of real life.

Earlier this year, Wladimir seemed right on course for a title shot after signing a nine-fight deal with HBO. In March, he entered a ring in Hanover, Germany, to fight journeyman Corrie Sanders.

Not even two rounds later, Wladimir was on the canvas, his championship dream having turned as hazy as his vision. Sanders, a southpaw, confused, frustrated and ultimately demolished Wladimir, knocking him down four times before the bout ended only 27 seconds into the second round.

So for now, the family's championship hopes have passed to Vitali, considered a tougher but less skilled fighter. He got his chance at a title fight quickly and unexpectedly. After Mike Tyson refused to honor a commitment for a rematch with Lewis, the champion agreed to fight Vitali. But when negotiations collapsed, Lewis turned to Kirk Johnson.

A partially torn chest muscle, suffered by Johnson in training camp, again opened the door to Vitali as swiftly as it had slammed shut.

And this time, it took only 24 hours to get Vitali's name on a contract.

Lewis-Klitschko, though not the Klitschko originally envisioned, will happen Saturday at Staples Center.

Right in the heart of the evil empire.


The Klitschkos were military brats, Soviet military brats. Vitali was born in Belovodsk, Kirghizia; Wladimir in Solechny, Kazakhstan.

But unlike today, when these countries proudly boast of their own national identities, the Klitschkos grew up in the Soviet Union. Their father, Wladimir Rodionovich, was an Air Force colonel; their mother, Nadezhda Ulyanovna, a schoolteacher.

Military orders kept the Klitschko family on the move, the brothers attending 10 schools.

And learning some harsh lessons of war as well.

"We played around the military bases, which could be dangerous places," Vitali said. "I remember one time, we brought home land mines."

Their parents were happy to see the boys get involved in sports. Vitali, who is 6 feet 7, said he had a remarkable growth spurt in his mid-teens, going from 5-9 to 6-5 in three months.

"A trainer came to our school and asked who would like to box," Vitali said. "Everybody wanted to and everybody went to train. A month later, a few were left and, a year later, only a couple of people were left. At that point, I had a feeling I could make something of myself as a boxer."

Vitali started boxing at 13, initially in kickboxing, at which he won six championships.

Success continued when he turned to more conventional boxing. Vitali posted a 195-15 record as an amateur with 80 knockouts.

A trip to West Palm Beach, Fla., changed his life. He went there at 17 to compete in a tournament.

"I thought this was a bad country," said Vitali, believing what he had learned in his homeland. "Bad people, crazy people, very aggressive people."

Instead, he discovered Disney World and the virtues of capitalism.

"Where am I?" Vitali asked himself in amazement.

When he came home with that Coke can, four pounds of bubble gum and stories of a land of plenty, Wladimir soaked it all up.

But the head of the household was not so charmed.

"My father didn't believe me at first," Vitali, 31, said. "Remember, he got his information about this country from his bosses."

Wladimir, who started boxing at 14, soon found out about America himself. A brilliant amateur as well, he went on to win Olympic gold as a super-heavyweight at the 1996 Games in Atlanta.

Vitali's chance for Olympic glory had ended before he ever got to the Games because of a leg injury.

"I went into the depression of my life," he said.

But not for long. Vitali soon decided to pursue his quest for ring glory as a professional. There was one big problem, though: no structure for professional boxing in his native land.

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