'I fear very much for their lives': Boxing presses Putin, comes to Klitschkos' side

Ukranian heavyweight boxers and brothers Vitali, left, and Wladimir Klitschko display their complete set of world title belts at a July 8, 2011, press conference in Moscow. Wladimir will be inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2022 after the 2021 induction weekend followed 2020 in being postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Lance Pugmire
USA TODAY Sports+

In the Ukranian capital of Kyiv is Mayor Vitali Klitschko, the former WBC heavyweight world champion now in a deadly fight for his country. By his side is younger brother Wladimir, a former unified heavyweight champion.

Four years ago, the Klitschkos hosted boxers from across the world in Kyiv at the 2018 WBC Convention. Now, that boxing family is united in support of the Klitschkos, who are defending their country as Russia presses it's invasion of Ukraine into Kyiv. Dozens have already died and more than 100,000 are fleeing.

“I fear very much for their lives," said WBC President Mauricio Sulaimán, who spoke to Wladimir Klitschko by phone Friday morning. "And knowing them so well, that’s heartbreaking to me, … seeing the horrendous images coming out of Ukraine."

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Connected to the brothers for two decades, Sulaimán said he was shaken by their vulnerability as military experts speculate Putin is determined to dethrone the Kyiv-based democratic leadership of Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. 

The Klitschkos “are unbelievable people, such great human beings possessing the sweetest smiles,” Sulaimán said. “However, they are warriors. So humble. So brave. They could take the easy step and flee to leave the country and be with their families.

"Instead, they have geared up to defend their country.”

Sulaimán said he closed Friday’s conversation with Wladimir Klitschko by telling him to stay strong and stay safe.

"Know the whole world is sending messages of support, peace and wellness to you and to all of Ukraine,” Sulaimán said.

Russian President Vladimir Putin is a devout fan of combat sports, having hosted Hall of Fame boxer Roy Jones Jr. and mixed martial arts legend Fedor Emelianenko at his Moscow residence. 

Knowing the brotherhood of fighters occupies a meaningful place in Putin’s life, the leaders Sulaimán and World Boxing Organization President Francisco “Paco” Valcarcel announced measures Friday they hope will touch the Russian leader as he supervises the deadly invasion

Both the WBO and WBC voted to stop sanctioning fights in Russia during its occupation of Ukraine. The WBO went a step further by moving to exclude 18 Russian fighters from its contender rankings. 

“We can touch his soul and his mind,” Valcarcel told USA Today Sports+. “We want you to know, Mr. Putin, that we don’t agree with this invasion and that the whole boxing family wants peace.”

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Among the elite active Ukrainian boxers are current WBO heavyweight champion Oleksandr Usyk, former WBO and three-division champion Vasiliy Lomachenko and former 140-pound champion Viktor Postol. 

Postol is scheduled to fight Saturday in Las Vegas and said he will return immediately after to his wife and 5-year-old twin boys in Ukraine.

Lomachenko previously pleaded for “peace and love” to prevail as the conflict intensified, and Usyk urged wartime actions to stop. 

“There is no democracy without democrats,” Wladimir Klitschko wrote in a statement posted to social media Friday. “The fundamental elements of democracy are under threat.”

Wladimir also called for citizens to raise their voices for "democracy and freedom" and against the “cowardly and murderous attack” of Russia "for a peaceful and free future for the children of our continent.”  

Sulaimán’s organization counts unbeaten, two-belt light-heavyweight champion Artur Beterbiev of Russia as one of its titlists. 

“We are very concerned because we have friends in both countries,” Sulaimán said. “They are all good people. We’ve spoken to them. Nobody wants war. Everybody wants peace.”