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In troubled Ukraine, these heroes keep battling

On the eve of the one-year anniversary of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, the country’s most popular agents for change are also vying to be the first pair of brothers to simultaneously hold boxing's top heavyweight titles. NBC News' Alexa Chopivsky reports.
Brothers Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko during the Orange Revolution last year in Kiev.
Brothers Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko during the Orange Revolution last year in Kiev.
/ Source: NBC News

First came the punch.

“I just had some Chicken Kiev prepared for him, because I am so happy he's not chicken anymore."

Then the counter-punch.

“That's not true. I bring you dessert on November 12th!"

Those fighting words were exchanged recently by U.S. boxer Hasim Rahman and Ukrainian heavyweight Vitali Klitschko as Rahman presented the defending World Boxing Council champion with Ukraine’s signature dish at a press conference ahead of their November fight, which had twice been postponed because of injury.

Klitschko's snappy comeback is emblematic of a man who, together with brother and fellow heavyweight fighter Wladimir, have become the most popular goodwill ambassadors for change in Ukraine.

And, perhaps, the first siblings to simultaneously hold boxing's three top heavyweight titles.

It would certainly be a shot in the arm for their homeland. On the eve of the one-year anniversary of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, President Viktor Yushchenko’s approval rating is at a 19.8 percent low and much of the country’s leadership is mired in corruption allegations.

The brothers are on track for the titles. Last month, Wladimir, 29, defeated Nigerian Samuel Peter to become the number-one contender for both the World Boxing Organization (WBO) and International Boxing Federation (IBF) titles. He expects to fight a championship contest in December.Meanwhile, Vitali, 34, will defend his WBC title against Rahman on November 12 in Las Vegas.

“That has always been our goal,” said Wladimir, a former WBO champion who won the super-heavyweight gold medal for Ukraine in Atlanta’s 1996 Olympic Games. “We have come close before. But when Vitali had the title, I did not, and when I had the belt, he did not. He is the WBC champion, and will be for a long time. Now, it is up to me again.”

More than just boxers 
But boxing alone does not define the Klitschko brothers. “Boxing is our life, but our life is not only for boxing,” said Wladimir.

The brothers are smart (both have PhDs); worldly (they speak Ukrainian, Russian, German and English); and published authors (they co-wrote “Fitness Together With Us,” a best-seller in Germany). They’ve even made a splash in Hollywood (bit parts in “Ocean’s Eleven”) and they dabble in magic tricks.

And they have been doing their best to bring Ukraine from Soviet satellite to modern nation.

In last winter’s Orange Revolution, they played a prominent role — standing shoulder-to-shoulder with Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko on Kiev’s Independence Square, they rallied protesters who camped out for weeks in freezing temperatures to challenge a fraudulent election.

Humanitarian work sets an example
The brothers transfer the same focus that earns them success in the boxing ring to their goodwill programs around the world.

Through the Klitschko Brothers Foundation, they have raise AIDS awareness in Ukraine, where in a population of 48 million an estimated 360,000 people are infected with HIV — 60,000 of them under the age of 15.

In post-Soviet Ukraine, where the concept of community service has not fully blossomed, the Klitschkos understand their position as role models. They filmed a made-for-Ukrainian TV public service message in which they urge kids to stay off drugs.

The Klitschkos like to play a hands-on role in their philanthropy. When they helped fund the rebuilding of Kiev’s golden-domed St. Michael’s Cathedral, they took part in reconstructing the mosaic decorating the ceiling of the ancient church, which was razed in the 1930s by the Soviets in order to build its headquarters.

(And their humanitarian work is not restricted to Ukraine — they visited schools in Brazil’s slums through UNESCO’s “Education for Children in Need” program.)

Political activism
Vitali is the more politically active of the pair. He had to be talked out of canceling his fight against American Danny Williams last December when political tensions were heating up in his homeland after a fraudulent presidential election.

“I am a sportsman,” explained the older brother, who lives in Los Angeles with his Ukrainian wife and three young children and, at 6’8,’’ is two inches taller than his unmarried sibling. “But it was very difficult and painful for me to see what was happening in my country.”He wore an orange sash on his trunks during his victorious fight in support of the West-leaning candidate Viktor Yushchenko.

The brothers recruited a host of friends — from Sting to Joe Cocker — to voice their support to the crowds on Independence Square. It was important, Wladimir said, to show the protesters that the world was watching.

“With one single shot, the whole Revolution could have been different. That’s why we did this.”

At president's side
The older Klitschko travels with President Yushchenko and gives speeches on his behalf, and when the Ukrainian leader addressed the U.S. Congress in Washington in April, he was there with him.

“Wherever (Vitali) goes, people just huddle around him,” said Walter Nazarewicz, president of the Ukrainian Institute of America, which earlier this year presented its “Man of the Year” award to the Klitschko brothers. “[The two] really are all that they appear to be. There’s no question they could have a future in politics if they wanted one.”

Although the Klitschkos now live and train in the U.S. and in Germany — where  they are wildly popular and are featured in television ads for Hugo Boss, Proctor & Gamble, Kellogg’s and Ferrero — they spend as much time as they can in Ukraine.

“We’re athletes. We spend a lot of time out of the country,” said Wladimir. But we’re following everything that’s going on.”

And Ukraine follows the Klitschkos. “Everyone knows them. In one way, as sportsmen. In a more important way, from the Orange Revolution, when they stood with Yushchenko on Maidan [Independence Square],” said Olena Litvak, a native Kievite.

If theirs seems like a formidable sibling act, like Serena and Venus with gloves, it is.  But unlike the Williams sisters, you won’t find this duo in a head-to-head match-up.

“We love our mother too much to do anything like that,” said Vitali.