The Klitschkos' story knocks you out

Even if you can get past - or actually enjoy - the preening and posturing that dresses the set for every professional boxing match, there are so many other ways to be offended by the sport whose currency, whose whole point, is violence.

Even if you can get past - or actually enjoy - watching two guys punch each other's faces into mashed potatoes with blood gravy, how can you not wonder if, in 20 years, they'll be able to articulate a cogent thought without slurring their words? How can you abide the oily promoters, the gangsta posses, the racist fan element?

For a lot of people, boxing long ago lost its "sweet science" descriptor in favor of one more like the monster science run amok and fueled by the arrogance and coarsening of American culture.

Then there are the Klitschkos. Two middle-aged brothers born and raised in a former Soviet Union of deprivation and repression who became world champion heavyweight fighters. Two brothers who own the one-two punch of athletic success and academic achievement. Each holds a Ph.D. and retains the intellectual dexterity to appreciate and participate in a world beyond clenched fists and unsavory sycophants.

Theirs is a story for makers of lemonade, and its latest telling is a documentary film, "Klitschko," opening in Los Angeles on Oct. 21. In L.A., advance screenings are as common as sigalerts, but there was nothing common about the one last week at the Westside Pavilion for "Klitschko."


Usually, these events are fairly low key, drawing some media and a sprinkling of industry insiders and wannabes who pretend to be more interested in their smartphone messages than what's showing on-screen.

Usually, you don't see whole herds of women dressed in second-skin gowns cut down to here and speaking something Slavic. You don't see the producer introduce the film with extended thank-yous to its subjects for giving him two years of access and the final cut, dropping a lot of Ukrainian and German names, and dispatching the usual celebrity-in-attendance acknowledgments with "To all the famous people in the room, thanks for coming." You don't see German Consul General Wolfgang Drautz, host of the screening and after party, shrink into his seat and avert his eyes when the immovable left eye of Vitali Klitschko meets the unstoppable force of Lennox Lewis' right hand.

The film depicts how Vitali, 40, and Wladimir, 35, came to hold between them all five boxing federation heavyweight titles. There's a lot of pugilism, of course, and some historical context, such as how their father (who died in July) contracted cancer, presumably as a Soviet Air Force colonel who commanded one of the units cleaning up the Chernobyl nuclear plant. You learn how Germany embraced the brothers' athletic ambition and social conscience, and how Vitali checked out of the ring for a couple years to run for mayor of Kiev. He lost, but remains leader of the Ukrainian Democratic Alliance for Reform and is a member of the Ukrainian delegation to the Congress of the Council of Europe.

You see them playing chess, speaking five languages, giving far more than lip service to charities benefiting children around the world and winning humanitarian awards that reflect the opposite instinct of wanting to separate somebody's head from his shoulders. These two guys - one 6'8", the other 6'6" - have even won the fetchingly named Bambi award, a German accolade honoring achievement in entertainment, sports and social engagement. In what dream would Floyd Mayweather even be able to find Bolivia on a map, much less donate time and money for the benefit of its children?

After the screening, the brothers sat for a short Q&A session moderated by Los Angeles Times sports columnist Bill Dwyre, who has long appreciated the cleansing effect jocks like the Klitschkos can bring to the grimy endeavor that is pro boxing. With typical grace, the brothers acknowledged people in the audience who helped them, who are the kind of role models they still think the sports world can engender.

Asked about some of the people who shaped their careers, Vitali thanked former champion Lennox Lewis for giving him an opportunity to ascend to a more prominent stage. Wladimir thanked Chris Byrd, a former heavyweight champion who has fought both brothers and whose pre-teen son congratulated Wladimir in the ring just after he'd taken the championship over the kid's dad with a TKO. Wladimir asked Justin Byrd, now a lanky high-schooler, to stand up, and told him how much that gesture had meant to him. How it bespoke good parenting. How, he said in perfect idiomatic expression, "The apple doesn't fall far from the tree."

Wladimir also asked the crowd to acknowledge Jesse Billauer, and expressed his gratitude for helping him gain perspective. He described Billauer's charisma, and he might even have mentioned the word "hero." Billauer, a professional surfer, broke his neck on a sandbar 15 years ago, and is a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair, except when he's surfing.

As explained in the film, the brothers have never and will never fight each other. Their bond, Vitali said, comes from following directions. When he was 6, his working parents told him he had to take care of Wladimir, 1. "They never told me to stop."

"It's really cool," Wladimir said during the Q&A, "to share the heavyweight championship of the world with your sibling." English is, what -- his fourth language? He actually said "sibling."

Boxing isn't and never will be about decency, humanism and intelligence. It's about strategy, speed, power and blood. And, these days, artifice, entitlement and polarization. You'd like to think a movie about people who are different could change that. But it won't.

Photo: Volker Corell

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