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Wladimir Klitschko Interview
October 21, 2011
by DAVE GOLOKHOV
The Klitschko brothers have dominated the heavyweight division of boxing at a rate that we've never seen before. Older brother Vitali, known as Dr. Ironfist, has never even been knocked down in any professional bout and holds the WBC Heavyweight title. Younger brother Wladimir, known as Dr. Steelhammer, is the longest-reigning Heavyweight champ in history and has collected the IBF, WBO, IBO, The Ring, and WBA Super Heavyweight belts.
Not only are they the first set of brothers to hold world titles at the same time, but what truly makes them unique athletes is their mental approach to the game. Both have Ph.Ds in sports science, both speak several languages fluently and both are esteemed, intelligent athletes.
The life and times of the two brothers can now be explored in depth with the release today of their critically acclaimed documentary, Klitschko. But before then, we caught up with Wladimir to discuss how his smarts and mental game have propelled him to the top.
AskMen: You're quite the opposite of most athletes -- let alone athletes in fight sport -- because you're intelligent, sharp and articulate. Has the mental aspect of your game been a priority for you or did it just evolve that way?
Wladimir Klitschko (WK): Thank you for the compliment. I should say that mental strength is No. 1, experience [is] No. 2, physical strength is No. 3, and genetic ability that you're getting from Mother Nature probably comes after.
Mental strength is really important because you either win or lose in your mind. And I'm not solely talking about sporting matches, boxing events -- anything you do, you do it first with your mental strength. And you can actually train and develop it, and I am responsible for what I'm saying because I have experience with that.
You can train your mental strength just like you train your body. If your body looks fit or ripped, it looks strong, and you can flex your muscles. So, physically, you have a certain strength.
Mentally, it's the same thing. You can train your psychological strength. It's not easy, though, because we all have mental weaknesses -- all of us. There are no exceptions. No matter what you do, and it doesn't matter who you are. During our lives, we're always either working on it or if we are insecure in some areas, we're trying to cover for it because we are betraying ourselves. So the whole key is to be honest with yourself, find the weak spots, work on it, get it done. Either you're going to do it on your own or you can get certain books or you can even use a shrink if you want. There are different ways. An example in sports is golf players who use mental coaches.
Does it take a certain type of humbleness to be able to examine yourself mentally, find the weaknesses and find ways to improve them?
WK: Old-school people don't want to do this because they feel it shows signs of weakness, and they want to show that they don't need any help, which is wrong. It's a regular thing. Just like you hire a fitness coach to get in better shape or lose weight, you can hire a mental coach to get your mind fit [and] in great shape as well.
What is it that keeps you ahead of your competitors in the sport?
WK: I think No. 1, it's experience. I did experience drama in my life and sporting career, and it was very difficult -- especially in sports, as I lost two fights in one year. That was back in 2004, and I was supposed to be at the end of my abilities, according to what other people thought. I was terribly criticized, suggesting that I had no future after previously being at the top of my game. People said it's over, that I'm burned out.
And as I discuss in the documentary, what didn't kill me made me stronger. That was exactly the case. That experience definitely made me a better person and makes me focus on my priorities.
You mentioned the documentary. In it, you and your brother are playing chess, and it's well documented that you both like to play. Is that more for fun or do you see that as having a benefit as an athlete in boxing as well -- maybe the practice of anticipating your opponent's next move?
WK: Earlier in my career, I never thought of boxing as a chess game, but I confirm it now that they are, in fact, very similar. You can plan your fights and strategy just like you would in chess.
All of my fights are planned. I study my opponents from A to Z. How he walks, how he looks, how he speaks, gestures of the human body, which is a certain language that provides you lots of information if you have the ability to read it. You just need to pay attention to it and gain experience over the years.
And if I am 100% prepared for the fight, my opponent has no chance to win the fight. I am saying what I mean: He has a 0% chance to win the fight. There is going to be no luck involved; there is going to be nothing else to stop me from winning the fight. At the beginning of my career, I didn't realize it, but later on I realized the similarities.
And who's the better chess player between you and your brother. I know you don't go head to head in the ring, so who wins the chess bouts?
WK: If my brother was sitting here -- he was just sitting in the car and got out -- I would say he's the best player, but since he's out, I'm going to say I'm the better player. We are competitive, so there are some days that Vitali is better than I am, and there are some days that I am better than he is.
Do you guys know all the strategic openings, defenses and styles, or do you just improvise?
WK: We know each other's style very well. So, basically, when I play against Vitali, I already know what he's going to do. So we pretty much freestyle since we know each other so well.
In the documentary, there's an interesting quote where you say your brother was born a fighter, but you had to become one. Can you elaborate on what you meant?
WK: He has it in his bones; he was born with it. He has a certain talent, which hopefully he's developed, too. He was born with it, but I became a fighter. I was 14 years old when I went to the sports school in the Soviet Union, and I studied and I learned it with the technique, the strategy and everything that was necessary. Whereas he is just a trueborn fighter.
It looks like next up for you is a rumored bout with Jean-Marc Mormeck in December. What do you see as your biggest challenge mentally as you prepare for that fight?
WK: When you're successful for so many years, the scariest part is that you're getting too comfortable because you've had so much success. And you know the game plan, and you know everything, and that actually makes you relax.
And that's the most terrible mistake you can make: to relax. It's difficult to become a champion, but it's more difficult to maintain it for many years because you're getting too comfortable. You feel like you're in your comfort zone and you think you're unbeatable, which I actually think I am, really. You can even take your fitness seriously, but not yourself. So that's the most difficult part: not to relax. That's the most difficult challenge I'm facing every fight.
One of the points of emphasis that Bernard Hopkins made to me prior to his last fight was that he has to work harder to keep his mind sharper as he gets older. I know you're not as old as him, but as a veteran of the sport, do you find that you have to work harder to maintain the same high performance as you get older?
WK: Actually, it's easier for me to work on things. Before you didn't know what to expect, and you had so many fears. Now I know what to do and not to do. Now I know which zones I can move and which zones I have to be careful in. Overall, I enjoy what I do, and when you enjoy what you're doing, you don't feel like it's difficult.
Some people ask me, "How can you do training camp and be in one place for six weeks?" But my response is that I love what I do and I enjoy it. It's such a gift in my life to be able to compete -- to have the health. And there's the other guys, the competition. That makes me excited because that's what I like about the sport.
So what will the boxing fans and Klitschko fans see when they check out your documentary?
WK: Basically, it's a story about two boys who had a dream, and the dream eventually came true. It's a story about life, not just inside of the ring, but outside of the ring, as well as behind the scenes. Part of our life is politics -- there is certain drama, there is certain humor. Parts of it is Chernobyl. Eventually our father passed away because of that.
You have drama, you have action, part of it is really funny, and I hope people enjoy it.
You mentioned before that there are many ways one can work and improve on their own mental game. Is there anything specifically that has shaped you that you can pass along?
WK: Right about a year ago, Bill Clinton was in Ukraine, which was the second time I met him, as I met Mr. Clinton 10 years ago for the first time right after he left office.
And I said to him, "It's amazing. I've been watching you in Germany, and I've been watching you in the Ukraine, and you're facing people who don't have the same mentality and don't speak the same language, and I don't know how you're winning their hearts. People are excited to see you, they are cheering you, they want to get a hold of you, they want to touch you, and they celebrate you like a rock star. And it's not only in the U.S. So what's the secret? You're giving those speeches, and it's in English, yet most of the people are probably Russian- or German- speaking, but they're getting what you're talking about and they understand you."
And it was important for me to ask because I'm giving a lot of speeches in my life, and he said it's very simple. You have to prepare and do the homework to understand who is going to be in front of you. So you have to speak their language, which is something a lot of politicians fail to do. They are talking too scientifically.
The folks see them, and they understand that the politician is smart, and they understand that you can talk about some complicated things, but they don't really understand you. Even if you speak in the same language, they don't really get you -- they aren't accepting you.
But when you do the homework to understand your audience and the needs of who is going to be across from you, you're going to do pretty good. They're going to understand you, they are going to follow you and they are going to support you eventually.
That was the wisdom of Bill Clinton that I have learned.