Ukrainian Boxers Take Up Arms Against Russia in Fight of Their Lives: 'I Don't Have Another Choice'

Vitali and Wladimir Klitschko, along with fellow professional prizefighters Vasiliy Lomachenko and Oleksandr Usyk and countless other Ukrainian men, are defending their country amid Russia's siege

Ukraine boxers fighting Russia: Wladimir Klitschko Vitali Klitschko Vasiliy Lomachenko Oleksandr Usyk
Photo: klitschko/Instagram; AFP/Getty; lomachenkovasiliy/Instagram; usykaa/Instagram

Four renowned Ukrainian boxing champions have made a career of fighting — but since Russia invaded their homeland, they are taking on one of the world's most powerful military forces. They're engaged in a harrowing battle for their families and for their country.

Former heavyweight world champion brothers Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko have joined thousands of Ukrainians in answering President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's call to take up arms for their country in the wake of a large-scale invasion launched by Russian President Vladimir Putin on Feb. 24.

Vitali, 50, is the current mayor of the capital city, Kyiv. Formerly known as "Dr. Ironfist," he told Good Morning Britain in a recent interview: "I don't have another choice ... I'll be fighting."

"We don't want to live in [a] Russian empire," said Vitali, who towers at 6'7" and 247 lbs. Citing his countrymens' iron "will" after years of simmering conflict with Russia, he says Ukrainians are sending Russia an unmistakable message: "Go back to home, away, [as] soon as possible."

Vitali Klitschko
Vitali Klitschko. Lars Baron/Bongarts/Getty

On Feb. 27, as the fighting grew closer to Kyiv, home to some 2.8 million people, Vitali posted a video address on Facebook.

"Friends! Dear Kyivans! Tonight will be difficult again. That is why our defenders are preparing to defend the capital," he said. "And I urge Kyivites to spend this night in shelters. Because the enemy is Satan. Shoots peaceful homes. It continues to destroy our infrastructure."

Still, Vitali said he had drawn resolve from how the Russians had already been resisted. "[Putin] bears heavy losses — both human and military equipment," he continued. "Because, it seems, the Russians did not expect such a rebuff and such a spirit of the Ukrainian people. Both military and civilian. Our warriors are fighting heroically."

He noted, "All over Ukraine. Our people have rallied to defend their state. The horde is trying to break through to Kyiv. But our residents are preparing to repel the aggressor. Today he was at the fortifications, which the people of Kiev are helping to build terrorists. That the enemy army didn't get to our city. I want to support the Ukrainian fighters and thank the residents of Irpen, Vorzel, Bucha and Gostomel for their endurance where fierce fighting continues, because the enemy is rushing to Kiev. Hold on! Let's stand together!"

Wladimir Klitschko in 2001. Sandra Behne/Bongarts/Getty

Wladimir — the 6'6", 240-lb. fighter dubbed "Dr. Steelhammer" by fans — enlisted in the reserve army two months ago after watching early moves by Putin.

Last week, amid the first days of the conflict, he made an appeal on Instagram for "the entire world to stop this war that Russia has started."

"Just today, civilians were shot by the rockets, with special operations, civilians getting killed. And it's happening in the heart of Europe," said Wladimir, 45. "There is no time to wait because that's going to lead to a humanitarian catastrophe. You need to act now to stop Russian aggression with anything you can have, now. In an hour, or tomorrow, is going to be too late. Please, get into action now. Don't wait. Act now. Stop this war."

On Feb. 28, he posted on Instagram in German and English, writing to a specific group of countries: "Dear friends in Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg, Liechtenstein, all other countries in free Europe: The citizens of Kyiv have had another hellish night. Four million people in my city have not slept."

Wladimir said the people in Kyiv were "going through hell" and that "we need your help now." He asked for donations to the National Bank of Ukraine so that the war "does not come knocking on your doors."

Vasiliy Lomachenko
Vasiliy Lomachenko. Yong Teck Lim/Getty

Three-weight champion Vasiliy Lomachenko was visiting a monastery in Greece when the war started. He immediately traveled to Bucharest, Romania, then drove for nine hours to take a ferry across a river into Ukraine. Manager Egis Klimas tells PEOPLE he's in the Odessa area now, several miles from the bombing.

"The Bilgorod-Dnistrovsky Battalion of Territorial Defense is formed and armed," the 34-year-old former champ and two-time Olympic gold medalist wrote in a recent Facebook photo next to a photo of himself in fatigues with a weapon slung over his shoulder.

Lomachenko — who is 5'7" and 134 lbs. — has boxed in the lightweight, featherweight and super featherweight classes, and is often regarded as pound-for-pound the best boxer in the world.

"I believe that peace in the world should prevail and love should prevail," Lomachenko said in an interview with "Appreciate each other, respect each other, love each other. If we all respect each other we will live in peace and the world will be a better place."

Maciej Luczniewski/NurPhoto via Getty

Lomachenko's childhood friend and heavyweight champion of the world, Oleksandr Usyk, was preparing to defend his title when he changed his plans and hunkered down in Kyiv. (Usyk stood to make several million dollars in the fight, and Lomachenko too left millions on the table by returning home, and Klimas tells PEOPLE, "This is a man that money cannot buy.")

Airports in Ukraine were closed, so Usyk had to fly from London — where he was working on a video game — to Poland and travel 500 miles by car to get to Kyiv.

Usyk made his choice to return home so he could "defend my home, my family. It's not that I went to fight somewhere at the frontline, I'm defending my home, I'm defending my wife, my children, my close ones," told CNN on Wednesday in an interview from his basement where he's sheltering with his parents, family and closest friends.

Usyk, 35, told CNN his group of adults and children had come under shelling but were safe at the moment.

"We're forcing ourselves to have fun," he added.

"My soul belongs to the Lord and my body and my honor belong to my country, to my family, so there is no fear, absolutely no fear," he told CNN. "There's just bafflement. How could this be in the 21st century?"

Naturally, Usyk has no clear idea of when he'll return to boxing, saying, "My country and my honor are more important to me than a championship belt."

Klimas, who's also Usyk's manager, says both of his boxers are "very, very disciplined, religious people, family people," and Usyk especially "knows what he wants."

He's hoping he doesn't have to use his weapon, but Klimas tells PEOPLE that some of the prisoners who were released from jail and given guns to defend the country are now robbing and looting, so the boxers are defending their homes and cities against multiple threats.

"If they will want to take my life or the lives of my close ones, I will have to do it," said Usyk. "But I don't want that. I don't want to shoot. I don't want to kill anybody. But if they will be killing me, I will have no choice."

Last week Usyk posted a video on Instagram in which he implored to the Russian soldiers not to fight. He also called out Putin. "You can stop this war. Please just sit down and negotiate it with us without claims. Our kids, wives, grannies are hiding in the basements… We are here in our own country, we cannot do it other way - we are defending… Stop it! Stop this war. NO WAR !!!"

Russian invasion of Ukraine
Chris McGrath/Getty

From the outskirts of Kyiv, Usyk has seen buildings bombed and people fleeing their houses. It's in his nature to help, Klimas says. He buys food, diapers, water and other supplies for families.

"He already gave probably half of his clothing to people," Klimas says, but there's no telling how many people he's helping. "In that situation, there's nobody counting," the manager says. Usyk and a friend even fixed a neighbor's roof that had been hit.

He has a "big heart, big heart," says Klimas.

The invasion has drawn condemnation around the world and increasingly severe economic sanctions against Russia.

In the world of athletics, many organizations, including the Paralympics and FIFA, have banned Russian athletes from competition. Other sporting organizations personally important to Putin have stripped him of previous honors: World Taekwondo withdrew Putin's honorary 9th Dan black belt, and the International Judo Federation has stripped him of his honorary title of president and ambassador.

With NATO forces massing in the region around Ukraine, peace talks have so far proven unsuccessful. And so the boxers continue their fight outside the ring.

Vitali Klitschko's resolve is strong. He said in a Mayoral broadcast on the day Putin's troops began their incursion: "I believe in Ukraine, I believe in my country and I believe in my people."

The Russian attack on Ukraine is an evolving story, with information changing quickly. Follow PEOPLE's complete coverage of the war here, including stories from citizens on the ground and ways to help.

Related Articles