Klitschko Brothers


directed by Sebastian Dehnhardt

Vitali Klitschko and his younger brother Wladimir are the first siblings to hold world champion boxing titles at the same time. Each around six foot six inches tall, nearly identical in looks and build, they are a fearsome, intimidating duo. Their detractors call them “robots,” but, as Sebastian Dehnhardt’s fine documentary Klitschko demonstrates, they are anything but. 

Although their life stories don’t have the heart-warming underdog aspects of a “Rocky” movie, the Ukrainian Klitschkos didn’t exactly have it easy growing up. Their father, a military officer and a Communist, was a first responder to the Chernobyl disaster and eventually contracted cancer, although he survived. The family lived at the time in a two-room shack not far from the nuclear meltdown. In the movie, the boys revisit the house, now rotting and empty. Wladimir describes how he played with paper boats in radioactive puddles. 

Both boys had an avid early interest in boxing but Wladimir says Vitali was born a fighter while he had to become one. They worshipped western athletes and martial artists although such idolatry was off limits in Russia. Vitali eventually became kickbox champion of the Soviet Union. Traveling with his team, he visited the United States for the first time. He describes the experience as like landing on the moon. “I went to a supermarket,” he remembers, “and there were a hundred kinds of cheese. I only knew of one kind of cheese – it was called ‘cheese.’ ” Rising in the heavyweight ranks, the brothers attracted the attention of Don King, the notorious boxing promoter whose handling of such fighters as Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson was often accompanied by scandal and controversy. Wladimir recounts the meeting he and Vitali had with King, in King’s palatial compound. Attempting to impress the boxers as a cultivated man, the promoter sat down at his piano to play a classical sonata. Very impressive – except the boys noticed that the piano was actually a player piano. The brothers didn’t sign with King. “He was a dishonest man,” says Wladimir, smiling. 

Vitali supervised his younger brother’s boxing career for many years. “My parents told me to look after Wladimir when we were young,” he says. “They’ve never told me to stop.” But after some severe setbacks in the ring, Wladimir replaced Vitali’s team with his own and forbade his brother from visiting his training camp. He turned his career around. No one was happier than Vitali, who always cheers his brother on from the sidelines, and vice versa. Vitali explains that when a boxer fights either brother, it’s as if he is fighting “both of us.” 

Vitali had his own setbacks. It’s difficult to watch footage from his championship fight with Lennox Lewis, where the cut above Vitali’s eye went so deep that blood gushed and the fight had to be stopped. For a time Vitali stayed out of boxing, going into politics. But he too, like his brother, staged a successful comeback. 

The obvious question, of course, is: Will the brothers ever fight each other and unify the various heavyweight titles in a single belt? Vanessa and Serena Williams, top tennis stars, regularly play each other. Boxing is different, though. Competition is one thing; inflicting violence is another. In any case, the brothers’ smiley mother, Nadeshda, who is interviewed frequently throughout the film, makes it clear that early on she extracted an unbreakable promise from her boys never to box each other. The only fighting they do is on the chessboard. 

At one point in the film, an ex-boxer wonders why the Klitschkos went into boxing at all. Boxing has traditionally been a way for poor, uneducated kids to work their way out of crime and poverty. But the brothers are highly educated and speak four languages. (They speak German to the film’s German director and live part time in Germany). They seem to have taken up boxing because, given their physiques and their temperament, they had no other choice. For them, boxing is a form of self-vindication, a way of continually proving themselves. If Vitali and Wladimir are indeed “robots,” they are the most advanced models.

—Peter Rainer