World Heavyweight boxing champion Wladimir Klitschko is defending his title this weekend — July 7, to be exact — against Tony Thompson. I spoke with the charming Ukrainian a few months back, and we discussed everything, from training to acting to Chris Cornell videos to the documentary “Klitschko,” which centers on his and his older brother Vitali’s rise in the boxing world. While "Klitschko" has been making quite an impression on festivalgoers since premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival last year, Wladimir is keeping his eye firmly on the boxing world, for now.
Celebrity Extra: On July 7, you'll be defending your Heavyweight title when you fight Tony Thompson. I know you’ve fought him before, but it’s been quite a few years. What kind of fight do you think he’ll give you?
Wladimir Klitschko: I always want to see certain qualities in my opponents, and I do respect always to my opponents. I think that Tony Thompson is not an easy guy to beat. He was pretty complicated for me in the first fight, even though I won the fight and knocked him out in the 11th, but it was not easy. He had some great wins after our fight. He was performing against much younger opponents and he usually beat them easily, and I think he is going to give me a good challenge, and I hope so, because I’m really looking forward to that challenge.
CE: How do you prepare yourself for a fight?
WK: It’s six to eight weeks of preparation, and it’s around between five and 15 sparring partners that are coming and going. The best are staying the worst are going. Usually I train, if the fighting is, for example, in the East Coast, in New York, then I train in Florida. If it’s on the West Coast, then it’s Los Angeles. If it’s in Europe, I train in the Austrian Alps. All places are great.
CE: You’ve come up against a lot of challenges in your professional career, and you seem quite adept at conquering them. What else would you like you conquer?
WK: Thank you for mentioning it, because I don’t know to think about it. There are always certain challenges that you have in your professional life – you get the challenge that eventually you're going to get in the ring and conquer your opponent, and especially when you perform on a big stage — like my latest five fights in a row were in soccer stadiums. When you have 45,000 to 60,000 people watching you, it’s kind of motivation to keep doing it, and especially when I see the kids like Alex Stout from San Francisco. He’s 14 years old, and he's from the Make a Wish Foundation. He was at my last fight carrying one of my belts. Unfortunately Alex is deadly sick and who knows how long he is going to make it, but I was so happy. First of all he wanted to meet me and for like two years it didn’t work. Somehow the travel schedule and nothing was working, and I ask him, “Do you want to meet me at the fight night? Don’t you want to carry one of my belts?” He was so excited, and his family, so they traveled from San Francisco to Düsseldorf (Germany), and they spent the time in Düsseldorf, and they were at the fight.
To see the happiness on his face and excitement — I hope that this is something that keeps him going for a very, very long time. That makes me really happy, and that’s actually one of my motivations to stay focused and be in the business where I am, which is really tough, but it’s real enjoyable. As a matter of fact, to be heavyweight champion of the world is something that you have to carry with a responsibility. Not that I really think of it every day — I’m not — but I realize it when I talk to the people like the Stout family or to Alex, and kids like Alex, so it’s something that makes me excited.
CE: Before watching your documentary, "Klitschko" — which I loved, by the way — I didn’t know a lot about boxing. I didn’t know that there was more than one heavyweight belt to win. For me, boxing is hard enough to watch, and then, in the doc, you guys hit your opponents, and it’s in slow motion, making it look even worse for squeamish people like me …
WK: I’m glad you did like it and really happy to hear you make that comment. I tell you something — people like you who are not looking at the screen while they're watching the documentary for those cuts that my brother had over his eye and for other scenes from fights, but eventually you’re the ones going to the fight, and when you're at the ringside, you are jumping on the chairs and cheering and screaming: “Beat him up! Kill him!” It’s funny because suddenly the wildness comes out of your character.
CE: How were you approached about even doing this documentary?
WK: I hate to tell you that at first, my brother and I didn’t really want to do it. We had been asked from a couple of directors to try to shoot the documentary, but eventually Sebastian Dehnhardt — that’s the guy who did it — approached us and he said: “Guys, there are so many fans out there and they want to have answers. They would like to take a look behind the curtain and see more sport and see more of you and understand more of the sport and you. I think it would be a great gesture to the fans.” Then we were like, “OK, let’s try it.”
We shot it for two or three years in different situations. The footage he found somewhere that I haven’t seen — like Vitali arriving Florida at the end of the ’80s, I guess with the Soviet team kickboxing and stuff — that stuff was great. You see my brother when he’s 18 years old wearing a baseball cap and kind of looking funny and skinny. We were laughing real hard when we saw that. So, there was certain footage that came out, like our meeting with Don King that was found on YouTube. I had never seen that footage, so when I saw that, it was kind of interesting.
With the documentary, it is really to take a look behind the curtains of boxing and of the Klitschko brothers. The film kind of has its own life. My one critique to Sebastian was: "This film is way too honest and way too open and way too straight up front.” He said, “Do you want to change anything?” I said, “No, no, no. I don’t want to change anything, it is what it is, but this film is really, really honest.”
He convinced us to put our parents in this film. They were never ever in the public eye and never gave interviews to the camera, but we convinced them. But it was the first — and eventually last — interview, since my father passed away last year before the film was released. But I think the job that Sebastian did was to make this film as open and as honest as actually it is. I think he’s done good.
CE: What has been the reaction of people who’ve seen the movie?
WK: When you observe the public while they are watching the film, some of them laugh, some of them cry; there are emotionally involved. The best thing I saw at the Tribeca Film Festival was during the screening, no one stood up to take a phone call or to go to restroom.
Actually, I do remember one time (laughs) I remember someone did leave the theater for the restroom or something, and it was actually my sister-in-law, Natalie, Vitali’s wife. I went, “Natalie, how can you do this? You can’t stand up and leave. You’re giving a bad example.” But that’s when I realized how emotional I was while watching it.
CE: You and your brother have literally and figuratively fought your way to the top for all the success you have. Could you ever have imagined as kids that you’d be where you are today?
WK: Never ever I would have thought of being a fighter and boxer. If my brother wouldn’t have been involved in the sport, I would have never have done this. I did it mainly so I could try to be better than him. It’s a competition that we always have in different fields of life, but it’s a healthy competition. We love each other but when we compete against each other, it’s getting really, really, really, really deep in emotions, which is inspiring. I’m actually thankful to this sport because people sometimes asking, “How can you do it; you’re getting beat up? What kind of job is that? It’s hard.” I said, “Yes, I’m beating up people for a living, but I am the one doing the beating up — it’s not the other way around.”
I got an education that you cannot get at Columbia or Harvard or somewhere else through the sport. You have to travel a lot and you learn different languages, and you’re getting different mentalities, and you live in the society of the country where you are spending your time. Eventually you’re getting a certain sense for business. I don’t have a promoter or a manager, but I do with my company. You have a chance to meet certain people such as President Bill Clinton or Dalai Lama. I think that’s such education that I probably wouldn’t get in any university in this world, and I’m thankful to this chance that my brother got involved in the sport, and eventually it is why I got involved. We weren’t thinking of any great success. Yes, we were concentrating on trying to be the best, and we eventually realized that this professional sport is actually a business. You learn while you are doing things and you realize there are more doors to be opened.
CE: I saw you were in the Chris Cornell video for "Part of Me" in 2008. How did that opportunity come about?
WK: I was at Madonna’s concert in Berlin. I was in the lounge and there were some of the guys that dance with Timberland, and somehow he was telling about me this new project with Timberland and Chris Cornell with a new album. Somehow we just met each other and he asked me to do it, and I thought, "Why not?" It wasn’t a big deal. It was like maybe an hour.
By the way, Chris was really struggling with the fact his fans want to hear rock, not this mix of R-and-B and stuff, but I really like it. I really like the album because it’s a little bit different.
CE: I know you were in Ocean’s Eleven, you’ve been in other Hollywood projects … do you want to be in the movies? Do you want to be an action hero, a leading man? What kind of Hollywood commodity would you like to be, if you had your choice?
WK: While I am asked often about being in movies — usually it’s a Russian mob character — it’s always the same thing. I did play myself in ‘Ocean’s Eleven,’ and I did two German comedies. But right now, I’m playing the role called the Heavyweight Champion of the World, and it takes all of my time. I really like to play it, and I have to stay focused. So there’s no nonsense with any wannabe Hollywood stuff. If I lose my focus, then I’m going to lose the titles, and I don’t want to do that.