Vitali Klitschko on Why Boxing Is Moving East

Heavyweight boxing has been dominated for decades by the great American fighters—athletes with names like Joe (Louis) and George (Foreman) and, of course, my idol, Muhammad Ali. But like all sports, boxing changes. In 1999 I defeated the Englishman Herbie Hide in a second-round knockout to win the WBO championship, becoming the first fighter from an East European country (Ukraine) to win a title. Since then, America's hold over the heavyweight title has withered, and the new champions have been people like Nikolay Valuev and Oleg Maskaev from Russia; Sergei Liakhovich from Belarus; and the undefeated Ruslan Chagaev from Uzbekistan. In fact, though there are still strong American fighters, Americans have held only five titles since 2004, compared with the 11 held by athletes from the former Soviet Union. It is hardly surprising that the June 20 title fight featured not an American, but Chagaev, against my younger brother, Wladimir, defender of the IBF, WBO and IBO titles.

Part of the reason for the decline in the number of U.S. champions is that boxing has become less popular there. Matches are often only on pay-per-view, creating fewer opportunities for young athletes to watch. Potential American heavyweights now see greater opportunity in sports like football. Meantime, professional boxing has taken off in Russian-speaking countries, where there is a unique amateur program that begins training in schools and where fighters have maintained the extremely high level of technical expertise that Soviet trainers brought to the sport in the '70s and '80s. Unlike the American technique—which tends to go for the close-up, with uppercuts and body blows—Soviet trainers taught athletes to be more mobile and to specialize in long-distance fighting, jabs and straights. Soviet trainers also taught a more strategic, defense-oriented version of the sport than their American counterparts, focusing on analyzing the opponent and wearing him down.

I have a doctorate in sports psychology, so I know that boxing is about more than physical strength. You need to be able to foresee your opponent's strategy several moves ahead and prepare for it. Like a chess player, you need to study your opponent's game in advance, watch his matches and see his strengths and weaknesses to figure out where he's likely to attack and how he will behave when attacked himself. Those traditions survived the end of the Soviet Union and continue today; you can clearly see the specific techniques of legendary Soviet trainers in the fights of their pupils—which means, for now, anyway, the age of Joe and George may have been replaced by the age of Wladimir and Vitali.