Ukrainian Boxing Champ Becomes Key Kiev Protest Leader

In the days following Kiev demonstrations, Vitali Klitschko has emerged as the leader of government opposition

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Genya Savilov / AFP / Getty Images

World boxing champion and leader of the Ukrainian UDAR opposition party Vitali Klitschko stands in front of riot police during a rally of opposition supporters in front of the Ukrainian government headquarters in Kiev on Nov. 27, 2013.

A Ukrainian boxing champion, famous for his politics as he is for his punch, has emerged as a presidential contender and a central opposition leader in the wake of this week’s anti-government protests.

Vitali Klitschko, 42, has rallied protesters massing in the nation’s capital of Kiev since Sunday. The boxing champ, a member of the pro-Western party Udar (meaning Punch in English), is encouraging Ukrainians to continue peaceful protest to promote Western democracy and government reform, he said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Public backlash continues to persist since President Viktor Yanukovych backed away from signing a political and economic pact with the European Union. Yanukovych said he’s come under pressure by Russia over signing the treaty, and instead wanted to focus on strengthening relations with the nation’s ex-Soviet ruler.

Klitschko has been polling better than former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, who was jailed on charges that many critics deem politically motivated. Just hours before refusing to sign the EU pact, Yanukovych rejected legislation that would have freed Tymoshenko, who still remains behind bars.

“This is not a revolution. It is a peaceful protest that demands justice,” Klitschko told the AP. “They stole our hope.”

Klitschko had two failed runs for the mayor of Kiev and entered national politics last year. The boxer has score 45 victories in 47 matches in more than 15 years. He plans to fight one last time before turning in his gloves to focus on politics.