KIEV, Ukraine (AP) — Towering over his fellow protest leaders, Vitali Klitschko, the reigning world heavyweight boxing champion, has emerged as Ukraine's most popular opposition figure and has ambitions to become its next president.
Thanks to his sports-hero status and reputation as a pro-Western politician untainted by Ukraine's frequent corruption scandals, the 6-foot 7-inch Klitschko has surpassed jailed former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in opinion polls.
As massive anti-government protests continue to grip Ukraine, the 42-year-old boxer-turned-politician is urging his countrymen to continue their fight to turn this ex-Soviet republic into a genuine Western democracy.
"This is not a revolution. It is a peaceful protest that demands justice," Klitschko told The Associated Press in an interview Wednesday. "The people are not defending political interests. They are defending the idea of living in a civilized country."
Dubbed Dr. Ironfist for his prowess in the boxing ring, Klitschko has scored 45 victories in 47 fights, 41 of them with knockouts. He has successfully defended his title 11 times, most recently in September 2012, and plans to have one more bout before he retires. He still spends several hours a day training.
Now Klitschko must prove that he has as much stamina in the political arena.
Despite earning a doctorate in sports science, Klitschko has had to fight a stereotype of being intellectually unfit to run this economically troubled nation of 46 million.
Having been raised — like many Ukrainians — in a Russian-speaking family, Klitschko only recently learned Ukrainian and sometimes struggles to find the right word. Still, he appeals to many Ukrainians with his air of sincerity and his image as a handsome tough guy ready to defend his compatriots.
"He is a national hero and comes across as being decent," said Andreas Umland, assistant professor of European studies at the Kyiv Mohyla Academy.
Klitschko was one of only a few opposition politicians who tried to stop several hundred radical protesters from storming President Viktor Yanukovych's office during a demonstration Sunday that drew hundreds of thousands to the streets of the capital, Kiev.
As the boxer called for peace, the jubilant crowd chanted his name. Beside him stood his wife, Natalia, an attractive brunette and former model who recently launched a singing career. The couple has three children.
The angry protests were sparked by the president's abrupt decision last month to ditch a political and economic treaty with the 28-nation European Union in favor of closer economic ties with Russia, which had threatened Ukraine with trade consequences if the country signed the EU deal.
On Wednesday, his party joined two other opposition parties in blockading the Ukrainian parliament as part of a nationwide strike.
The demonstrations in Kiev were galvanized when Yanukovych's government sent in riot police with truncheons to break up a small, peaceful rally in the middle of the night, injuring dozens.
"They took away people's hope to implement reforms, to change the situation in the country," Klitschko told the AP, speaking inside the parliament building. "They stole our hope."
Klitschko made his first foray into politics during the country's 2004 Orange Revolution, the mass protests that led to the annulment of Yanukovych's fraud-tainted presidential win and ushered in a pro-Western government. Fresh from a victory in the ring in the United States, Klitschko flew to Kiev and appeared in the heart of those protests wearing an orange scarf, the symbol of the revolution.
Next to him stood his brother, Wladimir Klitschko, now 37, another heavyweight world boxing champion who is engaged to the American actress Hayden Panettiere, star of the TV series "Nashville."
After two failed attempts to be elected mayor of Kiev, Klitschko entered national politics last year when his pro-Western Udar party — Punch in English — finished a strong third in the parliamentary election, running on a reform and anti-corruption platform. He was able to capitalize on popular anger with Yanukovych, who quickly undid many of the democratic victories of the Orange Revolution, and with voters' disillusionment with the Orange leaders, now in opposition, including Tymoshenko.
A year before the 2012 election, Tymoshenko was jailed for abuse of office, charges the West considers politically motivated. Klitschko has joined other opposition leaders in campaigning for the release of Tymoshenko, long Yanukovych's biggest political rival.
Klitschko was born in 1971 in Kyrgyzstan, then part of the Soviet Union, to a school teacher mother and a father whose job as an army pilot took the family to remote military bases across the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.
He embraced Western values while training in Germany and the United States for matches, he says, and wants to bring that mindset home to Ukraine.
"Those people who are in politics (now) do not make it their goal to change the country," Klitschko said. "They are simply plundering the country."
Unlike many Ukrainian politicians — including Tymoshenko — who are accused of making their fortunes in shady business deals in the tumultuous post-Soviet era, Klitschko's millions come from a transparent source — the boxing ring.
An opinion poll in September predicted he would get 15.5 percent of the vote in the first round of a presidential election, compared to Tymoshenko's 13.2 percent. Yanukovych would get 19 percent, but he would lose to Klitschko in a run-off, according to the Razumkov Center survey of 2,010 respondents. It had a margin of error of two percentage points.
Klitschko's political star has only risen since then.
In October, he announced he would run for the presidency in early 2015, even though parliament, dominated by Yanukovych's allies, passed a law that sought to bar Klitschko from running on the grounds that he spent several years in Germany and paid taxes there.
Klitschko was appalled, calling Ukrainian politics a dirty business, unlike anything he has seen in boxing.
"It's impossible to compare them because in boxing there are rules. In Ukrainian politics, the rules are absent," Klitschko said.
Klitschko has kept his two careers separate — never joining other Ukrainian lawmakers in the frequent brawls that have marred parliament.
"Physical force plays no role in politics. The power of thought is much stronger," Klitschko said.
How good are Ukrainian lawmakers at throwing punches, anyway?
"If you judge this from the standpoint of (my) profession, they don't have any talent," he said.
Follow Maria Danilova on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/mashadanilova