It's not often that two countries with a common, troubled history get a chance to slug it out one-on-one. Late on Oct. 5, Russia and Ukraine did. Ukrainian heavyweight boxing champion Wladimir Klitschko met Russian contender Alexander Povetkin in the most heralded title fight of the year.
Animosity between Russia and Ukraine runs deep. Lately, it has been expressed in a battle over Ukraine's plans to seek a free-trade deal with the European Union -- a move that would weaken a separate customs union championed by Russian President Vladimir Putin. Ukrainian support for the EU deal has persisted despite Russia's efforts to undermine the country's ties with Europe, prompting angry outbursts from Putin and other Russian politicians.
The acrimony turned the title fight into a settling of geopolitical scores. It helped that Klitschko's older brother Vitali, also a boxing champion, is one of Ukraine's most prominent pro-Europe politicians. Povetkin, for his part, is known as a Putin loyalist, having served a term as a local legislator for Putin's United Russia party in his native Kursk region.
Russian promoters turned the event -- the first of its caliber in Moscow -- into an ostentatious display of wealth, selling ringside seats for $5,000 and offering Klitschko $17 million and Povetkin $6 million regardless of the outcome. One of the promoters, Andrei Ryabinsky, wrote on Twitter that scalpers were offering tickets to the fight for as much as $20,000.
One had only to watch the pre-fight ceremony to see what was at stake. Povetkin sported the emblem of Russian state-owned oil company Rosneft on his black robe. Rosneft's chief executive officer, close Putin ally Igor Sechin, watched him march toward the ring to a live performance of a song invoking the ancient Slav god Svarog. Singer-songwriter Nikolai Yemelin, Povetkin's favorite artist, clad in chain mail for the occasion, intoned: "We have had to fight many wars, so we mixed blood into our land to live free!" Povetkin's nickname, Russky Vityaz, or Russian Warrior, was embroidered in gold across the band of his shorts.
Klitschko, known as Dr. Steelhammer, was clad in a red robe with the logo of Interpipe, the metals company of Ukrainian billionaire Victor Pinchuk. He walked out to "Can't Stop" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers: "Can't stop, addicted to the shindig, chop top, he says I'm gonna win big." After Povetkin's grand entrance, Klitschko's appeared sarcastic and deliberately Westernized.
Then came the national anthems. Jazz singer Jamala belted out the hope-filled Ukrainian song a capella. Iosif Kobzon, a veteran crooner and pro-Putin parliament deputy, delivered a solemn rendition of the Russian one, a pompous, brassy Soviet-era number with new lyrics written during Putin's reign.
"I'm watching a fight for the first time but I cannot root for poor taste, I'm sorry," Ksenia Sobchak, a Russian opposition activist, wrote on Twitter. "Kobzon, the gold and the hellish music -- that's too much for me as a newbie."
The subsequent fight could hardly bear the weight of all the symbolism. Klitschko, almost four inches taller than his opponent and in strikingly better shape, dominated from the first moment. His gaze cold and calculating, he kept Povetkin at bay with his trademark left jab. By the seventh round the Russian's face was a puffy, discolored mass. As Klitschko danced away on the long, perfect legs of a Greek Olympian or arrogantly leaned on his rival, Povetkin huffed and puffed, struggling to get in a heavy punch and maybe get lucky.
In the seventh round, Klitschko knocked Povetkin down again and again, raining punches on his head. The stubborn Russian was reeling but would not give up. From the eighth round on, Klitschko appeared to be showing respect for the pretender's fighting spirit, and for the capacity crowd at Moscow's Olimpiisky arena. The Ukrainian champion was content to parry Povetkin's chaotic attacks, still getting in that biting jab from time to time. In the final tally, Klitschko landed 139 punches on Povetkin's head to the Russian Warrior's 31. The Ukrainian was declared winner by unanimous decision.
Klitschko, looking as if he had hardly broken a sweat, tried to be gracious after his successful title defense was confirmed. "Alexander boxed to the last like a warrior, and I thank him for that," he said into a microphone. "This is sports, and the stronger man wins." Boos and whistles drowned out his words: To many in the audience, it had been much more than sports.
Recriminations started immediately afterward. Nikolai Valuev, a former heavyweight champion turned pro-Putin parliament deputy, accused Klitschko of fighting dirty. Prominent Russian Orthodox clergyman Dimitri Pershin said Povetkin had lost because he had betrayed Christianity by showing too much interest in the ancient pagan gods of the Slavs. "Instead of tattooing runes on his body, he should have trained," the Interfax news service quoted Pershin as saying.
Some Russians were disheartened by the contrast between the pre-fight nationalist display and the fight itself. "Such a dense concentration of nationalism is advisable only when you're fully confident of a victory," former privatization minister Alfred Kokh wrote on Facebook.
Many Ukrainians could not resist gloating at the Russian fighter's powerlessness to stop their idol. Jokes filled social networks, with Ukrainians calling Povetkin "Chicken Kiev" and "Alexander the Hugger."
Perhaps Povetkin, who came unbeaten to the fight with Klitschko, could have acquitted himself better had it not been for the incredible political build-up. "What Alexander did in the ring was caused by extreme psychological pressure," respected boxing commentator Vladimir Gendlin told TV Rain. "The impossible was demanded of him."
Putin, an accomplished wrestler and mixed fighting fan, must have known that Povetkin was outmatched. Organizers expected him to come to the fight, but he didn't show. "Putin has good advisers," television journalist Mikhail Degtyar wrote on Facebook. "They must have understood in the Kremlin who would win."