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Correction: Ukraine-Boxing Politician story

Thursday - 12/5/2013, 4:20pm  ET

KIEV, Ukraine (AP) -- In a Dec. 4 story about Ukrainian opposition leader Vitali Klitschko, The Associated Press erroneously reported that Klitschko's wife, Natalia, was beside him when he tried to stop several hundred radical protesters from storming the president's office during a huge protest in Kiev on Sunday. At the time of the standoff, Natalia was taking part in the peaceful part of the demonstration at Independence Square about a half-mile away from the site of the clashes.

A corrected version of the story is below:

Boxing champ turns opposition leader in Ukraine

World boxing champion Klitschko leads Ukraine's protests, hopes to become its next president

By MARIA DANILOVA

Associated Press

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.

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."

Vitali Klitschko has three children with his wife, Natalia, a former model who recently started a singing career.

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.

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