His career as a world champion heavyweight boxer ended three months ago. Millions of people around the world were caught by surprise, but Wladimir Klitschko knew that a rematch against heavyweight world champion Anthony Joshua was not an answer to a much bigger question: what is next.

It’s Tuesday morning, just before noon. I am attending Web Summit 2017, the biggest technological conference in the world that is held in Lisbon. As Wladimir Klitschko and his team were preparing for his talk I am fortunate enough to sit in the front row and listen. If you told me I was going to be speaking personally to Wladimir about his retirement from professional boxing, I would have called you a fool! There are numerous interviews out there covering Wladimir Klitschko’s life and achievements, but not that many on his transition from a boxer to a business leader.

SCIENTIST IN THE RING

To paint you a picture, before we dive into this. Wladimir apart from speaking his native language Ukrainian speaks Russian, German and English. His brother Vitali became the first professional boxing world champion to receive a PhD degree in Sports Science. In 2001, Wladimir completed his own PhD degree in Sports Science also from Kiev University. In his own words from one of the interviews, Klitschko says “The doctor degree means as much to me as my winning of the world title against Herbie Hide.” To give a bit of information about what kind of person Wladimir is. Back to the stage in Lisbon. Wladimir introduces himself at the stage and when James Dart, the Guardian’s sports editor asks about his business side of things Wladimir states full of energy.“Well, it’s something that is full of challenges. And I do love challenges. I do not have problems in my life, I have challenges. And I wish to you guys, you would have the same. As soon as you think about a problem, you are frozen. If you think about it as a challenge, it’s kind of a game, a puzzle, to figure out how you can achieve something and how to put a goal in your life.”

“I do not have problems in my life, I have challenges.”

Wladimir spent almost 30 years as an athlete and he experienced many things, so he decided to make something out of it. “I am not going to stop on what I have so far done, I will continue, thanks to my background in sport.” Wladimir refers to his multiple companies and organizations which he has built around his name like for example Klitschko Ventures, as a hub for Business Developments, the 11Mirrors Hotel, Klitschko Foundation or the study program CAS Change & Innovation Management at the University of St. Gallen. When asked at what point he started to think beyond the sport he responded, “It’s not about business, it’s about accomplishing some goals.” He opened a hotel called 11Mirrors in Kyev, Ukraine, the very first designer boutique hotel in former Soviet Union. The hotel is very well recognized with the multiple awards on Trip Advisor and he said that people would judge him on this decision to build a hotel since he is not considered as an expert in hotel industry.“Well, I am an expert, as a boxer, I had to spend a lot of nights in different hotels around the world. So I had a dream to put my expertise as a traveler into one hotel where everything is in the place.” says Klitschko. I think this has a point.

“Well, I am an expert, as a boxer, I had to spend a lot of nights in different hotels around the world. So I had a dream to put my expertise as a traveler into one hotel where everything is in the place.”

PREPARATION IS EVERYTHING

He also sees a parallel between an athlete and entrepreneur and executive. “Athletes have quality ACDC, not the band but ACDC as for A – agility, C- concentration, D -for durability, and C – for coordination, those topics are very important in sport and in business life. If you don’t have them as an athlete you will be KO, in business as well.” I caught myself nodding my head in agreement. But Klitschko continues by talking about his beginnings. He started when he was 14, and he was a boxing prodigy, but if he wouldn’t have do something else beyond boxing by educating himself in different areas, he still would have a body of a 41 year old, but his mind would be still 14. “This is the issue with the most of the athletes. They are very professional with what they are doing, in their physical ability but there is something that has been missing. The time that I have invested in education was crucial and important. And there are plenty of examples of athletes that achieved a lot beyond their sport.” By this point, I am probably the biggest fan of Wladimir Klitschko in the audience and I decided to attend the “Q and A” and ask him a question myself.

What really surprised me about Klitschko is his interest in technology, innovation and the future skills for humans. “Obviously digitalization is the key for everything these days. If you do not digitalize yourself, you are going to be knocked out by your competitors. Digitalization is the key to prevent diseases, prevent terrorism, and prevent discommunication.” I am sitting and thinking to myself that this could not be true what am I seeing. An Olympic gold medalist is talking about a digitalization and its effects on society. I thought I was dreaming. During the talk, he also addresses the most crucial advice for athletes who want to end their sports career and move on to something else. “It’s very important to prepare for bad times when times are good, because bad times will always come up. In addition, the sport times are not endless, there has to be a time when you stop with your sports career. What am I going to do next? Many people change their job regardless they have been athletes or not. Open up your mind now, because when the time comes, and you still ask yourself, what‘s next? At that point, you have already lost because you were not thinking and asking these questions five years ago. So it’s very important to prepare yourself for the next step. And if you don’t, chances are pretty big that you are going to be knocked out by your competitors in and outside the ring. Therefore, like in sports, if you want to perform well, you have to train and prepare yourself, for the challenges. From one career to another.”

“It’s very important to prepare for bad times when times are good, because bad times will always come up. In addition, the sport times are not endless, there has to be a time when you stop with your sports career. What am I going to do next?”

VISIONARY LEADER

The next day I am waiting for the Klitschko’s manager to discuss this topic personally, since I attended the Q and A and they liked my questions. When I join Klitschko’s manager into “forum” the area for all the speakers of Websummit, I still cannot believe that I will get a chance to ask the questions myself. So here, I am the very next day after his speech, sitting in front of Wladimir myself, trying to hold it together. Wladimir is amazingly warm and humble person, and now sitting next to him, I could see how he holds the record for the longest combined world championship reign in boxing history with the combination of natural authority and the prime example of masculinity. When I asked about how does he feel about himself now? Wladimir goes: “I honestly don’t know how to call myself. Entrepreneur? Yeah. Philanthropist? Yeah. Scientist? Yeah. Professor? Yeah.” How could someone be that many things and stayed focused? But it was not all easy to do. Just to let the biggest passion go. “It was the most difficult decision in my life to pull the plug out and say I will switch careers, step out from the hamster wheel and just choosing another battlefield. I did it, and I’m happy about it. I did not know about whether it was going to be the right decision but you will never know about it until you experience it. So now I am experiencing it for the last three months and the more time passes the more I am convinced that it was the right decision.” It is very important to mention that it was his decision to end his careers and not someone else’s.

It was only three months ago that he retired, but as he puts it” It was under my terms, and not the terms of my health, destiny, other people, other circumstances, it was my terms, so I am happy about it. I also retired with three fundamental stones. Health, capital and my brand.” I found this crucial. Many athletes have to retire against their choice, without money, and left all by themselves. “It’s very complex. They need to plan. They need to think of the consequences of not being able to perform. Bad times are always around the corner. Also, its complex because it really depends on what organization you are working at, for example, if you are NFL player, you have a pension, your education could be financed, so there is a certain security. In boxing, this does not exist. You are investing your time, you are achieving goals, small or big, and then when you cannot perform anymore, you have nothing. This is the case for many athletes. The organizations need to take care of fans and athletes. They are the core of the sport. Not officials nor the sanctuaries.” I asked about what he would do if he was not a boxer. He said he would be a military man. “Or actually I had three choices. A military man, a doctor of medicine or an athlete. I wanted to go to medical school and I applied, and they said that I can start with them as a nurse. I really wanted to be Otolaryngologist (doctor responsible for ears, nose, and throat) but they said I really have to be a nurse for three years and then I can switch. So I said no and went to the sports school.

“It’s very complex. They need to plan. They need to think of the consequences of not being able to perform. Bad times are always around the corner.”

Wladimir is not just a boxer, but also an hotelier, a consultant, a university lecturer, a businessman and many more. When asked how he is doing now after his career is over, he seems overly achieved. “Right now am I’m perfectly happy where I am.” Honestly speaking I wish to myself I will never come back.” I wish that for him as well.

Extra notes:

1. Did you know that many great minds were boxing? Plato, Nelson Mandela, Carlos Slim,
Jack London, Pythagoras… the sport does something has to do with intelligence 🙂

2. Wladimir’s book could be bought on Amazon. In 256 pages, he presents his 12 paths of
Challenge Management that is now his intellectual property. So far, only a German
language is available and English will follow earlier next year.

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