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Boxers bring hope to Ukraine struggle

It’s not often that we see an athlete at the top of their game walk away from a multi-million dollar payday to go home and fight for their country. However, that is exactly what world heavyweight boxing champion Oleksandr Usyk did after Russia invaded Ukraine last month.

Usky postponed his championship rematch with Britain’s Anthony Joshua, returned to war-torn Ukraine and enlisted in the homeland defense force. And he’s not alone.

Fellow boxing champs Vasiliy Lomachenko and brothers Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko did the same.

“They are products of Ukraine’s world-renowned national boxing system which has trained some of the world’s most technically dazzling fighters of this generation,” NBC’s Matthew Symington reported.

Lomachenko is a three-weight world champion. Many experts regard him as the best pound-for-pound boxer in the world. He traveled from Greece to his home city, Bilhorod-Dnistrovskyi, in southwest Ukraine, to join the resistance.

Asked by CNN why he signed up, Usyk bluntly stated: “What do you mean, ‘why?’ It is my duty to fight, to defend my home, my family.”

With thousands of deeply patriotic Ukrainians fighting, why do star athletes make headline news?

“Athletes can cross partisan lines,” Charles Baker, a professor at the London School of Economic and Political Science, told NBC News. “People are more likely to pay attention to a sporting figure than they would a politician.”

Russians are sympathetic to the Ukrainian boxer and have cheered him on in the past, Baker added. “That’s a really important thing in this conflict.”

Baker found that athletes on social media talk about their lives and families, which helps them become human in the eyes of their followers. Ukrainian sports reporter Igor Nitsak added that it is inspiring to see famous people ready to protect their homeland with weapons in their hands.

That notoriety attracted worldwide attention, military and humanitarian support, and recruits.

While 1.5 million Ukrainians – mostly women, children and the elderly – are leaving their homes and belongings to escape the indiscriminate Russian bombardment, thousands of volunteers are heading into Ukraine to fight.

The same rush to serve occurred in the United States following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, when thousands of Americans enlisted in our armed forces.

Arizona pro football safety Pat Tillman was one of those who enlisted after 9/11. He turned down a three-year, multi-million-dollar deal with the Cardinals and joined the U.S. Army with his brother Kevin, a minor-league baseball player.

The Tillman brothers were assigned to the 75th Ranger Regiment at Fort Lewis, Washington, and did tours in Iraq in 2003, followed by Afghanistan in 2004. Pat was killed by friendly fire in a rugged area of eastern Afghanistan on April 22, 2004.

During World War II, more than 500 major league baseball players served our country. Legendary players like Yankee catcher Yogi Berra, Detroit slugger Hank Greenberg and Hall of Fame pitchers Warren Spahn (Boston and Milwaukee) and Bob Feller (Cleveland) all served in combat.

Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams put his career on hold twice for a total of five years to fly for the Marine Corps during World War II and the Korean conflict. He flew 39 combat missions in Korea. Williams was two-time, “Triple Crown” winner (highest batting average, and most home runs and runs-batted in a single season).

NBC Boston’s Justin Leger once wrote that Williams would not only be remembered as one of the greatest athletes in Boston sports history but also as a wartime hero: “The Red Sox legend was a 19-time All-Star, two-time MVP, and six-time batting champion. Those accomplishments paled in comparison to his service off the field.”

What Oleksandr Usyk and his fellow Ukrainian boxers have done in the last two weeks, also pales in comparison to their boxing accomplishments. They are putting their lives on the line with thousands of other Ukrainians.

Patriotism is alive and well in Ukraine.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.