Since Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov announced yesterday he would run against Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in the March election, the focus has been not on Prokhorov’s presidential qualifications, but on his likability in the world of sports.

View Photo Gallery: The Russian billionaire and owner of the New Jersey Nets announced he will run against Russian Prime Minister Vladi­mir Putin in March 2012.

“Nobody was interested in me before I bought the Nets,” Prokhorov told the New York Times last year, referring to his 2010 purchase of the New Jersey NBA team.  But since the purchase, American sports fans have taken a real liking to him.

Videos of Prokhorov on YouTube display a man who at times is charming (playing in a charity basketball game), tough-talking (taking on one of the Kremlin’s top idealogues), and macho (doing jet-ski stunts).

The videos aren’t all that different than those that exist of current prime minister Vladi­mir Putin, whose public image as macho man is legend.

(So legendary, in fact, that whole photo galleries have been created showing Putin shooting an enormous gun, riding a horse bare-chested and building his own fire.)

But could the Prokhorov, a 6-foot-8-inch bachelor billionaire nicknamed “giraffe” for his height, emerge as the better-liked candidate of the two?

The Times describes the tycoon as “flamboyant” and “colorful.” His popularity among Nets fans has become so widespread it’s been dubbed “the Prokhorov Effect.” When he talked to U.S. journalists at a New York press conference for his new ownership of the American basketball team, he said “America, I come in peace.”

And he was as equally earnest yesterday when he announced his presidential run, saying “I’ve made probably the most serious decision of my life: I’m running for president. ... I want to be the candidate of the middle class.”

But while the perception of Prokhorov stateside is rosy, many Russians are suspicious of the tycoon, fearing he could be a Kremlin stooge. The billionaire has already been criticized for failing to appear at the first major round of protests in Moscow against what appear to be fraudulent elections. And the Global Post reports that while state TV channels ignored Saturday’s giant protest, they reported Prokhorov’s announcement as leading news.

Prokhorov, however, insists he truly wants change. “I am perfectly aware that some ideas are certain not to win a majority,” he said Monday, ”but I think it is my civic duty to deliver information about what is going on in the world.”

In the following video, Prokhorov expresses a similar earnestness after a charity basketball match, saying after the game: “What makes a person different from an animal? The fact that (a person) can be involved in events like this.”

In this video, Prokhorov comes out swinging, calling a top ideologue Kremlin idealogue a “puppeteer,” and accusing him of stifling political debate:

Here, Prokhorov nearly outdoes Putin’s macho act, as he performs spectacular jet-ski stunts:

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