WBC heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko announced his retirement in a press release Wednesday.
The 34-year-old Klitschko's announcement came on the heels of the postponement last week of his scheduled title defense against WBC interim titlist Hasim Rahman, which was scheduled for Saturday in Las Vegas.
It was the fourth time Klitschko had pulled out of his fight with Rahman, 41-5-1, with 33 knockouts. Klitschko reportedly injured his right knee last week while sparring for the bout.
Klitschko, who retired with a record of 35-2, with 34 KOs, underwent surgery Tuesday in Southern California. Dr. Neal Elattrache, who performed the 90-minute operation, said he repaired a ruptured and torn anterior cruciate ligament and damage to the medial meniscus in the knee.
Don King, Rahman's promoter, had been inundating the media with reports that the knee injury was bogus, but Elattrache denied the rumors.
"With this injury it would have been absolutely impossible for Vitali to participate in a fight in the near future," Elattrache said in a press release Wednesday. "The knee was totally unstable and would not have held up."
Klitschko initially rose to prominence by opening his career with 27 consecutive knockouts. He stopped Herbie Hide in the second round in June 1999 to claim the WBO heavyweight title and made two successful defenses before quitting on his stool against Chris Byrd with a torn rotator cuff.
Klitschko later redeemed himself in his only other loss, when he was stopped in the sixth round against world heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis. "Dr. Ironfist" was giving Lewis everything he could handle before the fight was stopped because of a terrible gash over Klitschko's left eye in June 2003.
Lewis retired rather than give the 6-foot-8, 250-pound Ukrainian a rematch and Klitschko went on to win the vacant crown with an eight-round TKO over Corrie Sanders. He stopped Englishman Danny Williams in December 2004 in his only title defense.
In a division that has four different title claimants, The Ring magazine and most boxing insiders recognized Klitschko as the legitimate heavyweight champion.
Former world champion Rahman, who knocked out Lewis in five rounds in 2001, claimed the WBC interim championship with a lackluster 12-round decision over Monte Barrett last August and has been elevated to full champion by the WBC.
In a Wednesday conference call Bob Arum, chief executive officer of Top Rank Promotions, said Klitschko told him he was retiring because of his various injuries, including minor back surgery earlier this year.
"He said at the age of 34 his body was betraying him," said Arum, who was to promote the proposed Klitschko-Rahman fight. "He loves the sport, but he didn't want to put up with the betrayal of his own body."
Klitschko said as much in the press release.
"I have been spending more time with my injuries than with my opponents in the ring," Klitschko said. "The decision to retire from the sport was a very difficult one - one of the hardest I've ever had to make.
"I love boxing and am proud to be the WBC and Ring magazine heavyweight champion. But I would like to end my career at its peak, so I am retiring now as the champion to clear the way for my successors."
Klitschko thanked the media and boxing fans for their support and said he planned on devoting more time and energy "on social and social-political challenges" in his native Ukraine.
Teddy Atlas, who formerly trained Mike Tyson as an amateur and is an expert commentator for ESPN2's Friday Night Fights, said Klitschko's retirement is not a death-knell for the heavyweight division.
"The heavyweight division isn't going to be in the dark ages because Vitali left," Atlas said Wednesday. "Even with Vitali it's a landscape that's not real solid. He's not going to leave a legacy. After he quit against Byrd he wanted to feel like a man and one night against Lewis he did that."
Atlas did say, however, that Klitschko was an inspiration to many people.
"He showed everyone has it in him to fight one great battle on a given day," Atlas said. "Nothing is impossible out there. To Klitschko's credit, after quitting against Byrd and finding out what people outside of your camp will say about you after such a loss, he decided to be strong that night (against Lewis)."
While Klitschko's legacy is dicey and limited at best, Dr. Ironfist did take two records into retirement with him. Klitschko was the only heavyweight champion to have never been knocked down as a professional and he had the highest percentage of knockouts (34 KOs in 37 fights) than any other heavyweight champion in history.