On Wednesday, world heavyweight champion Vitali Klitschko announced his retirement from boxing after a knee operation. Disappointment is widespread in Germany, where Vitali and his brother Vladimir are heroes.
Injuries have finally sidelined the powerful Ukrainian
Klitschko's decision to hang up his gloves marks the end of a highly successful career that many thought would last somewhat longer. With a record of 35 victories and two defeats, including 34 knockouts, Klitschko was at the top of his game.
But the Ukrainian, also known as Dr. Iron Fist, was forced to pull out of the match scheduled on Nov. 12 against Hasim Rahman to defend his World Boxing Council (WBC) title due to an injury to the ligaments in his right knee he sustained in training. He had already postponed the fight against Rahman twice this year because of thigh and back problems and would likely not have met the 90-day time limit to fight Rahman or lose his title.
"Recently I've spent more time battling injuries than my opponents," the 34-year-old said in a statement released by his manager. "It's a hard decision to take but I'd like to go out at the top and, with my departure, open the way for my successors."
Danny Williams (right) falls away from a left thrown by Klitschko
The World Boxing Council (WBC) has now named Rahman as heavyweight champion, but praised Klitschko's "limitless" honor.
"Vitali Klitschko will remain a champion at the World Boxing Council," said the association's president, Jose Sulaiman.
Not your average brawler
Vitali Klitschko is seen by the boxing world as something of an anomaly. In a world of under-educated athletes who often appear to have difficulty putting a sentence together, Klitschko has a doctorate in sports science, speaks four languages, cites chess as his favorite pastime, and, along with his six-year-younger boxing brother Vladimir, has modeled for Hugo Boss. Although boxing promoter legend Don King wanted to represent the brothers, they turned him down.
The Klitschko brothers
In Germany, where the brothers moved in the late 1990s, they are revered, ranking in popularity surveys among the top five athletes in the country. Only superstars like Formula One driver Michael Schumacher or soccer striker Michael Ballack have higher profiles, according to Bernd Bönte, a former sportswriter and now Klitschko's manager.
"The people love them and it is very special in general because both are from the Ukraine," he said in a newspaper interview. "This really is the first time the German public has fallen for two foreigners as if they were Germans."
During an 11-round fight with American Larry Donald in 2002 in Dortmund, 11 million people in Germany watched the live television broadcast, 13.4 percent of the population. The brothers' first fitness book, published in German, came out with an initial print of 500,000 copies, the largest in that country's publishing history.
The Klitschko image in Germany, however, has undergone some change since they first signed with the Hamburg promotion company Universum in 1996 and coming to Germany.
Vitali Klitschko at a workout
Then, they did not speak German and their then promoter chose to market them as big, powerful brutes, "monsters," as Bönte said. That was easily enough done, since Vitali is almost 6 feet, 8 inches tall (202 cm) and weighs around 252 pounds (114 kilograms).
But soon thereafter, they learned the language and could speak for themselves in interviews.
"It was then that the real surprise came for the German people," said Bönte. "When they listened to these brothers talking, in German, they quickly saw the differences between the monster myth and the educated reality."
That mental makeover in the German mind also led to the brothers' success outside the boxing ring. Their articulate personalities led to mainstream marketability and they have been involved in several high-profile advertising campaigns.
Career and future
Vitali Klitschko was originally a professional kickboxer before beginning his professional boxing career in 1996. He won his first 24 fights by either early knockout or a technical knockout (TKO). It was in 1999 that he won the World Boxing Organization's heavyweight championship, although he lost it less than a year later to American Chris Byrd.
A bleeding Vitali Klitschko faced Lennox Lewis
On June 21, 2003, Klitschko fought Lennox Lewis for the WBC heavyweight championship in Los Angeles. Although he lost on a technicality due to a severe cut above his eye, he gained respect and came back a year later to win the title from Corrie Sanders of South Africa.
Between those fights, the brothers left Germany and moved to California, where they hoped to boost their profiles by being closer to boxing insiders.
But in the end, it was Klitschko's body which let him down. An operation on a shoulder in 2000 was followed by a knee injury in 2001 and a slipped disc in 2002 as well as a back operation in 2005.
Vitali (right) and Vladimir Klitschko with Viktor Yushchenko in Ukraine
The Ukrainian native openly supported that country's "orange revolution" last November and is considering returning there and entering politics.
"In the future I would like to help meet the social and political challenges in my home country, Ukraine," he said.