Klitschko's retirement the right thing to do

What a difference a few days make.

This time last week, the boxing world eagerly was anticipating the scheduled Nov. 12 WBC heavyweight title bout between Vitali Klitschko and Hasim Rahman. It was supposed to be the belated coronation of Klitschko as the undisputed top dog in the division, a title bestowed on him after beating half-retired golfer Corrie Sanders and one-hit wonder Danny Williams.

But despite not truly earning his status as the best of the four heavyweight titlists, Klitschko was considered by most observers to be at least a talent level above his fellow champions Chris Byrd, John Ruiz, and Lamon Brewster.

He had to prove it in the ring, though, and that meant beating a quality number one contender in Rahman. Beat the former champ decisively, and the world was his. There would be no more disputes over who the heavyweight champion of the world was.

With the announcement Wednesday that Klitschko is retiring, the world will have to wait even longer for a universally recognized heavyweight champ.

"Lately, I have been spending more time with my injuries than with my opponents inside the ring," Klitschko said in a statement. "The decision to retire from professional sports was a very difficult one, one of the hardest I have ever had to make. I love boxing and am proud to be the WBC and Ring magazine heavyweight champion."

Now that "Dr. IronFist" has decided to walk off into the sunset after his latest injury (this time to his knee) and latest fight postponement (the fourth against Rahman), the division is once again in disarray.

Now we have to wonder why Vitali is retiring at 34 and why only baby brother Wladimir remains to carry the family name into the ring.

It's really no surprise though, as boxing always appeared to be a burden for the older Klitschko.

For years, Wladimir was the star of the family, and while Vitali was always there, he stood in the background and he seemed to be content with this situation.

He won the WBO heavyweight title in 1999, defended it twice before losing it to Byrd in 2000 when he retired in the corner with a shoulder injury. Wladimir avenged the loss, took the world title in the process, and the hype machine kicked into high gear for the younger Klitschko.

In stark contrast to the more serious Vitali, Wladimir was quick with a smile or a joke, and truly loved the attention.

But when Wladimir's star fell with a loss to Sanders in March of 2003, Vitali was thrust into the spotlight. He took a fight on short notice against heavyweight champion Lennox Lewis, and fought courageously against the longtime king of the big men, rocking him on several occasions and building a lead on the scorecards. A horrific cut over his eye forced a stoppage of the bout in Lewis' favor, but the loss did more for Klitschko's reputation than any previous victory.

So when Lewis retired, Klitschko became the heir apparent. It was pressure that most of us will never experience, but Vitali soldiered on, winning the WBC title vacated by Lewis with an eighth-round stoppage of Sanders.

A few weeks after the bout, Klitschko made the media rounds in New York City. He told me of winning the title, "It was like big and heavy bricks fell down from my shoulders."

Not the typical reaction you would expect, but with Wladimir's career then on the skids (he suffered another devastating loss in 2004 to Brewster), everything the family dreamed of rested on the fists of Vitali.

As he said that day in June 2004: "I had a lot of pressure. There were so many speculations, not just in the United States, but in Europe, and I know if I lose the fight, it will be a disaster for the brothers Klitschko. We split our wins and we split our losses together. And two losses would be too much."

He only fought once more after beating Sanders, a thorough eight-round beatdown of Williams in December 2004. Since then, his body -- tortured by years and years of training -- finally started to give out on him.

The fight against Rahman was postponed four times by various Klitschko ailments.

And most fighters will fight with some measure of pain each time they step into the ring. As noted trainer Don House told me recently: "This is a pain game."

But for Klitschko, who not only achieved his dream of a world championship but saved the family name, there's obviously a limit to what is done in the name of athletics.

That's his prerogative, and though the Monday morning quarterbacks will question his courage, that's really not at issue here.

Everyone who steps between those ropes and puts his life on the line has courage. And Vitali Klitschko has heart; he just doesn't have the heart for this sport anymore. It happens, and it's better that he leaves now than when it's too late. At least now, at 34, he can put his heart to where his real joy lies.

"In the future, I plan to get more heavily involved and devote more energy to tackling social and sociopolitical challenges in my native Ukraine," Klitschko said in a statement today, and ironically, that might give him an even greater legacy than what boxing and title belts could ever provide.

Klitschko, a nine-year pro, retires with a record of 35-2 with 34 KOs.