Vitali Klitschko, who has not defended his WBC heavyweight title in 15 months and is one of the central figures involved in the political unrest in his native Ukraine, vacated his belt Monday.
The WBC instead appointed him as the organization's "champion emeritus." It means that if Klitschko, 42, decides to fight again, he will automatically get a shot at the title upon his return, if he wants one.
Klitschko, however, sounded as though he is finished boxing.
"I want to thank the WBC and its president, Don Jose Sulaiman, for the support in our fight for democracy and freedom in Ukraine," Klitschko said. "It was and is a great honor to hold the WBC title, and I've always done it with pride. The offer of the WBC gives me the theoretical possibility to return to the boxing ring, which I cannot imagine at all to the current state.
"Right now, my full concentration is on politics in Ukraine, and I feel that the people need me there. My brother [and unified heavyweight champion] Wladimir will ensure more sporting success and I will, as always, support him as much as he currently supports me in my political fight."
This is the second time in his career that Vitali Klitschko has been designated as a "champion emeritus."
When he was hampered by back and knee injuries, Klitschko vacated the title and retired in 2005 and later used his status to his advantage. A healthy Klitschko returned in 2008 and immediately got a shot at then-titleholder Samuel Peter, whom Klitschko stopped in the eighth round of a one-sided fight to regain the belt.
Klitschko (45-2, 41 KOs) has made nine one-sided title defenses, including a fourth-round cut-induced stoppage of Manuel Charr in September 2012 in Moscow in what likely was the final fight of a 17-year professional career that figures to land him in the International Boxing Hall of Fame.
Klitschko, a three-time heavyweight titleholder, had vacillated on returning to the ring. He had a long-overdue mandatory defense to make against Bermane Stiverne and put off the purse bid for the fight multiple times in addition to asking the WBC to move back the deadline for him to make a decision on his future. But the latest deadline was Sunday, and he finally decided.
Now that the title is vacant, it should be filled by the winner of a rematch between Stiverne (23-1-1, 20 KOs) and Cristobal Arreola (36-3, 31 KOs), the top two contenders in the WBC's ratings. Stiverne dropped Arreola and easily outpointed him in a title-elimination fight April 27 to become the mandatory challenger. However, Stiverne is involved in litigation with promoter Don King, and he might not be available for a title fight. In that case, the title could be filled by a fight between No. 2 Arreola and No. 3 Deontay Wilder (30-0, 30 KOs).
Klitschko's life is now dominated by politics in Ukraine, where he is the leader of the government opposition UDAR political party, which is pushing for reform and to align the nation economically with the European Union rather than Russia. He is also a member of the Ukrainian parliament and a 2015 presidential candidate.
"Vitali Klitschko is fighting the fight of his life, this time outside the ring," said WBC executive secretary Mauricio Sulaiman, son of the ill Jose Sulaiman. "Vitali is showing to the world what is the true heart of a champion by leading his countrymen to battle in the streets in their search of human equality, rights and peace for the great country of the Ukraine.
"With the current extreme and delicate political situation in the Ukraine, Vitali has answered his country's call to fight for human rights and equality. Accordingly, Vitali will not be able to provide the WBC with a predictable time frame to return to the ring. In light of those considerations, the WBC voted unanimously to name Vitali Klitschko WBC heavyweight champion emeritus. Very few great fighters have received such an honorable distinction, which will entitle Vitali to fight for the WBC heavyweight world championship when he is ready to return to the ring. ... We all wish him great success in his political career."