Monday October 13th, 2008

Vitali Klitschko is hurt, and it may be serious.

No, Klitschko's latest injury has nothing to do with the troublesome right knee that plagued him three years ago. Nor is it related to the slipped disc in his back that required emergency surgery in 2007.

"It's my left hand," said Klitschko in a telephone interview. "My 'ironfist.' It's all swollen from hitting Samuel Peter in the head."

Look at that: Vitali Klitschko made a funny.

What wasn't funny -- at least not for those associated with Peter -- was the systematic destruction Saturday night of a man regarded as the No. 2 heavyweight in the world. For eight rounds, the appropriately named "Dr. Ironfist" peppered Peter's head with jabs while unleashing punishing right hands to the former WBC champion's skull. By the end of the eighth round, with his eye swelling and the PA announcer rattling off the judges lopsided scores, Peter quit.

With that stunning knockout, boxing history was made. Never before have two brothers held world titles at the same time with Vitali claiming the WBC crown and younger brother Wladimir holding the IBF and WBO belts (not to mention the lesser regarded IBO title). The Klitschkos have positioned themselves as the undisputed kings of the heavyweight division.

Yet despite star-studded careers that have featured amateur medals (Vitali, 37, won the silver medal at the 1995 World Amateur Boxing Championships; Wladimir, 32, won an Olympic gold medal in 1996), world titles and worldwide fame and fortune, the Klitschkos still have one more itch that needs to be scratched.

"This is a fantasy," Vitali said. "My brother and I had a dream. We wanted to win medals. We did. We wanted to win world heavyweight titles. We did. We wanted to be champions at the same time. Now we are. But we have another dream. We want to bring all the heavyweight titles into the Klitschko family."

With both fighters consistently ruling out a Klitschko-Klitschko megafight, the question now becomes which brother will be the aggressor in the pursuit of the WBA title, currently held by 7-foot Russian Nicolay Valuev.

Conventional wisdom says Wladimir deserves first crack. The younger Klitschko graciously allowed his brother to chase the WBC crown when he would have been well within his rights to ask him to step aside. Wladimir also holds two of the recognized titles, meaning a win over Valuev would bring him one step closer to becoming the unified champion. Even in a maligned heavyweight division, that distinction still carries some cache.

That decision, however, is a long way from being made.

"It's difficult to say [who will get the title shot]," Vitali said. "To be honest, it's not a big deal for us. If Wladimir has a chance to do it, I will be happy for him. I think he is a great heavyweight, like Muhammad Ali. But if Wladimir doesn't have the opportunity, I would be happy to do it."

Whatever happens, Saturday night's fight will not be the last time Vitali steps in the ring. The elder Klitschko claims his health is "perfect" ("Even when I was retired, I was working out two or three hours per day," he said) and has used the constant criticism of his fragility as motivation.

"I heard the experts joke that I would get hurt before the fight," Vitali said. "I heard Lennox Lewis say Peter would beat me. I heard everything. But I know my skills very well. My body is in excellent health. I don't smoke. I don't drink. I had a great six-week training camp in the Austrian mountains. I can still fight."

The spotlight now turns to Valuev, who has just one decision to make: Which Klitschko will it be?

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