This is a tough way to say goodbye, limping off into the sunset with your hat in your hands, your paycheck cancelled and your title belt draped over a chair for the next guy to come along and try on.

Some of us are going to miss having Vitali Klitschko to wonder about, to scratch our heads over. He was an intelligent, 6-foot-7 ambiguity waiting to be explained. Or revealed. You couldn’t tell if the guy was on the verge of greatness or just a hop, skip and a jump above mediocrity.

At times, the WBC champ seemed to be the best heavyweight the division had to offer, though these aren’t exactly the Ali-Frazier years. Still, he was one of four world champions, and that’s something he can carry with him as he hobbles into retirement with his bad knee, his sore thigh and his nagging back injury. He has more dings than the Chicago Bears.

Brutal sport this boxing, especially when you keep getting busted up before you even get into the ring to defend your title.

Klitschko had to pull out of a title defense against Hasim Rahman four times in less than a year. Their latest fight was set for Saturday night. But that was before Klitschko blew out a knee while training.

That’s not bad luck, it’s bad karma. Rahman must have thought he was stuck in a never-ending episode of the Twilight Zone, trapped in a revolving plot that has no beginning or ending.

Being as patient as a guy can be who has been jilted four times, Rahman said Klitschko wasted a year of his life, and at 32, the fighting years are a little more precious than they are at 22.

But this last injury, the right knee, well, pardon the pun, but that was the kicker, the heartbreaker, the last tango. Klitschko was told it would take six months to heal after surgery on Tuesday, and that’s just too long to wait.

He hasn’t fought since before last Christmas, so his title was about to be plucked from him anyway. Might as well quit before the vultures got the joy of snatching it away.

“Lately, I have been spending more time with my injuries then my opponent,” Klitschko said Wednesday in a release announcing his retirement. “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.

“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.”

Take all the potshots you want at Klitschko – question his heart and his skills – but there are no drug arrests in his past, no felony convictions and no bar fights at 2:00 in the morning outside a strip joint. He seldom took verbal cheap shots at anyone and he’s never been known to take a wild swing at a press conference.

The good news is, Klitschko won’t be hitting the soup line in Kiev when he gets back home to the Ukraine. Twenty years from now, they won’t find him passed out in an alley with an empty wine bottle clutched in his hand and a cardboard box hiding his clippings and trophies.

There aren’t a lot of guys holding doctorate degrees in the fight game, but Klitschko is one of them. And politics might be a calm alternative to holding the heavyweight championship of the world.

His country is undergoing some major changes and Klitschko probably feels the beckoning call of a government struggling to find itself.

Klitschko’s retirement doesn’t sound like a foolish decision made without a little thought. This is a guy who always presented himself with class and who believes in dignity and the nobility of his profession. In the end, it was just his body that betrayed him.

The fight game might have lost a champion, but I’m guessing the Ukraine has found one..