BASEL, Switzerland (AP) – Nikolai Valuev retained the WBA heavyweight title Saturday night when American challenger Jameel McCline collapsed in the third round after injuring his left knee.

McCline missed a swing at the 7-foot Russian and fell to the canvas as he tore ligaments in his kneecap. He tried unsuccessfully to stand up several times.

“He was in terrible pain, literally screaming,” said Scott Hirsch, McCline’s manager. “He thought he was fighting well – what a crazy end to a fight.”

Billed as the biggest title fight in history by the promoters, the 6-foot-6 McCline tipped the scales at 268 pounds and the unbeaten Russian at 322 pounds.

“He is a big man and it’s very important for a 120-kilo (260-pound) man to keep his balance, but he couldn’t,” Valuev said.

McCline rocked the Russian with a hard left in the first round and they traded a lot of blows, although Valuev appeared to be gaining the upper hand.

“It’s terrible the way this ended, but it could have been worse,” Valuev said. “I got used to his style. If this injury hadn’t happened, I would have knocked him out by the sixth or seventh round.”

McCline, 38-7-3 with 23 knockouts, was carried out on a stretcher, than taken to the hospital. Beforehand, his corner propped him on a stool in the ring to say a few words.

“I’m disappointed. I will remember this my whole life,” McCline said.

The 36-year-old lost his third title bout. In 2002, he was stopped in the 10th round by Wladimir Klitscho in a WBO fight. Two years later, he floored Chris Byrd but lost a close decision in the IBF title shot.

The 33-year-old Valuev, 46-0 with 33 knockouts, made his third defense after winning the belt with a close decision against John Ruiz in December of 2005. Valuev, facing his biggest opponent, wasn’t able to stand outside with his towering frame and jab him into submission this time.

The 9,000 spectators cheered for the underdog McCline – ranked just 14th – against the Russian giant. With the abrupt end, the cheers changed to loud jeers.

Valuev will next face a mandatory challenge against Ruslan Chagaev, but there is no doubt who he and his camp really want to fight – IBF champion Wladimir Klitschko.

“This was a great night for Nikolai Valuev, don’t let anybody take it away from him,” Valuev promoter Don King said. “The phantom punch, the knee-busting punch – he will knock Klitschko out and unify the titles.”

AP-ES-01-20-07 1915EST