A Year With Robert Helenius
The exhibition fight was a test of skill and stamina for the Finnish heavyweight boxer, Robert Helenius, 31, standing in the corner of the ring, eyes as a flame of fire, his tall figure and thick beard illuminated with a cold shade of blue.
In December, he is about to face the biggest challenge of his career in Helsinki, when he will fight the reigning European heavyweight champion, Erkan Teper, 33, from Germany. *
The winner will qualify among the top challengers for the world champion belt, which has for years been held firmly by the fierce and strong hands of the Ukrainian, Wladimir Klitschko, whom Helenius has already bumped fists with. Something no other Finn has done before.
The eight-round public sparring match against another tough German, Timur Musafarov, 29, in the Estonian capital Tallinn on November 14, was a reality check for Helenius, who has recently been flying from a sparring camp to another for tryouts of his skillset.
In October, he sparred with the former heavyweight champion, Alexander Povetkin, in Russia and now – freshly after a total of nine rounds of sparring with Wladimir Klitschko in Austria – he arrived to fight Musafarov, which in itself was a clever career move for the sake of experience. Musafarov lost to Teper in a close fight with a split decision 2-1, in April 2013.
But fighting tough guys is nothing new to Helenius. After he turned professional in 2008, he fought nineteen hard battles against guys like Lamon Brewster, Gregory Tony and Derek Chisora. Helenius knocked out eleven of his opponents, including Brewster and Tony and in 2011 he grabbed the European Championship belt away from Chisora with a fractured right hand.
Sadly, Helenius suffered another injury while training. This time to his right shoulder and he couldn’t defend his title in 2012. He had no choice but to give away his hard-earned belt.
In early 2015, after downshifting for two years, Helenius stepped back to the limelight. He had recovered from his injuries but was still trying to fix his legal problems with the boxing promotional group, Sauerland Event.
He had moved to Åland Islands with his family from the busy streets of Berlin, where he trained with Sauerland for four years. In Åland, he met his new trainer Johan Lindström, 34, a skilled personal trainer and an enthusiast in boxing and mixed martial arts. The spark for boxing was set aflame.
His father, Karl Helenius, was now back in the game as well. The old sailor, butcher and boxer from the southern city of Porvoo had trained his son through a lucrative amateur career of over a hundred fights and helped him win several national titles and a European Championship silver, too.
In 2013, Helenius became tangled with problems relating to his contract with Sauerland, which said Helenius owed them about 50,000 euros from treatment costs related to his injuries. In addition, these injuries would extend his contract by two years. The trust between the boxer and the promotion giant was gone. Helenius ended the contract in February 2015. A legal battle started and his father went out with verbal guns blazing.
“The time with Sauerland has been nothing but hell. Sauerland is one of the biggest bullshitters in the boxing game,” Karl Helenius said in an interview.
[alert type=red ]”The time with Sauerland has been nothing but hell. Sauerland is one of the biggest bullshitters in the boxing game,” Karl Helenius said in an interview.[/alert]
Ever since has the shadow of Sauerland been lurking over team Lumparland, the Helenius stable, named after his home municipality of a few hundred people in Åland.
It was already dark on a Saturday night in March, when we arrived to Helenius’ first fight of the year. Helenius had decided to start building his career overseas in Tallinn, and me and my assistant didn’t object. The only one objecting the fight was Sauerland, which had sued Helenius for taking the fight. The matter was solved in Åland’s District Court in favour of one of the favourite citizens of the autonomous region. Helenius, after all, is featured on Åland’s national stamp.
A sip of Ron Jeremy rum had gotten me and my assistant into the mood at the boat and when we arrived in the Tondiraba Ice Hall, one could feel the heart accelerating when a tall figure started strolling towards the ring to a rocking entrance music. The song Hat Trick was tailored for Helenius by his hometown rock band, Baton Rogue Morgue from Porvoo.
Helenius walked among his entourage dressed in a long dark robe like the grim reaper, followed by Johan Lindström and the Vikings, who carried swords, helmets and shields with huge double N’s embellished on their shields, standing for the Helenius-brand: The Nordic Nightmare.
The Hungarian boxer, Andras Csomor, 27, was waiting in the ring for the six-round fight to start. He was about a head shorter, dark-haired – a burly guy with a satanic goat tattooed to his chest.
Csomor attacked swinging wildly and Helenius countered with a good left and right. The Hungarian attacked with a wild right cross and Helenius countered with a left state-of-the-art hook to the jaw. The punch ruffled Csomor. Helenius followed with a right hook to the face, which sent the flying Hungarian to the floor but he kept hanging on the ropes for his dear life.
After the countdown, Helenius kept attacking with his jab and after pushing Csomor to the corner, he started belting the Hungarian with lefts and rights, and the helpless opponent could do nothing but cover the front of his face with both elbows. Helenius stung a devastating right hook to the body. And another one. Game over; the judge interrupted the fight with a technical knockout. The fight had lasted only a minute.
“Sorry fans that I couldn’t hold back for three rounds,” he said to the cameras in an interview for live TV. “Two years have passed, I had to feel free to punch.” The fans know that Helenius usually likes to warm up and study his opponent in the first rounds. For the sake of the fans and himself.
The following morning me and my assistant were attending the hotel breakfast. Helenius stood at the lobby with his father and trainer.
“What did I say!” Helenius shouted at me happily. Indeed, many things he said to me a few weeks earlier over lunch with his trainer, turned into an intrigue discussion. We had talked about the trouble the opponents would be facing after Helenius connected with a solid blow. “His footwork, his speed and his strength are going to be through the roof. It’s not going to be fun for anyone who faces him,” said trainer Lindström. We discussed how these ingredients would mix with his power and create a soup so strong it would need a true Viking to sip it and stay standing.
[alert type=red ]We discussed how these ingredients would mix with his power and create a soup so strong it would need a true Viking to sip it and stay standing.[/alert]
Suddenly, at the lobby of the breakfast buffet, Helenius pulled out a pair of crow feet.
“And I have my crow feet with me . . . ”
The crows are a perfect ally for a boxer, I thought . . . They are mystical creatures used in lore for centuries. A pair of crow feet in the pocket can change the shape of your fate.
According to many people, Helenius’ boxing style during the German rule can be described as a strategy based on the right cross. “Hit him with the right,” a typical shout can be heard from the audience, even from a spectator who knows about boxing just as much as a fight analysis of a Finnish yellow press can offer.
It’s, however, true that the powerful right cross has been the most visible punch in his arsenal – it has sent countless of fighters flying to the ropes and knocked several out. Helenius also had an OK jab for a two metres tall warrior, exceeding well over 100 kilos during most of his fights. His footwork needed work, though. Some critics said his infighting needed work, too, which is an easy judgement as the guy is taller than most of his opponents to date; the shorter guy usually has the natural tendency to move in close as if it was a call of nature. The taller fighter naturally wants to keep the distance and focus on punches from a distance where he can use the maximum leverage of his punches to his advantage.
But the spirit, the will of the warrior, is something that has truly separated Helenius from many other boxers. He will not fold nor give up. He will hide his injury and fight with one hand and win, if found necessary.
[alert type=red ]But the spirit, the will of the warrior, is something that has truly separated Helenius from many other boxers. He will not fold nor give up. He will hide his injury and fight with one hand and win, if found necessary.[/alert]
But is it really possible for a two metres tall boxer weighting over 100 kilos to improve in speed and swiftness?
The fight against the Hungarian was too short to get any realistic picture of Helenius’ improved ability. Luckily, there was another fight approaching in June, in central Finland at the Ostrobothnian city of Vaasa located on the west coast. Me and my assistant were on the road again.
“Robert Helenius is a tough guy. I think he will win,” the cabby said while we were on our way to Vaasa Arena where the fight was held and we passed old colourful houses from the 19th century, from which none had survived in one of the largest city fires of the country.
“I’ve heard the Ostrobothnians love a good fight,” my assistant said.
“True. I’ve driven a lot of folks to the fight tonight.”
Vaasa Arena was, indeed, crowded. There were about 4,000 people seated at the very limit of its capacity. As in Tallinn, we arrived just in time for the fight to begin. After similar theatrics of entrance as seen overseas – the song, swords, shields and the grim reaper robe – the fight against Georgian, Beka Lobjanidze, was ready to begin. This time Helenius was facing an opponent standing 193 centimetres tall, only seven centimetres shorter than him. The 34-year-old Georgian had a decent track record of seventeen fights, thirteen wins – eleven of them by knockouts.
In the first round, Helenius hit his opponent with a hard right to the body. It dropped Lobjanidze gasping for breath. After a short count he got up but Helenius kept dominating the rest of the round with lefts and rights. In the second round, the crowd started singing in Swedish: “Kom igen Robban, kom igen (Come again Robert, come again.)”
Helenius kept attacking the body. He was constantly pressuring the Georgian. There was no question who was in charge. He dropped the Georgian to the floor with another heavy body shot. This time it was the left hook.
The crowd went wild. They were stomping their feet to the floor, while simultaneously clapping. Helenius belted another left hook to the body.
Lobjanidze went for a sudden attack of the right cross. Helenius slipped the punch and countered with a beautiful left and right combo sending the Georgian to the ground.
In the third round, Helenius kept belting his opponent with his left hook in the guts. The Georgian tried to take over. He landed a few right crosses to Helenius’ jaw while camouflaging his attack by the constant feints of his front hand. The hits made Helenius furious and when Lobjanedze tried to deliver a left hook to Helenius’ face, he nullified the attack with a state-of-the-art left and right combo to the jaw, sending the Georgian to the mat. After a countdown he was up again but Helenius had decided that the best place for the Georgian, on this hot night of the Finnish summer, was the bed. A fierce left hook to the ribs was the right tool for the job. The judge counted to ten. It was all over for Lobjanidze.
“Like I told you before, my speed and strength have improved. When I hit an opponent with a solid blow, he will go down,” Helenius said after the fight.
[alert type=red ]”Like I told you before, my speed and strength have improved. When I hit an opponent with a solid blow, he will go down,” Helenius said after the fight.[/alert]
It indeed was a confident Helenius in the ring. He moved lighter, he reacted quicker, he punched faster.
“What I need to do now is to spar more,” he said before leaving to the shower.
On November 14, the venue for the sparring match in the Estonian capital was something out of a surreal action flick. The Estonian Maritime Museum, built in an old hangar, was filled with maritime bric-a-brac. The fight took place at the grandiose ground floor with an English submarine looming in the rafters. Like in a typical boxing bout these days, the ring was surrounded with tables where people in suits had VIP style dinner. The atmospheric light was from the mind of an artist on absinth: the area was illuminated with blue, purple and red, the shades of battle and blood, suitable for pugilists and appropriate to shock the audience.
The fight started with Helenius taking the lead. Next to Musafarov, Helenius looked like a giant, arms covered in tattoos and a thick beard covering his face and a haircut short from the sides and long from the top – a style of a Viking. The shorter Musafarov with a dark short hair and no tattoos came on looking like a poster boy of boxing with aggressive lefts and rights. Helenius countered with a right sledgehammer of a hook to the ribs. Twice.
In the second round Musafarov became fierce. He hit Helenius in the head with straight lefts, strived to move close for infighting, which is an understandable strategy because of the obvious reach advantage for Helenius. In close, he delivered snappy right hooks to the ribs and head. After taking some distance, Helenius successively jabbed Musafarov’s attempts to get close. Helenius also managed to sneak in another nice right hook to the body.
The third round displayed the improved footwork of Helenius. Even though Musafarov snuck in a fast cross to Helenius’ jaw early in the round, the Nordic Nightmare moved away from Musarafov’s attempts of getting close. Helenius countered with his jab which seemed improved as well.
In round four Musafarov was starting to adjust to the fact that it wasn’t too easy get close to Helenius. When there was under a minute left of the round, the German jumped in with a fierce right cross, which hit the Finn straight to the jaw. In under a split second, Helenius countered with his own power cross straight to the face. At the end of the round Helenius stopped moving and leaned towards Musafarov, which allowed the German to get in a few hooks. Helenius quickly recovered from the breather and belted his trademark right hook to the ribs of Musafarov.
Round five. Helenius’ footwork was slowing down and in contrast Musafarov seemed to gain speed. When there was a little more than a minute left of the round, the German managed to sneak in to his favourite game, infighting, and he stung Helenius with several solid hooks and after a while with another hook and an uppercut but Helenius stopped any further advances with a solid right cross and then a heavy right and a left hook. At the end of the round, Helenius even managed to get in a right cross.
The ring girls, judges and audience held their breaths as the bout started becoming heated.
In-between the rounds, the fighters absorbed fluids and barrages of concise information from their trainers, and the hot and bright lights of the ring revealed an increasing amount of glistening sweat.
Trainer Lindström made sure his protégé stayed well hydrated.
While the fighters rested, the ring girls displayed Estonian beauty.
In round six, Helenius was comfortable with the extra distance of his reach advantage. He patiently waited like a coiled snake, ready to strike lethally when the moment suited him. He used jabs consistently to maintain the space, in an attempt to rattle Musafarov.
But Helenius was slowing down. Musafarov kept attacking hard but despite a few hooks to the body, he didn’t really manage to blast in shots, even though Helenius was now hanging his hands in a low guard.
Helenius kept belting Musafarov with jabs.
In the seventh round, Helenius continued with his defensive approach. He kept moving away and kept Musafarov off with his snappy jab. At the end of the round Musarafov got in a right cross while Helenius was again hanging his guard low.
The bell rang. “Focus,” said trainer Lindström, while the cutman, Seppo Finnilä, was massaging the shoulders.
Helenius kept attacking with that swift jab.
“Musafarov did not buckle, apparently relishing the challenge without a shred of fear,” my assistant noted and continued, “His alias of ‘Lionheart’ seemed apt and earned by exactly what was displayed throughout the evening: deftly weaving with precision and offence decisiveness. His conditioning and agility proved to be an entertaining match up.” I couldn’t have agreed more.
In the eighth and final round it was now clear that Helenius had run out of juice. He kept avoiding Musafarov’s punches and had a hard time keeping a high guard. Because of this, the German managed to get in a heavy jab and at the end of the round belaboured Helenius with hooks. And then the bell rang.
“It was an even fight,” I said to Helenius after he had stepped out of the ring and countless people had taken turns in handing me their cellphones for me to take a picture of them and the European champion in the making.
“Yes, but we fought with 16 oz. gloves. So, it was fine,” Helenius said.
In official fights the boxers fight with 10 oz. gloves, which are thinner and, yes, lighter – more suitable for knocking boxers out.
“But one doesn’t advance forward without sparring with even opponents,” Helenius said. “This was exactly what I needed.”
Later Helenius said that he calculated the rounds 4-4.
“But my conditioning was low. In the sixth round I thought ‘Fuck, how am I going to last this fight to the end?'”
“You coped well,” said Finnilä, Helenius’ cutman, the man who would take care of any superficial injuries during the fight and after. Tonight, there was no visible swelling. Not a wound to plaster.
“Yeah, he coped well, but we have not had long sparring matches before this,” said trainer Lindström.
“Now we begin our own training.”
Helenius will start his training camp at a sports centre in the southern city of Lahti.
“We will have tough sparring partners coming in and train me to be ready for the 12 rounds, so that we will get the conditioning in shape,” Helenius said.
According to Lindström, anyone can train hard but not everybody trains smart. Because of Helenius’ old injuries, they focus on periodization training.
“One period we focus on coordination, flexibility and on another we focus more on endurance and lactic acid training. Another period we focus on pure strength training and follow with plyometric and explosiveness training. When we have gone through all those phases we try to wield them together so that he can use all of his skills at once. That’s how we build an athlete.”
Lindström trains Helenius in the opposite way of traditional boxing training, which Helenius got used to during his time with Saureland.
“Traditional boxing training is very much like factory training. You do station training, you box with the bag and if you have an injury you go for the 15 kilometres run instead. That won’t improve any boxer who has a bad shoulder. That’s ridiculous. You are like a machine. Just do it anyway because we say so,” Lindström said.
A proper diet is naturally important, too. Helenius tries to eat as much organic food as possible. He avoids unnecessary carbohydrates and eats a lot of salads. He is a big fan of meat. “I don’t think I could ever turn into a vegetarian,” he said to me once.
The week-long sparring camp with the heavyweight king, Wladimir Klitschko, at a majestic mountain resort in the Austrian Alps needs to be digested as well. “Klitschko was fast and incredibly good. But Robert was not in an imminent danger with him either,” Lindström said. Klitschko sparred three rounds at a time with one particular boxer. The list and order of the opponents were set up tactically. “Klitschko liked to do warm ups with a heavy, slow boxer and then was Robert’s turn,” Lindström said. Robert was one of the boxers whom Klitschko engaged with his everything. “The sparring sessions were set up with great finesse and tactics.” Helenius sparred against Klitschko a total of nine rounds. “It was a great experience. We learned that not even Klitschko is an impossible opponent,” said Lindström.
[alert type=red ]”Klitschko was fast and incredibly good. But Robert was not in an imminent danger with him either,” Lindström said.[/alert]
I get goosebumps in the anticipation of the face-off with the German champion, Erkan Teper. * Many others are excited about the fight, too. Over a lunch with Helenius and his crew in November, it became apparent that the ticket sales were skyrocketing – half of the tickets were already sold a few weeks ago to the venue that fits about 15,500 people.
“Well, Teper is a good boxer. It will be a good fight,” Helenius said while eating salad and a 150-gram pepper steak, topped with pepper cream sauce and garlic potatoes on the side.
Isaw Teper rattle the heavy bag with devastating hooks and swift jabs at a training session in Helsinki in early November. He is 195 centimetres tall and weighed 114 kilos and yet he moved lightly, his steps had finesse. He was confident of who will win. “Me, naturally. That’s why I am coming here to fight. It’s only logical,” he said and laughed when I challenged him with the question.
Teper’s professional record consists of 15 wins and no losses. Ten of the wins are knockouts. His highlight reel shows furious knockouts by a combination of very quick body blows and a strong right hand. He likes to counter with a sudden lunge, which to the untrained eye may seem like a burst of anger but in reality is precisely controlled killer instinct. “He is good and strong,” said Karl Helenius while watching Teper shadow-box in the ring. “He fights with his back arched and when he straightens his posture he seems much taller.” In other words, Teper is a craftsman of cunning. His tactics may be hard to predict.
Helenius has faced Teper once during his amateur career. That’s when Teper won by one point. Helenius is planning to take his revenge. “This guy. This guy will win,” Helenius said while pointing to his shirt after intense rounds on the heavy bag in November. “The Nordic Nightmare,” the shirt said in big bold letters.
Exactly. That’s what will be waiting Teper in December.
WATCH: Robert Helenius and Erkan Teper preparing for the European Championship fight. Filming, editing and interview: Tony Öhberg
[divider]* Helenius’ Opponent Changes Due to Teper’s Injury[/divider]
Robert Helenius will face a Canadian-German boxer, Franz Rill, 28, for the European championship belt on December 19. The winner of the fight will defend his title against Teper. Read the story here: Robert Helenius Recommends an Escort for His New Opponent Franz Rill