ROBERT HELENENIUS 2015

Robert Helenius, the Finnish heavyweight boxer, hitting the bag at the Wiru Treening boxing club in Tallinn, Estonia, on Thursday February 19 2015, while preparing for the upcoming bout in Tallinn against an opponent yet to be announced. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

A burly bald black man is wearing sunglasses with a mirror coating.

He takes them off.

The left eye is blue and blinded.

“I’ve had four surgeries and I’ve got to have one more for my cornea and that’ll hopefully get my vision back.”

The guy talking is Lamon Brewster, a former US professional heavyweight boxing champion, who once won the ‘Dr. Steelhammer’, Wladimir Klitschko, the current heavyweight world champion boxer from Ukraine.

Brewster is talking in the 2011 documentary Klitschko and after his comments a text in capital letters appears below.

‘LAMON BREWSTER INJURED AFTER A FIGHT WITH ROBERT HELENIUS’.

Brewster lost to Helenius in the eighth round after a technical knockout in Germany 2010. Robert became the first Finnish boxer to ever win a former heavyweight champion.

For Robert, 26, ‘The Nordic Nightmare’, the fight was another feather to his hat, the 11th consecutive win of his career as a professional boxer, another step closer to his goal:

To become a world champion.

ROBERT HELENENIUS 2015

Robert has displayed serious confidence and determination throughout his victorious career as a professional boxer. Robert thinks his confidence is partly due from his upbringing but mostly because of boxing which has made him travel, spend time on training camps, and undergo a lot of time alone, which has offered him plenty of time to think. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

I started following Robert’s career during his next fight against Gbenga Oloukun, a nasty Nigerian with 16 wins under his belt.

The fight was held at Töölö’s Kisahalli in Helsinki in a full house in late March 2010.

I was standing on the ringside and taking pictures for a magazine and witnessed the strength of the tall man of 199.5 centimetres and 110 kilos dominate the fight against the muscular Nigerian of 185 centimetres and 104 kilos.

Helenius won the fight after eight rounds due to a unanimous decision.

And what is even more impressive he fought half the fight with a broken knuckle above the ring finger of his right hand.

In the middle of April 2010, I visited Robert in Berlin, Germany for the magazine piece, while he was recovering from his injury after the doctors had inserted a metal plate to support the bones of his broken knuckle.

After walking the amateur road to the end, 150 fights later, Robert had accepted the offer of turning pro for Sauerland Event, the Europe’s leading professional boxing promotional group famous for arranging fights for legends such as the Russian, Nikolai Valuev and the British David Haye. Robert had moved to Berlin in 2008.

In Berlin, on a sunny spring day with about 12 degrees of Celsius, Robert picked me up from my rented apartment near Potsdamer Platz and he told me to jump into his old Saab and we started cruising along the busy lane of Potsdamer Strasse.

Robert switched lanes and tried to turn on the right-hand indicator, but the mummified hand hit the switch to the windscreen wipers. The wipers went amok.

Robert switched them off and said calmly:

“My head is allowed to rest now.”

We sat down at the modern part of the German capital, at a cafeteria in the Sony Center, where he sometimes went to watch movies. In those days, Avatar 3D was collecting billions at the box office.

We dug deep in his past.

Robert started boxing in his teens in a small city of Porvoo after trying various sports from ice ball to shot-putting. His father, Karl, was an old boxer and he was happy to start training his son after seeing him catching an interest.

While his fellow teens got hooked on alcohol and partying, Robert quickly found another drug, a natural kind: adrenalin.

Robert started his career as a successful amateur but learned from early on what consequences a knockout can have on his psyche.

When he was 18 there was a fight against a Norwegian guy who knocked Robert out during a tournament in Helsinki.

What followed, was a deep depression. It was a matter of honour. It’s manly to knock down another boxer.

“I felt that I had let down everybody,” Robert said.

“When I fought for the amateur world championships where I won the first match and lost the other because my father threw the towel in the ring and protested against a man from Uzbekistan who hit me to the balls about ten times without the referee saying anything, I remember the tabloids writing how shitty I was.”

His father Karl often wondered why it was Robert from his five boys who became a boxer. Karl has described Robert as the most kind, sensitive and philosophical type.

During Robert’s amateur career he however noticed a change in his son when he was hit.

Robert became furious. With menace in his eyes, the other guy got hit. Hard.

“When I fought for the amateur world championships where I won the first match and lost the other because my father threw the towel in the ring and protested against a man from Uzbekistan who hit me to the balls about ten times without the referee saying anything, I remember the tabloids writing how shitty I was.”

“‘How can a boxer like this exist? Nobody else would have given up in a world title bout’, they wrote. But I didn’t give up. I got an asthma attack and I was pissed on my father for throwing the towel in.”

Robert was titled in the tabloids as the ‘Sheep of the Day’.

His calm tone raised noticeably while he reminisced the events.

“How can an ordinary human take such critic when the whole Finland knows that you are the ‘Sheep of the Day’ because you have lost a fight in the world championships, where 90 per cent of the people would never make it?”

Robert said he had learned to ignore the critics but on the other hand such criticism had not been written about him at the time of the interview.

“I don’t know how I would take it if I would receive such criticism today,” he said in Berlin.

“I might stop boxing because it all would feel so fucking pointless.”

ROBERT HELENENIUS 2015

While sparring, Robert displayed such quickness and mobility unseen before. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

One. One, two. The punches echoed from the ring where a robust fellow with a helmet was trying to hit another of the kind. He turned out to be Robert.

It was a misty morning in mid-February 2015 in the Estonian capital Tallinn, at an old boxing gym in a building which had faced hard times during the Russian rule. The painting was falling off and the only thing keeping the temperature warmer than the air outside, was the 25 coaches and a handful of Estonian and Lithuanian amateur boxers who were hitting combinations like there was no tomorrow. A heavy stinging smell of sweat hung in the air.

Robert was ducking and weaving punches, hitting light combinations against his partner, under the observing eye of Robert’s new trainer, Johan Lindström, 34.

Robert was preparing for his upcoming fight at the Tallinn Tondiraba Icehall on March 21 against an opponent yet to be announced.

There was something different in the way Robert moved. He was lighter on his feet, more mobile. Faster.

Besides sparring, Robert had not stepped into the ring in two years.

His last victory was in Germany 2013, from Michael Sprott.

During those days, it was a different Robert than at the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011 which was a great period for him. I witnessed him hammer down the Swede, Attila Levin, with a technical knockout in the second round in a full house in Helsinki Arena.

It was a beautiful knockout: One. One, two; A left to the chin, following another left, and a finishing blow with the right. After the countdown, Robert went all in and finished the Swede with a flurry of punches and the referee stopped the fight.

Robert continued his winning streak in Germany against former champions, another Nigerian Samuel Peter and Sergei Liakhovich from Belarus.

Then came the European Champion title fight with the Britain’s Derek Chisora.

Robert had injured his right shoulder while preparing for the fight. The shoulder became a problem during the match but Robert displayed true Viking spirit and fought all 12 rounds with using mostly his left hand. He won the fight by a split decision.

The Viking attitude came with a cost, though. After the fight, Robert had to undergo an operation where they transplanted muscle from his leg to his shoulder. His whole career was in danger, according to the doctors.

He returned to the ring in 2012 against the Bahamian Sherman Williams at the Helsinki Icehall. It was an even bout, Robert’s punches lacking the fire I was used to seeing previously. But after 10 rounds, he won the fight unanimously.

He followed the same pattern in Germany against the British Michael Sprott: a unanimous win in the tenth round. But another mark to the list of injuries after tearing a ligament in his right thumb.

After the fight, legal trouble started with Sauerland. The team claimed that Robert owed them money between 40,000 to 50,000 euros from treatment costs and advance salaries. In addition, the team insisted that Robert’s contract should last the whole 2014 plus additional two years because of the injuries.

A long and tiresome legal process started and Robert moved from Berlin with his family back to Porvoo, where he returned to his roots and started training with his father.

In late 2013, Robert decided to move to Åland, where Sandra, his partner and the mother of his three children, comes from.

ROBERT HELENENIUS 2015

Robert’s punches carried fire on every hit. “You hit like a hurricane,” a man observing him said. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

In Tallinn, after I started focusing my lenses on Robert, I noticed he had become leaner. After the light technical sparring rounds, Robert went in for the heavy bag.

He shocked me with the furious hooks. The whole bag trembled in a way I hadn’t witnessed before even though having spent a great deal of time at various boxing gyms.

His conditioning had to be good. Real good. There was enough juice in his blows to knockout most of the people even after the exhausting rounds in the ring.

“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.”

ROBERT HELENENIUS 2015

Johan Lindström is working with Robert to build a better athlete. They focus on Robert’s individual weaknesses and strengths, instead of fabrication training, where you build a fabricated style for the whole team. “Winning is a choice. That choice you make every day in training.” Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

According to his trainer, Johan, he had everything to do with it.

“Especially his speed and his power are way higher than they have ever been. That’s something that the people will have to keep an eye on in his next match because you are going to see a totally different Robert,” Johan said to me in a press conference in Helsinki prior I visited the training camp in Tallinn.

“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.”

Anyone can train hard according to Johan, but smart training is required because of Robert’s old injuries.

However, they can go all out on everything. They have focused 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.”

What Johan and Robert are doing now is an opposite of the traditional boxing training he underwent with the legendary German trainer, Ulli Wegner, a man in his 70s.

ROBERT HELENENIUS 2015

Robert finds peace in meditating, yoga and stretching. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

“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,” Johan said.

Johan has been a personal trainer for over 20 years. He is one of the founders of Sea Wolf MMA club at the Åland Islands where Robert sought for him last summer and they sat down at Johan’s house and discussed a possibility of training together.

ROBERT HELENENIUS 2015

After training a week in Tallinn, Robert travels back to Åland Islands where he lives with his partner and three children. Later he will arrive back to Tallinn with his trainer for some serious sparring before the upcoming fight. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

Robert walked in the hotel corridor dressed in jeans and a black T-shirt that said ’15 years of pain’ on the back. The purple cap on his head read ‘Vikings’, embroidered after the NFL football team. The most noticeable difference compared with his days in the ring a few years back was his long beard in a shape of a French fork, which made the 31-year-old look a few years older. It was time for lunch after the technical practice in the morning at the gym in Tallinn centre.

I, Johan and Robert sat down to eat and as usual the discussion turned out to be a philosophic one.

The topic was found quickly: the attitude of Finns.

The Finnish people are wild and supportive at their best, pessimistic and depressing at their worst.

The latter is what Robert brought up while eating a meaty hotel meal.

“I try to be a vegetarian but I rarely succeed,” he commented briefly on his food with a smile on his lips.

“To say that something is impossible and it doesn’t work, well, they are as right as those saying it does work.”

Robert however stresses the importance of avoiding sugar and wheat – “the bad stuff which creates an inflammation in the body.”

Robert said he dislikes the Finnish mentality of painting devils on the wall even before trying to win or succeed: You don’t go saying before the ice hockey world championships that this will never work out. Why even bother to try?

“To say that something is impossible and it doesn’t work, well, they are as right as those saying it does work.”

“It’s a matter of attitude.”

Robert said, some people have asked him, “Aren’t you too old? Shouldn’t you quit already?”

But like a duck with rain dripping on its feathers – he lets it slide.

“I have decided not to bother myself with the naysayers. They lower themselves way below.”

“I believe that every human can change their negative energy to positive or vice versa. I believe that our brains are so strong that we can dictate how we live our lives. I believe one can control one’s life and I think it’s one of the most difficult things to understand.”

In this aspect, he seemed to have changed a lot. Robert of today would surely not be bothered with what the papers wrote about him.

For now, he has had enough of handling papers, anyway.

Robert possesses the calmness of a Buddhist monk. But if you want to see his temperament, you should ask about his problems with Sauerland.

I did.

A week before, in a press conference in Finland.

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In 2010, Robert drove around Berin in an old Saab. In 2015, he drives his own sponsored Kia. Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

“I am a boxer. I want to focus in boxing,” he answered the question of how things are going with Saureland. His eyes glared with menace that I’ve seen in the ring countless of times.

“I’ll let the lawyers handle the situation,” he continued.

According to his lawyer, the paperwork is now done and he is free from his contract with the German promotional outfit.

That’s what’s going to make the fight in March possible.

“I am free. I can plan my career how I want to,” Robert said.

“It’s like a boat in the harbour. The boat floats safely in the dock but that is not the function of the boat.”

ROBERT HELENENIUS 2015

“Every action I have made has brought me to the point where I am now.” “I am going to be the world champion in two years.” Picture: Tony Öhberg for Finland Today

I asked him if he had seen the Klitschko documentary where the former heavyweight champion Lamon Brewster revealed his injured eye.

He hadn’t and added that every boxer knows the risks while stepping to the ring.

Johan joined the answer.

“It’s like a boat in the harbour. The boat floats safely in the dock but that is not the function of the boat.”

“Exactly!” Robert shouted.

It has been two years since Robert has stepped into the ring but he has lived his life for every moment to become a world champion.

“It’s the only way,” he said.

“There’s not much you can teach Robert Helenius about boxing. But you can push him to be a more physical and a mentally strong person.”

“You must live every second in a way that you will become the world champion. Your whole life must be devoted to it.”

In the past years, he has spent more time with his family and thought more about his career. He even overcame another injury, this time with his vocal ligaments which were torn during a sparring session.

“When you have a goal that you aim for everything will fall in place. Everybody is going to have difficulties but the most important thing is that you don’t get stuck,” Robert said.

“The two-year layoff has been the best thing of his career. He has been able to totally take the time to rebuild himself,” Johan said earlier.

“There’s not much you can teach Robert Helenius about boxing. But you can push him to be a more physical and a mentally strong person.”

Robert took a sip of his coffee.

In two years, he will become the world champion, he said.

“It is not a long time.”

Are you nervous of winning the title?

“I wouldn’t say so. It’s more like exciting. It will open doors and possibilities.”

“It’s going to be fun.”

Does it mean that you’ll have to beat the brothers Klitchko?

“Whoever is the world champion at the moment …”

“It doesn’t matter.”

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Margus Keek
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Here is the link of the boxing gym where Robert where training in Tallinn- https://www.facebook.com/wirutreening

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