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On a warm spring day in April 2010, I was sitting in Robert Helenius’ old Saab while we cruised down the busy Potsdamer Straze in Berlin. His right hand was plastered, and he accidentally hit the switch for windscreen wipers with it. The wipers went mad, but Helenius stayed calm.
A few weeks before, I had watched in his locker room while the boxing gloves were pulled off and the knuckles of his right hand resembled a tennis ball. With these knuckles, which now made a crunching sound when his father was exploring them with his fingers, Helenius had beat his Nigerian opponent Gbenga Oloukunin—his twelfth victory in a row.
Because of the broken knuckles of his hand, Helenius’ journey to become the heavyweight world champion was put on hiatus physically but mentally Helenius was steady as his right cross, which makes a nice thumping sound when it hits the tip of his opponent’s jaw, knocking the lights out from former world champions, such as Lamon Brewster.
On that spring day seven years ago, while we sat for an interview in a café for a flashy men’s magazine at the Sony Center, and while Helenius was holding a cup of coffee with his plastered hand he told me: “I’m going to be a world champion.”
I believed him. Still do.
Several injuries, victories and some losses later, Helenius, now 34, is physically and mentally prepared to rise to the top again with the help of his tough and smart trainer, Johan Lindström.
After suffering a loss to British Dillian Whyte in a title fight in Cardiff UK last October, Lindström sensed that something was wrong. Helenius was training like an animal but his stamina was getting weaker.
At the hospital, Helenius was diagnosed of being infected with a chlamydophila pneumoniae known as Twar. The acute respiratory disease causes fatigue and influenza-like illness, known for its long recovery period.
Helenius had started a course of antibiotics already at the end of 2017, but the infection held a crushing grip over his lungs, and this resulted in Helenius gassing out in round three against Whyte.
I knew Helenius had trained hard the whole year, so while watching the fight, where Helenius had to resort to defense tactics—evading, slipping and ducking Whyte’s punches—resulting in a fight where Whyte was chasing him across the ring, I oversimplified the result by declaring that Whyte was, perhaps, the tougher fighter. In reality, he wasn’t.
“The course of antibiotics was finished a while ago. We have improved my conditioning to a much higher level. If I had my health that I have today, I would have beat Whyte,” Helenius said to me on the phone before the weigh-in of his next fight in a small town of Rakvere, in northern Estonia on Friday evening. “During that fight, Whyte didn’t really connect with any hard punches.” After the fight against Helenius, Whyte humbly declared Helenius as a technically better boxer than the WBC Heavyweight World Champion Deontay Wilder.
Under the guidance of Lindström, Helenius has indeed evolved in style. Instead of a straightforward German style of trusting in the jab and right cross, the Helenius of today intercepts punches in full swing, he delivers shocking shovel hooks into the ribs; punches slip off him like raindrops from a duck’s feathers. His hooks, when connected against the flesh, echo far along the seats.
On Saturday, Helenius will face a Belarusian fighter Yury Bykhautsou, 31. He is known as a boxer with a tough jaw. He won his last bout against the former two-time Russian amateur champion, Gasan Gimbatov. “He will keep coming forward. I predict a full fight,” Helenius said.
You can watch Helenius’ fight live for free on Saturday night at www.paf.com at 22:30.
I know that I will.