Robert Helenius - talking with his fists
Robert Helenius, 27, could be a couple of bouts away from becoming the World Heavyweight Champion. He talks to Helsingin Sanomat about life inside and outside the ring.
By Jouni K. Kemppainen
ERFURT MESSEHALLE, dressing room, 27.8.2011
My father finishes off his pre-fight prayer: “And let Robert produce everything in the ring that we have trained for. Fill him with the power of the Holy spirit. Amen.”
We always say a prayer together before the bout, my father and I.
It’s a ritual that we have to adhere to. It brings a sense of comfort and security.
If my father isn’t ringside, then we pray together over the phone.
I listen to what’s going on from behind the scenes. My opponent Sergei Liakhovich is being announced by the MC.
Then the first chords of Three 6 Mafia’s "It's A Fight" blast out in the Fair Centre.
That’s my cue, my entrance number.
I climb onto the podium.
The MC screams out: "And… in the blue corner… the defending champion… Robert... “Nooooordic Nightmare” HELENIUS!”
The crowd goes nuts and the noise drowns out the intro music.
I throw a few punches in the air and I set off through the crowd towards the ring.
On the way I take a few dance steps, and bit of a skip and jump.
That’s why I use the hip-hop music to pipe me into the ring. It gives me a nice loose dancing vibe. Through the ropes and into the ring, and hands held high above my head.
There are a surprisingly large number of Finns out there in the audience. They are screaming out encouragement in Finnish. It brings up the goose-pimples.
The MC is explaining something.
Even with the microphone to his lips, I can’t make out a word of what he’s saying. Frankly I wish they’d shut the hell up and let us get on with the fight.
Liakhovich comes out into the centre of the ring. I stare straight into his eyes. He glares right back at me.
The bell goes. I get into position, and throw a left jab towards Liakhovich’s head.
What the...? A Hummer?! Good Lord alive, Robert Helenius wants to get himself a Hummer as a set of wheels.
Yes, exactly, one of those classic American macho monster things that looks like it ought to be carrying troops in downtown Kabul.
I must admit it’s a bit of a surprise.
Before this came up, I’d had a chance to get to know the guy a little, and my first impressions had been that Helenius was a pretty smart dude, who had had the opportunity to think about this, that and the other thing during those countless long lonely evenings on training camps.
Definitely a sympathetic sort of chap, and anything but a superficial or one-tracked slugger.
But a Hummer? Wow!
The subject of cars surfaced here in the cafeteria at the Keinbaum Sports Centre, some 30 kilometres east of Berlin.
Out of the window we can see the wheels belonging to athletes on training camps here, lined up in the car park.
A quick glance shows that at least one of the boxers currently at the complex has managed to realize his dreams.
I mean, a yellow Ferrari isn’t really so much a car so much as an in-your-face statement, is it?
Then Helenius says he wouldn’t dream of getting a Ferrari.
He’s into BIG cars.
“No, I think I’d sooner buy a Hummer”, he goes on.
He notices the brief stunned silence at this, and realises that his answer has not gone down very well.
"Ah. And why not, then? Because it’s a gas-guzzler and destroys the planet, I guess”, he asks with a hint of challenge in his voice.
“Look, we are doing such a fine job on destroying the planet that one little Hummer isn’t going to make a load of difference.”
I’m tempted to squeak back in some sort of outraged Gaia protest that "C’mon now, the Hummer is pretty much the hallmark of not giving a shit", but I’m not sure I really dare, since Helenius is after all two metres tall and a heavyweight professional boxer of some talent.
Besides, I’m supposed to be stepping into the ring with him tomorrow, and I don’t want to give the big fella any ideas.
Up strides Georg Bramowski, one of the coaches with Team Sauerland, the stable to which Helenius belongs, and the topic of conversation changes abruptly.
Helenius still has a large chunk of his 500-gramme fillet steak uneaten when Bramowski announces that there has been a change to the boxer’s regimen for the day.
The scheduled sparring opponent for Marco Huck - the current WBO World Cruiserweight Champion - is "indisposed", and Helenius will have to step into the breach.
He’s got a training bout with Huck in a couple of hours from now, reports Bramowski.
Helenius does not look at all enthusiastic about the sudden change of plan.
Does this mean he’s going to get smacked around a bit?
“Yeah. Right. Cool”, says Helenius, and he laughs.
His expression nevertheless betrays that this surprising sparring session is not altogether a joking matter.
Helenius went through a two-hour power training routine this morning, and just watching him brought a sweat on.
It is quite clear that after a heavy session like that, Helenius's muscles are going to be a shade locked up.
Huck, on the other hand, is preparing for an eighth defence of his WBO title.
He’s in great shape, and he is right now just doing a bit of pre-fight fine-tuning.
It sounds a little unfair from where I'm sitting.
“Yes, it does”, answers Helenius.
But, I venture, wouldn’t it be the case that in a sparring match like this, the boxers wouldn’t actually be punching their full weight, as it were?
Helenius looks at me in a mixture of pity and disbelief.
“I can assure you we trade punches just as hard as in a real bout.”
He makes short work of the remains of his steak, gets up, and stretches his considerable frame, which turned out rather annoyingly to be just 199.5 centimetres from top to toe at a measurement made in the spring.
Even though Helenius is 27, he has still grown a bit since then.
Now he’s up to a more satisfying two metres, and a few millimetres over.
Helenius picks up his can of energy drink, which looks absurdly small in his massive fist, and we are off.
On the way to his quarters at the sports complex, Helenius drops a few facts about Marco Huck.
He says he’s not a fighter who is exactly spoilt for skills, but more of an aggressive bruiser, the sort of boxer who comes at you full on all the time.
Well then, I suppose the thing to do with someone who charges at you like that is to put him on the deck in the first round?
"Oh yeah, Haha. The only problem with me is that I tend not to be able to punish the guys from our stable that way. In sparring bouts I tend to be a bit soft with them”, Helenius admits.
I size up what Liakhovic is doing. I plan to try to give him something to remember in the opening encounters, just to take the edge off his enthusiasm.
He catches me with a left.
I get a quick flurry of punches in around his ear.
They do the business, and they take a bit of the zing out of him.
Towards the end of the round, I notice he’s keeping his left hand just a shade too high for comfort.
I move in with the left, feint to go high, and then this leaves room for a hard right to the body.
I hit him with a decent right hook and there’s a satisfying thud as the blow goes in.
Hooks to the body are very important in the opening rounds of a fight; they take a heavy toll on a boxer.
The stomach is a sensitive place.
Helenius leaves in good time to walk towards the farthest corner of the extensive Kienbaum complex.
Over there is a gym, in which a boxing ring has been set up.
There was no post-lunch nap for Robert today.
It’s hardly surprising when you think about it. The news of this unplanned sparring session has naturally set his adrenaline flowing.
I have an odd urge at this point to try to strike a bit of contrast by piping up something about the natural surroundings, and it works, as Helenius, too, agrees that the scenery here is very pretty.
The path to the gym winds around the shores of an attractive lake, with little bays and coves following one after another.
The scene is framed by some handsome oaks in small stands, in which groups of jays are arguing noisily over the acorns.
And all this is going on less than an hour by car from the centre of Berlin.
Helenius explains that he really doesn’t enjoy living in Berlin.
It is too hectic a city for his liking, and too far from the natural world.
At some point, when his successful boxing career has happily ridden into the sunset, he would like to move back to Finland and build himself a house.
Perhaps somewhere in the Porvoo archipelago, where he could live in peace.
But for now he still has to build his career in the ring, and this place in Kienbaum has had no shortage of success in the winner-developing department.
It was established in 1936 for the Berlin Olympics.
Later it was home and practice centre for the iron-hard athletes of the GDR.
More than a few champions have been forged in the gyms here and on the running tracks at the complex.
Robert Helenius fights for Team Sauerland, which is one of the biggest boxing stables in the world, if not the biggest there is.
This particular training camp lasts for seven weeks.
Fortunately it is not 24/7, and he can get away at the weekends to his family in Gatow in Berlin.
Usually a title fight will be preceded by a four-week intensive training camp, and then we’re talking about a whole different level of discipline.
During that time, there is no leaving the sports complex at all.
“Yes, it’s very tough to be away from the family like that. But I’m a lazy trainer. I need a coach who is getting at me, who is pushing me the whole time”, Helenius acknowledges.
He speaks very warmly of his fiancée, and of course it is nice to hear this side of a boxer coming to the surface.
Sandra Helsing is a former Porvoo policewoman, who nowadays looks after the family’s practical day-to-day matters.
When the subject comes around to Helenius’s two children, Chillie and Kingston, the big boxer is suddenly like putty.
The strange forenames each have a back story.
When 3-year-old Chillie was still in her mother’s tummy, she was already a peppery character, and she got her name before she was born.
Two-year-old Kingston, on the other hand, is laid back and loose like a reggae beat.
“Takes after his dad”, observes Helenius drily.
The strict regimen laid down by Helenius’s coaching team has paid dividends.
The 27-year-old Finn has climbed in short order into the upper branches of the world heavyweight tree.
The WBO, one of the four major world championship sanctioning organisations, has ranked Robert Helenius as the No.1 challenger to the Ukrainian Wladimir Klitschko, the current holder of the WBA (Super), IBF, WBO, IBO, and Ring Magazine Heavyweight World Championship belts.
These days it is hard to keep track of the relative standings and credibility of the various boxing organisations, but the list kept by Ring Magazine is probably the most authoritative of the lot, and on this table, Helenius is ranked five down from Wladimir Klitschko, making him the 6th best heavyweight on the planet.
The sixth best in the world!
This is an achievement that is actually rather hard to get one’s head round.
I mean, think about it: Joe Louis, Rocky Marciano, Mohammad Ali, Joe Frazier, Larry Holmes, George Foreman, Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, the Klitschko brothers (Wladimir’s older brother Vitali is ranked at #2)…
The undisputed heavyweight champion has traditionally been up there on the pedestal as one of the world’s greatest athletes and the world’s biggest sporting star.
And our Robert Helenius, he’s perhaps just a couple of knockouts away from that title.
Of the Finnish heavyweights of yore, only Gunnar Bärlund (1911-1982) has been ranked higher by Ring Magazine (in 1938 he was seen as the second challenger to Joe Louis’s title), and Bärlund has had a statue erected to him in Helsinki - and he also has an annual amateur tournament named after him.
“Yup. It is pretty neat”, says Helenius a shade absent-mindedly, by way of comment on the buzz surrounding him.
It is likely he has his mind a bit more on the sparring match that awaits him.
Helenius has by this time been more fully briefed on exactly why he has to climb into the ring with Marco Huck.
Huck’s sparring opponent, hired for the occasion, arrived at the training camp only yesterday.
In their very first encounter, Huck gave the young Welsh boxer such a faceful that he apparently got concussion.
At least the sparring partner has been throwing up in his room all morning.
Liakhovic is wary. It’s as if he’s scared, or else he’s showing me too much respect for his own good.
The situation has to be exploited.
I should throw punches more actively, and I do.
Now he stops backing off and comes forward to trade blows.
He’s noticed I stepped the tempo up a notch.
Liakhovich is a big man, even though he maybe looks small alongside me.
The best weapons in his arsenal are his left hook and his right uppercut.
I have to keep an eye out for them.
I’m going forward and attacking more than I usually do.
Generally it is best for me to stay out and keep a distance between myself and the opponent,
using the jab and long-range punches, because I have the reach - I ‘ve got much longer arms than most fighters.
I’m feeling pretty comfortable here. I’m not having any trouble mixing things up and getting in close.
I’m reading his punches and I can block them, and I’m doing OK on the counter.
I’ve got a good feeling about being in tight like this.
Helenius’s coach Georg Bramowski is already waiting in the gym.
Helenius binds the cloth wrist wraps around his hands and starts to warm up.
Before long, Marco Huck arrives.
Bramowski introduces the new man formally, almost deferentially: der Weltmeister. World Champion.
For now, Helenius is only the holder of the WBO Intercontinental belt.
The two stablemates warm up amicably enough together.
Then Bramowski orders them to get ready for the bout.
The two men don training gloves. Black padded helmets with the Adidas stripe are strapped on, and the six-round sparring bout can commence.
In the empty gymnasium, the fight sounds wild, loud, and not a little scary.
There is absolutely no way that the armchair viewer, watching on the television, can sense just how hard these professionals hit each other.
The only obvious thing that distinguishes this from a real contest is that the two boxers cordially touch gloves before returning to their corners at the end of each round.
Now normally Helenius would naturally wipe the floor with some cruiserweight type, even if he is the WBO World Champion at the weight, but the morning's exertions have taken their toll and stiffened up his long arms.
Towards the end of the bout, Helenius's biceps start to cramp up, and Huck is able to come in close and loose off a flurry of big combination punches.
"Robert, Robert, you weigh 20 kilos more than him. Start using it", yells Bramowski from the corner, and both boxers burst out laughing.
Then the bout is over. Both men are still fully compos mentis and none the worse for wear for the fight.
The coach orders them to take off for a run to warm down.
Huck and Helenius jog around the running track for ten laps side by side, chatting the while.
During their run, Huck tells Helenius about the previous day's sparring session.
Apparently before they got into the ring, the young Welsh opponent had been as cocky as you like, but after a few rounds he'd been shaking like a leaf.
Huck roars with laughter at his story.
Continues at the link below
Helsingin Sanomat / First published in the November 2011 issue of the Kuukausiliite monthly supplement
More on this subject:
Robert Helenius - talking with his fists (Part II)
Robert Helenius - talking with his fists (Part III)
Previously in HS International Edition:
Heavyweight Robert Helenius´s next opponent to be revealed next week (27.10.2011)
Professional heavyweight boxer Robert Helenius excited about his latest ranking (20.9.2011)
Robert Helenius successfully defends heavyweight titles in Germany (29.8.2011)
Robert Helenius (Wikipedia)
Boxrec: Robert Helenius
The Ring: Heavyweight Rankings, 31.10.2011
JOUNI K. KEMPPAINEN / Helsingin Sanomat