Monday, August 22, 2011

A Fact Finding Mission about Robert Helenius

1.  Who?
Robert Helenius (15-0, 10 KOs), heavyweight contender, who fights out of Germany, but is originally from Finland.

2.  Why should I care?
Helenius has already knocked out former heavyweight titleholders Lamon Brewster and Sam Peter.  He faces another former titlist Siarhei Liakhovich this weekend.  He may be only one or two fights away from fighting for the heavyweight title.

3.  But the heavyweight division is putrid.  Why would Helenius be any different than the others who have faced the Klitschkos and failed to impress?
It is true that the Klitschkos have dominated their division.  However, they won't be around forever.  Helenius is only 27 and he's going to be a major factor in the division over the next decade. 

4.  OK, so what makes this kid special? 
The best thing about Helenius is his rapid improvement.  After only knocking out 1 of his first 5 opponents (all of whom had mediocre professional records), he has stopped his last 9 out of 10, which includes KOs of two former champions and a title challenger.

Helenius features an excellent offensive arsenal and has solid defensive skills.  Also, he is incredibly accurate with his punches, especially his jab and straight right hand.  His grasp of spacing and his ring generalship far belies his experience of only 15 professional fights.

5.  Is his power legit?
He knocks people out mostly from an accumulation of punishment.  He has a solid right hand and he can also end fights with his left hook or left uppercut. 

6.  The knockouts are nice, but there are many fighters who have built up records against fading, former champions.  What makes him world-class?
It remains to be seen whether Helenius will be able to reach that level.  He has a number of things going for him.  He is well trained, having Ulli Wegner in his corner.  Helenius controls distance magnificently, frequently employing his stinging jab or counter left hook to keep opponents off of him.  He also features some subtle, veteran defensive moves, which minimize his opponents' offense.  He uses his left hand and forearm to keep his opponents at bay as they attempt to come forward.  He also shifts back or to the side as they approach him, thwarting their timing.  In short, he anticipates their offensive flurries very well and takes himself out of harm's way.

Helenius features an uncommonly large offensive arsenal for a heavyweight.  His jab may not be on Wladimir Klitschko's level, but it could be the second best in the division.  It's a hard jab that causes a lot of damage in it of itself.  He also throws fluid combinations, featuring left hooks, straight rights and uppercuts.  All are above-average punches.  His counter left hook is really outstanding.

He also utilizes his size very well.  At over 6'6" and weighing about 240, he fights tall and doesn't get sloppy in the ring. His opponents have to work very hard just to get close to him.  Like other well-schooled veterans, Helenius knows how to tie-up on the inside, deftly using his physicality on the inside to further weigh down his opponents.  However, unlike Wladimir Klitschko, he's not afraid to go to the body and can certainly mix it up on the inside. 

7.  So what are his weaknesses?
Helenius doesn't move very well laterally.  He could be susceptible to stick-and-move guys like Eddie Chambers or even someone like Alexander Povetkin who features a high work rate and can get out of the pocket.  Sam Peter's power bothered him early in their fight before Helenius adjusted to it.  Who knows how many right hands he could take from Vitali or Wladimir Klitschko, but that could be said about any heavyweight.

Technically, he sometimes lets opponents escape, because he underutilizes his left hook.  Thus, if boxers continue to circle to his left, he can have problems cutting off the ring.  He also can give away rounds early in a fight, feeling out his opponents instead of boxing aggressively.   

8.  You mentioned Ulli Wegner earlier.  Where have I heard that name before?
Wegner trains many of the top boxers in the Sauerland Event stable.  His most notable name is Arthur Abraham.  He has also trained former titleholders Sven Ottke, Markus Beyer and Oktay Urkal.  Most of his boxers fight in the classic, European upright style.  Wegner is very good at teaching defense, spacing, quick and powerful combinations and the finer points of ring generalship.  

9.  Sauerland seems to be moving Helenius very fast.  Did he have an extensive amateur career?
Helenius was a good but not great amateur.  He won a silver medal at the European Amateur Boxing Championships, although he failed to qualify for the Olympics.  Overall, he never won a notable amateur tournament; however, he often did place well.  

In a telling quote (courtesy of Eastside Boxing), Helenius speaks candidly about his middling amateur success and the modest start to his professional career:  

"I would say at the beginning I wasn’t physically better like now because I was really lazy as an amateur training. I wasn’t training that well and when I came to Sauerland it started a whole new level of training. So the first fights I was only getting used to the hard training and stuff like that so it was good to have some distance fights with them because you get the experience and stuff like that and how it feels to be in a professional ring. Now I’m more physical and more stable and more physical. I’ve improved really a lot since my first few fights. I think it’s much in my head. I’m more stable and I feel better and I could do stuff in the ring that I couldn’t do before because I was afraid my conditioning would end soon. Now I feel more secure."

That quote is fascinating, for it illustrates that Helenius felt that he lacked the conditioning and, frankly, the self-confidence to perform at the highest levels of the sport.  Although it's fairly unique to see boxers speaking about personal insecurity, perhaps Helenius' perspective could be best understood through the prism of the Finnish boxing program.  Essentially, Helenius was the Finnish boxing program! 

Growing up in Finland, what were the realistic expectations that he could amount to a serious boxing prospect in a country with very little historical success in the sport?  What boxing infrastructure was in place in Finland for him to become an elite amateur?  Who were the esteemed coaches or fellow boxers he had to help inspire him and take him to the next level?  With these factors under consideration, it's understandable how a young boxer from a country with such a limited boxing history could feel insecure about his future prospects in the sport.

In essence, Helenius is a trailblazer.  He has massively superseded whatever modest expectations were placed on him as an amateur from Finland.  With Wegner, Helenius has augmented his knowledge base of boxing fundamentals.  He also has significantly improved his professionalism and physical conditioning.   As a result, Helenius has harnessed his raw talents to a level where he can now knock out former champions with great chins.   So his amateur career wasn't spectacular, but, in his case, there were mitigating circumstances that a mere amateur win-loss record fails to capture.

10. So how will he do against Liakhovich?
Like most of his recent fights, Helenius will win by late-round knockout.  Liakhovich's chin is questionable and he can wilt in the later rounds of tough fights.  Expect a close fight early, but Helenius will gradually pull away.  Liakhovich falls in the ninth or tenth round. 

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