In my mind, Robert Helenius is an enormous, hulking vulture, covered in oily black feathers, huddled on a high rocky outcropping in some desolate, wind-swept Scandinavian wilderness, surveying the thrashing waters of the Barents Sea with a severe look on his face. At night he swoops to a nearby valley floor to commune with witches, transforming spectacularly into an intimidating warlock who directs their unspeakable ceremonies, waving a cursed wooden staff at the sky as bonfires blaze. His eyes are hooded at all times by a dark cloak when he is in human form, shadowing the haunted orbs that would reveal him as a dark and brutal spirit. Only when the devil has been satisfied with his ministrations does he regain his wings and fly back to his cave, indifferent to the pelting rain, unmoved by loneliness, burning only with a desire for eternal midnight. In the morning, he wakes up and goes to the gym.
I may be investing Helenius with an entirely imaginary inner life, I admit. But it helps me feel invested in his work. There are, it must be said, elements of his real life that have cultivated this particular impression in me of him. He comes from Finland, which is not a place that professional boxers usually come from. He is in fact hulking, at 6-foot-6. His bald head and bushy eyebrows and beard and runic tattoos and tendency to do his ring walk wearing dark cloaks all contribute to the general impression of him as a black metal frontman who has taken up boxing as a hobby. Reinforcing this is the fact that he is large, and somewhat skilled in the rudiments of boxing, but not athletic. This is a type that can exist in the heavyweight division, which is populated at lower levels by a lot of guys who are big and athletic but not skilled, or skilled and athletic but not big, or, sometimes, just big, with nothing else going for them. Those types of fighters can be reliably knocked out by someone like Helenius, who has power and does know how to box, but lacks grace. He has a thick middle and narrow shoulders and lurches rather than glides in the ring, in the manner of a big bouncer in some concert venue who has reluctantly stirred from his comfortable stool in order to go break somebody’s face.
Helenius has slow feet but long arms, and he has knocked out some quality heavyweights. Most notably, he knocked out Adam Kownacki, the Polish heavyweight from Brooklyn who looks like a huge human baby, twice in a row. Kownacki has a hard head—I witnessed him and Chris Arreola beat the shit out of each other for 12 straight rounds once with no apparent ill effects—so knocking him out means that Helenius can probably knock out most heavyweights, if he can catch them. On Saturday night in Brooklyn, he got his chance at the big time.
The big old Nordic Nightmare was set up as Deontay Wilder’s comeback opponent. It is generally not a good sign in boxing if you are handpicked to be the first fight for a big money fighter who is rehabilitating his career, because it means that fighter’s managers believe you have the correct blend of traits to lose this sort of stepping-stone fight. But really, Helenius had a chance here. Wilder, tall and lean from Tuscaloosa, Ala., was one of the top heavyweights in the world before he was knocked out by Tyson Fury in back-to-back thrilling but ultimately humiliating fights. Wilder then kind of retired, then got kind of bored, then Tuscaloosa erected a statue of him in town and he was so inspired by the statue that he decided to start boxing again (true story). Wilder is no Muhammad Ali, but he is likable enough. His primary way of showing enthusiasm is to just yell something for a long time at the top of his lungs into a microphone while standing in the ring after a fight—usually he yells “BOMB ZZZZZQUADDDDDDD,” the name of his crew, but this same technique can be repurposed to yell “BROOOOOOOOKKKKLLLYYNNNNNNN!!” as he did on Saturday night. Usually Brooklyn doesn’t put up with that sort of thing from tourists, but we make an exception for heavyweight champs.
Wilder’s most salable feature as a fighter is that he throws a straight right hand that will absolutely starch senseless any human on planet Earth. Even at the age of 36, he is a raw boxer—his legs are gawky, his defense is utterly porous, he has never really committed to fighting off his long jab, which would be the sensible thing for a tall, long-armed puncher like him to do. But if he touches you with the big right hand you will fall. Thus opponents often look like American Gladiator contestants scuttling through the obstacle course, trying to avoid being blasted with that tennis-ball cannon. Wilder can be hit to the body. He can be hit to the head, because his arms flail all over the place. You can get angles on him with footwork, and you can exhaust him, as Tyson Fury did. But you cannot stand within a 90-degree arc in front of him and trade punches because, even though he is not the most accurate sniper, sooner or later one of those right hands will come in contact with some point of your skull, and you will be rendered unconscious.
I knew damn well that Robert Helenius, that pale and flat-footed monster, would not be using footwork to get any angles. Can you imagine a death metal frontman using footwork? It’s not his thing. He would stand relatively still, which is his only speed, and try to knock Wilder out, while Wilder was trying to knock him out. This setup can make for an entertaining fight, for as long as it lasts.
And it lasted half of one round. Helenius came in his dark hooded cloak, as usual, and he wore white and blue skirt-style trunks with runes on the back. This no doubt pleased the Finnish stands inside Barclays Center, of which I saw a group of three, marking the first time I have ever seen a Finnish flag waved at a boxing match. On a guy the size and shape of Helenius, though, the trunks looked like a big diaper. Wilder came out moving in circles. He is capable of this—he has the body of an NBA player, making him the most obvious manifestation of the “What if all the good big American athletes still became boxers instead of all playing football or basketball?” conversation that is a staple whenever more than two American boxing writers talk with one another. Helenius shuffled forward, as always, and was aggressive, lacking any other options, and Wilder spent the first minute on his toes, and there was a little back and forth, and you felt the interesting sort of tension of a heavyweight fight where you know that both men are vulnerable to sudden death.
And then Helenius backed Wilder into a corner, and bent at the waist to lunge forward with a punch, and you just hear KEWAPPPP and Helenius fell directly backwards as if Zeus had right then decided to lightning-bolt zap an evil Nordic warlord. He hadn’t even been hit with one of Wilder’s typical missile-like right hands, which are launched from the back shoulder with a full turn of the hips to fill them with power. Rather, he had eaten half of a pull counter—the name for the shot a boxer throws when they pull back from an incoming shot, then rotate their shoulders and shoot a straight right hand back. Wilder didn’t even rotate his shoulders at all. He had his arms straight up, and he was standing square, with his shoulders perpendicular to Helenius, and he just popped that right hand straight over Helenius’s extended jab as he leaned forward. It was almost a fucking arm punch, not nearly as strong as Wilder is capable of. Yet when it connected you heard the sound that a baseball bat would make if swung into a hanging carpet at full speed.
Helenius laid flat on his back with his legs extended, the whites of his half-open eyes staring vacantly at the roof of the arena and all of its purple lights. He looked at that moment like a goth monster who had at last found his place of peaceful rest. All he needed was a coffin. Eventually, he got up and lurched back to the dressing room. He’ll make it back to his lair in time for Halloween.