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Somewhere in a castle in Finland on Saturday night, five minutes removed from beating Mika Mielonen, Robert Helenius was posed a question. “Dillian Whyte is out; are you in?” Fighting Anthony Joshua in London on seven days’ notice was the proposition, and it was one that Helenius accepted with little hesitation. Four days on, he casually tells reporters in the English capital: “Nobody will remember a coward.”
Few would have labelled Helenius as such, had he decided not to take this fight with Joshua in the wake of Whyte’s failed drug test, but the Finn himself would have lived with regret.
That said, there was more to Helenius’s decision than just that. “Of course I think he’s vulnerable,” the 39-year-old says of Joshua, with whom he sparred in 2017. “I wouldn’t be here otherwise. I think I’d find easier jobs to do. I’m gonna take my chances and say now is the best time to fight him.”
While Helenius fought just last Saturday, stopping Mielonen in the third round, Joshua enters the O2 Arena this week on the back of a points win over Jermaine Franklin. That victory came in the same venue, four months ago, and saw the Briton bounce back from two straight losses to Oleksandr Usyk. Helenius’s win against Mielonen also marked an upturn in form, as the “Nordic Nightmare” responded positively to a first-round loss to Deontay Wilder. That knockout last October left Wilder in tears and Helenius pondering retirement. “I didn’t think about boxing for about six months,” Helenius says. “I just did some bag work now and then, and mainly strength training. I was weighing a lot in the wintertime…”
Then came Saturday’s bout with Mielonen at Savonlinna’s opera venue, and the Anthony Joshua call. Helenius’s manager Markus Sundman says a deal was struck within 24 hours, with much of the negotiating done from a zoo in Finland. Sundman in fact got the call on Saturday morning but did not wish to bother Helenius until after the heavyweight had fought that evening. Did they accept the first offer they got? “No comment,” Helenius and Sundman laugh, though the boxer admits this is not the biggest payday of his career, with funds around this weekend’s event having been hit by Whyte’s exit.
Another intriguing factor is the fighters’ past as sparring partners, when “AJ” prepared for his clash with Wladimir Klitschko in 2017. How did Helenius rate Joshua, now 33, at the time? “Hard hitter, good technicals, a little bit robotic. I felt pretty confident.”
Helenius also acknowledges that Joshua has looked somewhat hesitant in his last three fights, saying: “I’ve seen that change, but he didn’t get knocked out against Usyk or in his last fight, he showed he’s still got it. You have to overcome the gun-shyness after you get knocked out. I’ve been knocked out three times, and I think the first time was the bad one; I was probably depressed for a few months after that.
“But I think his last fight, he made a good fight. I have to be awake and nimble, explosive. I hope he’s coming for me [from the first bell]. I am looking forward to this. I’m here to win.” Helenius is serious.
Ahead of his fight last week, the Finn had planned a family holiday to Lapland – a trip that is now on hold. “They understand, they’ve been all their life with me,” Helenius says of his children, who are 15, 13 and 10 years old and prefer football to boxing.
And what did his wife think? “I can’t ask permission from home to do what I do,” Helenius says. “They either accept it or they don’t. Sometimes, of course, [I think about the dangers of boxing]; I would be stupid not to. And, of course, I’ve been thinking about having a normal life after boxing and not having any brain damage, but boxing is always boxing. And I love it, I love the adrenalin. The [concerns] don’t outweigh the feeling of getting a really good win.”
Such a win would also make Helenius the sportsperson of the year in Finland, he and Sundman believe. “When this match got announced, it was in every newspaper and on TV – all the time for maybe 24 hours,” Helenius says.
This is a huge occasion – for Joshua, for Helenius, and for Finland. Saturday’s card is an event that Helenius saved after Whyte’s “adverse finding”, and as the Finn prepares for his showdown with AJ, he warns: “My doping is that I have a really high level of Viking blood in me…”
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