HELSINKI -- Robert Helenius stared out an open window, momentarily transfixed by the cold, concrete jungle of his home country and its quickly fading light. After answering questions for nearly 45 minutes in a dimly lit lounge tucked inside the Radisson Hotel, Helenius had one of his own: Why are Americans so down on boxing?
He couldn't grasp it. He grew up watching tapes of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier and later would crowd around the TV to watch Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis square off on U.S. soil. It was popular then, Helenius reasons, why isn't it popular now?
Lack of heavyweights, a reporter answers. Americans need one they can identify with.
Pausing, Helenius cracks a grin. He has never been to the U.S., his lone planned trip to Chicago for the 2007 World Championships scuttled by a broken thumb. He badly wanted to go, so bad that he hid the injury under his hand wraps for two weeks, waiting until he could see the bone pushing up against his skin to see a doctor. The four-inch scar from the surgery on his thumb remains, a permanent reminder.
"I wonder what they would think of me," Helenius said. "Because I will be the undisputed champion."
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We've heard that before though, haven't we? It seems every heavyweight (or cruiserweight, these days) has declared himself the next big thing. Samuel Peter, David Haye, Chris Arreola. Heavyweights talk the talk but when it comes time to walk the walk -- meaning a matchup with Wladimir or Vitali Klitschko -- they come up short. Arreola was blasted out by Vitali in 10 rounds. Haye lost a lopsided decision to Wladimir. Peter has the distinction of losing to both brothers, to one (Wladimir) when he was on his way up and the other (Vitali) when he owned a piece of the title.
But there is something about Helenius. Maybe it's his size. At 6-foot-7, 244 pounds, Helenius is the rare opponent who can look a Klitschko in the eye. Maybe it's his power. Helenius (16-0, 11 KOs) isn't light-hitting. He has crushing power in both hands and a killer instinct that instinctively kicks in when he sees an opponent on the ropes. He has knocked out former world title holders Peter, Lamon Brewster and Sergei Liakhovich in his last fights, each in emphatic fashion.
Whatever it is, there is a growing belief that Helenius, 27, has the most potential to end the Klitschkos' reign. It's a label Helenius embraces, albeit one that has surprised him. Boxing, you see, wasn't always his thing. As the youngest of five brothers, Helenius tried his hand at a lot of sports. He was an offensive and defensive tackle in football. He was a hard checking defenseman in hockey. He played soccer, handball and the shot put. By his account, he was pretty good at all of them.
It was his father, Karl, a local butcher with a modest amateur boxing background, that pushed Helenius towards the sport. Helenius was big as a boy, but he wasn't mean. Oftentimes when he found himself in a difficult situation, he would try to think his way out of it. Even as he started to have success, winning back-to-back bronze medals at the 2000 and '01 European Championships, Helenius never considered the possibility of boxing for a living.
"I did it for fun," Helenius said. "Amateur boxing isn't big in Finland. I didn't ever think about being a world champion."
Money, or a lack of it, changed that. Growing up, Helenius held a variety of odd jobs. He was a construction worker ("too physical," Helenius said), teaching assistant ("I don't know how I got that job," Helenius said. "I sucked at school.") and an aide at an orphanage. Boxing offered some quicker cash. Helenius signed with Sauerland Event and turned pro in 2008, where he discovered that fighting without headgear and with smaller gloves suited him. He won his first fight in a first round knockout and after that, Helenius said, he was hooked.
"Being a professional, it's so much better than the amateurs," Helenius said. "Amateur boxing feels like a different sport. As a professional I have so much better power and can do so many different things."
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There are still parts of boxing Helenius is getting used to. Trash talking, for instance. Helenius doesn't care for it and isn't very good at it. The only comedy at a Helenius press events is unintentional. At the final press conference to promote his fight against Dereck Chisora on Saturday (3:30 p.m. ET, Epix/EpixHD.com), Helenius found himself flustered when Chisora said he planned on making love to Helenius in the ring.
"That's disturbing," Helenius said.
"I will," Chisora shot back. "I will make love to you in the ring."
"I don't want you to do that," Helenius deadpanned.
Ali, he is not. But Helenius doesn't have to be. Fans worldwide crave a meaningful, competitive heavyweight title fight. It's not the Klitschkos' fault they are head and shoulders better than everyone else. But boxing isn't the same when two fighters who will never fight each other rule the division. Helenius offers hope. He's not ready to fight a Klitschko yet. His jab is unpolished and under the tutelage of Ulli Wegner, Helenius is still crafting his technique. He says he plans to box more against Chisora, to work behind his jab and finish him in the later rounds with his thudding right hand.
In a year, he hopes to be closer to a finished product. Fans have waited this long for a challenger to the Klitschko reign. Helenius hopes they will wait just a little while longer.