Moments after Robert Helenius was returned to consciousness under the care of the ringside medical team, the man who knocked him out, Anthony Joshua, was on the microphone thanking him for saving the show.
It was the second time in three fights that Helenius had been knocked out cold by a top-flight heavyweight only for them to express gratitude and kindness towards him immediately afterwards. In October of 2022, Helenius was brutally stopped by Deontay Wilder in the first round, needing medical attention in the ring immediately. Wilder and Helenius had previously formed a bond as sparring partners, a friendship deep enough that Wilder had declared he “loved” him. Following his losses to Tyson Fury however, Wilder needed a credible opponent to face in order to get back in the win column, so Wilder did something only fighters can ever understand—he helped his friend financially by knocking him out. Friends help friends in every line of work, but in boxing it comes with a hefty physical and emotional tax.
“We demand respect at all times, every fighter that steps in the ring. I don’t care what the record is, I don’t care who they are or where they come from, it demands respect, because if not, then you see things like that happen. And then, ‘Oh, it’s a great knockout," said Wilder following the bout. "Yeah, it’s a great knockout, it’s devastating, making history and stuff like that, but how much is that man going to suffer? He may be alright right now, a little bit, but what about the next day? What about two weeks from now? What about a month from now? Maybe years from now.”
After the fight, Helenius pondered retirement. He told Alex Pattle of The Independent that he didn’t think about boxing whatsoever for six months, aside from a few heavybag sessions. He focused on powerlifting and gained weight without worrying about being svelte for the ring. For 32 weeks, he shared nothing at all on Instagram, retreating from social media.
"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," Helenius told Pattle. "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.”
Two weeks ago, Helenius returned to the ring, scoring a third-round knockout over Mika Mielonen at the medieval Olavinlinna, a castle built in 1475 that is now a renowned opera venue. Reportedly, moments after the victory, while he was still in the venue, Helenius received a message inquiring about his willingness to face Anthony Joshua seven days later as his original opponent Dillian Whyte’s VADA testing results had produced “adverse findings.”
Like Wilder, Joshua had sparred Helenius in the past, but didn’t have the same type of bond with him. However, as Wilder did, Joshua and his promotional team saw Helenius as the perfect blend of a credible opponent with an impressive resume who also posed little threat to the larger goals they were chasing. This, of course, can broadly describe the vast majority of boxing matchmaking in fighters where one fighter is contracted to a the promoter staging the event and the other is not. But this bout belt particularly transactional, particularly after Joshua’s frank discussion with DAZN’s Ade Oladipo which aired on the broadcast prior to the fight.
During their interview, Joshua admitted that in addition to the bona fides Helenius brought to the table, one of the reasons he was chosen was because the amount of money he was asking for was less than some of the other candidates. Joshua also admitted that a large consideration in whether to fight at all rather than just postponing the event was the undercard fighters, people who were reliant upon the event moving forward to receive their paychecks. Joshua weighed the considerations of cost, risk, and impact on his colleagues and decided that Helenius would do.
In addition to the pressure Joshua felt to buoy the near-sunken event, he had also heard the cries for increased aggression in his approach. Dating back to his rematch victory over Andy Ruiz Jr., Joshua had been accused of, as Helenius put it, gun-shyness. Although it was never explicitly said out loud, there was the understanding within the boxing audience that an Anthony Joshua knockout clip, one he hadn’t produced since December of 2020, would be good for business—particularly for selling a potential bout against Wilder.
Just as Wilder did, albeit six rounds later, Joshua flattened Helenius with a right hand. Helenius fell in nearly the same spot in the ring as he did against Wilder, parallel to the ropes opposite the hard broadcast camera, prone on his back.
After he sat up and was standing under his own power, Joshua went over to him and have him a hard dap the way one might congratulate a teammate after a great play.
“I said you're very talented, and you could cause a lot of people some problems. So, continue, credit to you, and I appreciate you for helping save the show. It means a lot for me to box tonight, and Helenius played a big part in that, so I just gave him a pat on the back. Even though he wasn't successful in the ring, he's a massive success in saving this event,” Joshua said at the post-fight press conference, a photo of Helenius on the promotional step-and-repeat peering over his shoulder.
“He's a good man,” Joshua added. “I don't really like many heavyweight boxers, but he's cool.”
Helenius had done the job intended for him, receiving a large paycheck and the cruel, bittersweet solace that he provided a service for the sport rather than achieving his dreams. It’s an outcome Helenius, and fighters like him, prefer over the alternative of never having the opportunity in the first place.
All week long, Helenius repeated one particular line to several reporters in Finland and the UK: “Nobody will remember coward.”