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Deontay Wilder Back In Heavyweight Game Of Thrones

The Wilder comeback occurs in a heavyweight division still whimpering to a soundtrack of Joni Mitchell when it should be trumpeting a golden sequence.

David Payne

In the heavyweight game of thrones, Scandinavian contenders are a rarity. Champions rarer still. Sweden’s Ingemarr Johansson won the title, all of it not just today’s fractional acronyms, when he decked Floyd Patterson in June of ’59. The earnest and ever youthful IBO, pretended Dane Brian Nielsen was the champion in the 1990s. Super Brian sold tickets and enjoyed a good run against the faded and fermented. He probably isn’t the only fighter to fight Holmes, Holyfield and Tyson, but it would be cool if he were.

Eventually, Nielsen lost to Dicky Ryan, no, not a TV gumshoe out of San Francisco as the name may presume to propose, but a circuit heavyweight from Omaha with a Tony Danza haircut and obscurity keeping the car running. It was a loss that preserved Marciano’s imperious mantle and spoiled Nielsen’s manicured 49-0 record just a week short of forty years after Ingo’s bingo had levelled Patterson. Nielsen could fight a bit but a King from Denmark he was not to be.

Beyond these two, giant Sweden-born Fin Robert Helenius, a heavyweight staple for a decade or more and now 38 years young, and rugged southpaw Otto Wallin, who cut and troubled Tyson Fury in 2019,represents the two highest profile big man the area has projected since World War II. With a doff of the cap to Olle Tandberg who is worth research for those inclined. Helenius boxes Deontay Wilder this weekend in a bout to determine who can stay and who must leave the heavyweight storyline.

The Wilder comeback occurs in a heavyweight division still whimpering to a soundtrack of Joni Mitchell when it should be trumpeting a golden sequence. Jilted at the alter of unanimity that was the Usyk v Fury bout, plainly the fight to make, and with ‘the ex’ best thing, Fury v Joshua, rejecting the booty call despite teasing to all that it would answer, boxing has an unexpected void. An inescapable sense that the bouts boxing needs fighters and promoters to make are becoming ever more elusive. Boxing should be about the actual, not the therotical. Fantasy fights used to be debated across generations. Now those discussions exist about contemporaries in the same weight class.

The heavyweights are no different to their Welterweight cousins who’s names I should have forgotten by now such is their inactivity.

Disappointment not withstanding, and with the acceptance neither Helenius or Wilder are in the Fury or Usyk sweepstakes presently, the fight between the two giants represents constructive matchmaking. Wilder needs to discover and demonstrate how much of himself he has left following two maulings at the hands of the aforementioned Brit. He was lightly travelled before their trilogy, he has boxed just 161 rounds professionally, but accumulated a lot of ‘mileage’ such was his defiance in the third meeting despite the dramatic moments of success he enjoyed.

It may only be when punches are exchanged that Wilder appreciates that there is less of him intact than he’d assumed in training, whether physical or emotional. The adage about certain contests, whether vanquished or victorious, being ageing ones holds truth within it. The final fight with Fury was just such a event. Durability isn’t infinite, nor is a fighter’s appetite for pain.

Wilder is no longer a young man on the heavyweight scene; Helenius’ back to back upset wins over Adam Kownacki offer portent of a golden Autumn for him aged 38, but Wilder himself turns 37 next week. Older than Patterson when he retired in defeat to Muhammad Ali in 1972 and a peripheral figure from a bygone era. With the only the fumes of youth remaining, Wilder, the son of an Alabama preacher needs to win convincingly this weekend to make believers of the sceptics once more.

Helenius is selected for his modest mobility, large target areas and simplicity of style. The nuances of which he has shared with Wilder over many scores of sparring rounds. The two are familiar with each other’s strengths and one wonders if Helenius will be able to navigate the sparring partner mentality that often submerges fighters like him once battle commences. Those Kownacki wins suggested a more dynamic performer, if routine in his style, and one belatedly aware of his ability and physical attributes. A soporific defeat to Dillian Whyte in a ponderous performance and a contentious points win over a fresher Dereck Chisora a decade ago evidence of historic limitations in his offence and self-belief. And Wilder is not Kownacki.

There is hope for him in the unknown of Wilder’s remaining resilience and in Helenius’ familiarity and previous exposure to the former WBC champion’s power, though protected with a head guard and heavier gloves at the time. When Wilder lands, as he is presumed to at some point, the shock felt by predecessors will not be as acute for Helenius. The assumption is, that Wilder will indeed find Helenius more easily than the much more mobile Fury despite his own technical limitations and at a mid-to-long range that will suit Wilder’s power punches. As Wilder commented many times before his fights with Fury; “He has to be perfect for 12 rounds, I only have to be perfect for 1 second.”

Despite that knockout risk, Helenius has hope here. Wilder offers opportunities to the brave and the technically sound too, Luis Ortiz was far too accomplished for him until the right hand land broke through in their two fights. Helenius is no Ortiz. A man of polish and deep boxing acumen. Ungainly as he has been, Wilder has patience and confidence, or certainly did. He trusts that the opportunities will come and he will land the ‘equaliser’. Helenius will need to fight briskly, and offer lateral movement to keep Wilder off-set as much as he can.

Whether he can do that sufficiently well for the entire fight is difficult to confirm. The evidence available when he has boxed at close to this level is small. Chisora, Whyte and Kownacki have commonality in their styles; none are tall, rangy, destructive punchers. And in two of the four fights he shared with that trio, Helenius couldn’t impose himself. Knockout wins over a Samuel Peter and Siarhei Liakhovich more than 10 years ago were never really capitalised upon and were as creditable as the Kownacki wins of 2020 and 2021 at the time. This is a belated shot at the big time for Helenius, and his last if he loses.

On Saturday, it seems hard to imagine that success will not be easier to achieve for Wilder than those great nights with Fury or the 7th round win, when trailing on the cards, and 10th round knockouts of Ortiz. The breakthrough will arrive more quickly and Helenius, if plunged to the depths of hell Fury was is unlikely to rise. The sparring partner voice he’s tried to quell may grow louder.

Wilder in nine, with only a share of the rounds beforehand, seems a logical outcome and in keeping with the form book, but variables beneath the obvious do intrigue enough to tune in and find out.

By David Payne

David has been writing about boxing, sport’s oldest showgirl, for almost twenty years. Appearing as a columnist and reporter across print and digital as well as guest appearances with LoveSportRadio and LBC in the UK and, of course, The Big Fight Weekend podcast. Find his unique take on the boxing business here and at his site;

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