IN many ways Anthony Joshua’s stunning seventh-round knockout of Finland’s Robert Helenius tonight (August 12) in London was not unlike a hit performed by a mafia hitman. Soundtracked as it was by the theme from The Godfather, which carried Joshua from the changing room to the ring, the right hand that finished proceedings was sudden, unseen, and merciless in its execution.
Somehow, it was also a shot that both came out of nowhere and, due to the nature of the match, felt totally expected; inevitable even. It cannot be denied, of course, that Helenius, a man stopped three times previously, had been drafted in at late notice to end up how he ended up, yet still Joshua took his time and, until the point of the knockout, hardly made an impression. There was the odd right hand, a precursor of what was to come, but in the main Joshua, 26-3 (23), seemed content to go rounds and box with Helenius, 32-5 (21), from middle distance.
Indeed, to stick with the night’s theme, there was very much a feeling in the early going – and in the days prior to the fight – that Joshua was treating this assignment like a mafia hit. Robbed, somewhat inconveniently, of all the emotion that fuelled the original fight against Dillian Whyte, against Helenius it seemed Joshua had to manufacture something between him and his opponent just to go through with it and do what he had to do. He had to be cold about it, in other words. Strategic. Professional. Detached. He had to see it purely as a job or, to use his own terminology, “another body”, yet also summon enough enthusiasm to actually go and carry it out.
That was why, perhaps, he had tried so awkwardly to engage Helenius at Friday’s weigh-in; a tactic which worked not only in terms of the promotion and giving the fight some kind of bite but also emotionally, for suddenly now Joshua was invested in the job a bit more. That said, it didn’t come naturally to Joshua, that much was clear. Moreover, the image of him trying to play the bad boy or even the loose cannon – in the vein of, say, Dillian Whyte or Derek Chisora – always becomes an effort to ape soundbites and gestures from others rather than it being rooted in anything at all authentic. In short, it’s often painful to behold, and Friday was no different.
Still, if getting into character was what a routine job like this entailed, so be it. Because, for a heavyweight like Joshua, in the cold light of day that’s all it was and all it ever is: a job. This, to again reference his film of the moment, wasn’t a case of Michael Corleone ordering Al Neri to have Fredo, Michael’s own brother, whacked on a fishing trip. It was instead more like Clemenza and Rocco taking Paulie out for a drive with a box of cannoli in the backseat. It was unfortunate Helenius had to pay for Whyte’s transgression but that, alas, is the nature of the business. (And at least he also got paid.)
Cruelly, too, Helenius was almost tricked and lulled into a false sense of security. Because for half of the fight he will have had good reason to feel as though Joshua, despite his antics at the pre-fight weigh-in, was going to take it easy on him and possibly show mercy and spare him after all. Indeed, like the very best hitmen, Joshua managed to get his target relaxed before springing his surprise on him when he least expected it.
That’s either a sign of Joshua’s newfound maturity and patience or merely a sign that Helenius, someone who breaks the top 30 heavyweights in the world at a push, was out of his depth the whole time and on no more than borrowed time.
Either way, it was an inauspicious start from Joshua, with Helenius allowed to share centre ring during the opening couple of rounds and occasionally even out-jab Joshua from mid-range. Immediately, in fact, once the rush didn’t come, you were able to see Helenius relax into the contest and grow in confidence. It was him, of the two, who appeared the looser and more fluid in his movements. Joshua, on the other hand, required some oiling. Stiff, and sometimes predictable with his output, it was only after landing big right hands in both the second and third rounds that he started to realise the ease with which that shot could connect against Helenius, a man of similar height, and find, as a result, some self-belief. It would surely be there for him throughout, that punch, and to know this will have given Joshua the motivation to keep it cocked and ready to uncoil whenever he felt that way inclined.
Between rounds two and three Joshua could be heard saying to his new coach, Derrick James, “He’s leaning back,” which in some ways signalled the slightest hint of panic, but, in truth, amounted to no more than that. His right eye started to swell in round four – with them both then bloodied by the fifth – yet at no point was Joshua ever hurt or even unsettled by anything Helenius chucked his way. In fact, when looking at what Helenius had to offer him, all he really brought to London was an admittedly snappy jab, thrown to both head and body, and relatively agile movements for a man of six foot, six inches.
Once that, the extent of his threat, had been firmly established, Joshua edged closer and closer to him, feeling now safe to do so. In turn, Helenius, especially in the sixth, moved more and more, sensing either that Joshua was growing in stature or that his own tank was starting to empty. By the seventh, meanwhile, Helenius’ threat was dwindling rather dramatically and that, as good a round as any, and sometimes even lucky for some, was to be the round in which Joshua ultimately decided to deliver both what he had been planning and what he very much needed. To just win, after all, was going to be no good for Joshua and, furthermore, a messy stoppage late on would have been of no real benefit to him, either. Yet to win in the manner in which he eventually did, and to add another knockout to his highlight reel, was probably the best result he could have hoped for given the circumstances surrounding the fight and the inevitable adrenaline dump he will have experienced in the days leading up to it.
Left jab to the body, right cross to the head, it was in the end a basic sequence of punches to conclude what had been a complicated and confusing week for Joshua. Not only that, so great was the pressure on the former heavyweight champion to do more than just win, he celebrated the finish as though he had left Tyson Fury or Oleksandr Usyk or even Deontay Wilder, his supposed next opponent, on the ring canvas of the o2 Arena. In quite bizarre and unexpected scenes, Joshua chose to flee the ring immediately after the fight had been waved off and proceeded to fist-bump seemingly every person at ringside before, once back in the ring, then complaining of a bad back and attributing this pain to “carrying the heavyweight division”.
It was just a joke, of course, and some light relief following a week short on laughter, yet still it was interesting to note Joshua’s reaction to tonight’s win, in much the same way it had been interesting to note his reaction to the defeat he suffered against Usyk 12 months ago. For often with a star like Joshua, particularly when in mismatches in which nothing new can be gleaned from the action itself, it is in the body language and the words said post-fight that you find real insight into the man behind the machine. Against Usyk, for instance, he said too much, this even he would admit, whereas tonight against Helenius he gave the impression that he was relieved it was all over: the ordeal, the Dillian Whyte saga, the replacement fight. If a hitman after all, he was perhaps tonight a hitman wracked by doubt until at last he pulled the trigger, at which point he remembered how good it felt.