Breaking down Robert Helenius’ major upset of Adam Kownacki


In a fight that was presumed to be an afterthought for Adam Kownacki, Robert Helenius earned a TKO victory in Saturday night’s heavyweight title eliminator at Barclays Center and likely set himself up for at least a few significant fights to come.

To put this fight into perspective, sportsbook William Hill had Kownacki as a -2500 favorite as betting closed, compared to +900 odds for Helenius. This was not supposed to happen.

So how did we get another major upset in the heavyweight division? Steve Kim is here to break down the biggest questions of the night.

What happened to Kownacki? Did he overlook Helenius?

While it’s impossible to get inside the mind of Kownacki, who like every other fighter will give you the cliche about taking every opponent seriously and focusing on one fight at a time, I find it hard to believe that he wasn’t caught looking ahead just a bit. There’s a reason why they chose Helenius: he’s 36 years old, and just two fights ago was stopped in eight rounds by the limited Gerald Washington. He was thought of as a relatively safe opponent with a bit of name recognition.

A right hand in the fourth round sent Kownacki down near the blue corner (which was incorrectly ruled a slip by referee David Fields) and that started his downfall. While Helenius didn’t get credit for the knockdown, the physical damage was done. Helenius was potentially aided by the missed call, in fact, as Kownacki wasn’t given the customary mandatory eight count. Kownacki was quickly sent down to the canvas for the first official knockdown, and once he got up, he faced a barrage by Helenius. Fields waved off the fight at 1:08 of the round to cement the shock result.

Premier Boxing Champions, which only recently had all four major heavyweight titles back at the start of December with Deontay Wilder and Andy Ruiz Jr., was lining up Kownacki for the WBA belt, as this was billed as an elimination bout, despite the logjam of fights already in place. Given the fact that he’s become a significant draw at Barclays Center with his sizable contingent of Polish fans in Brooklyn, the Kownacki Express was supposed to keep on rolling.

Instead, we had a train wreck. You wonder if he and his team regret turning down that incredibly lucrative offer to face unified titleholder Anthony Joshua on short notice as a late replacement for Jarrell “Big Baby” Miller in June 2019.

Where do these two fighters go, considering the current landscape of the heavyweight division?

For Helenius, you try and go for the biggest money fight possible. With his victory over Kownacki he now puts himself in position with the WBA (whose belt is held by Joshua), but chances are he’ll have to wait in line for that opportunity, behind Kubrat Pulev, and potentially behind the winner of Tyson Fury-Deontay Wilder III and Oleksandr Usyk. But suddenly “The Nordic Nightmare” is a wanted man who has punched his ticket to a few more paydays in the heavyweight division.

How about Ruiz? Ruiz-Kownacki was brandied before this weekend, and well, why not reward the guy who just upset the apple cart? How would Ruiz deal with the height and right hand of Helenius? It would be an interesting fight, given the respective styles of both fighters.

As for Kownacki, who felt as though he was just a step or two from a heavyweight title shot, he’ll have to move further back in line. But he’s still a marketable fighter. Given his association with PBC, a fight against Charles Martin, who recently knocked out Washington on the Wilder-Fury II undercard, is a very makeable fight, and one that could get Kownacki back on track — if he wins. There’s also Dominic Breazeale, who’s still a recognizable name and would give Kownacki a chance to deal with another tall fighter with a long reach — something that, given his size and stature, he’ll have to learn how to deal with if he wants to succeed at heavyweight.

Something else to consider for Kownacki: for Saturday night’s fight he weighed in just a touch over 265 pounds, at 6-foot-3. Just a few years ago, when Kownacki stopped Artur Szpilka in four rounds, he was 242. No matter who he faces in the near future, less is more.

Is the heavyweight division just more susceptible to upsets?

In a word, yes. Because in this particular weight class, one well-placed punch can change the course of a fight like no other. Go back to Ruiz’s upset of Joshua. A left hook clipped Joshua in the third round, and that forever altered the course of that fight. Then a couple of weeks ago, the right hand that Fury used to knock Wilder down in the third round of their rematch basically foreshadowed the ending of that contest.

When you have the biggest and strongest men in boxing punching one another, anything can happen. While one singular punch didn’t necessarily end those bouts, they certainly shaped how they played out. Once he was stunned, Kownacki never truly regained his bearings, and paid the price.

Joe Goossen announced he would be training Kubrat Pulev for his upcoming title shot against Anthony Joshua in June. Can he help Pulev pull off the upset?

Goossen is one of the best trainers in the sport. He has a long history of developing fighters from scratch, from Gabe and Rafael Ruelas, to Michael Nunn, but he’s also taken over the careers of guys like Diego Corrales and Joel Casamayor and led them to productive careers.

Will any of this be of service to Pulev, who is a heavy underdog to Joshua?

That remains to be seen, but this much is known: Goossen is also one of the elite troubleshooters in the sport. You give him some time to formulate a game plan, and really work with a fighter over a few months, and he can absolutely make a difference in a fight. He’s also one of the best corner jockeys you’ll ever see.

Case in point: last August, he took a shopworn Chris Arreola and led him into battle with Kownacki, and gave the popular Polish fighter hell over 12 entertaining rounds. While they didn’t come out with the victory, there’s no doubting Goossen made his mark.

And let’s not forget that Joshua is still looked upon as a vulnerable guy because of his knockout loss last June to Ruiz. Joshua then played it really safe against Ruiz in the rematch. The key for Goossen will be to get Pulev to buy in to his game plan, which will most likely feature aggression and then look for openings.

The presence of Goossen alone makes this matchup more interesting, at the very least.

What did promising up-and-comers Ajagba and Sanchez show you?

Both heavyweight hopefuls on the Kownacki-Helenius undercard came out victorious and remained undefeated, but also showed that they aren’t quite ready for prime time. Ajagba wore down a game Razvan Cojanu over nine rounds, wearing him down with his heavy two-fisted attack. There’s no denying Ajagba’s physical strength and punching prowess, but you wonder if he’s a bit too stiff and methodical.

Sanchez won a clear 10-round decision over veteran Joey Dawejko, in a rather dreary affair that was devoid of action for the most part. Trained by Eddy Reynoso, whose most famous client is Canelo Alvarez, Sanchez came into the pro game with a deep amateur pedigree forged in Cuba. While he has a set of fast hands, versus the smaller Dawejko, he seemed very reluctant to let them go or engage all that much. It left you wondering how he would deal with real pressure from the bigger heavyweights, moving forward.

Time is, thankfully, on the side of Ajagba and Sanchez, as they are 25 and 27, respectively.

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