It's been a while since I've done one of these, but I received a question about up and coming heavyweights, and so I'm breaking out this format again. With Wladimir and Vitali Klitschko reigning at the top of the heavyweight division and taking out all comers, people have been looking for a new savior of the division. While neither of these guys may end up at their levels, here are the two guys I currently think are closest to answering the call. While both men have been fighting on undercards in Germany, neither man is likely familiar to most mainstream audiences. An older look at some prospects in the weight class is available here.
Note - This is NOT a hypothetical analysis of how I think an actual fight between Helenius and Pulev would turn out. This is also not necessarily a comparison of where the two fighters are at this moment in time. Instead, I'm taking a page out of John Sickels's book and comparing where I think the two are as prospects, and based on what tools, skills and attributes they have now, trying to project where their careers might be heading, and where they might stumble into roadblocks in the future.
Kubrat Pulev is a Bulgarian fighter based out of Germany. After an illustrious amateur career, Pulev finally went pro six months ago at the ripe age of 27. Since then, he's gone 7-0, although the level of competition he has faced so far is almost unheard of for a modern heavyweight. In his third pro bout, he beat Gbenga Olukun who had upset Lamon Brewster two fights prior and lost a close one to fellow prospect Rene Dettweiler. In his fourth fight, he shut out Zack Page, a gatekeeper who had taken the zeros away from then prospects Kasim Howard, Sebastian Koeber and Gene Hill, and who has beaten other solid fighters like Lou Del Valle and Cisse Salif. Next, he knocked out Matt Skelton, only a few fights removed from Skelton having been Commonwealth champ, and beat him in much more dominating fashion than Martin Rogan. In his last fight, he knocked out the normally sturdy Danny Batchelder in 2 rounds, one fight after taking Lance Whitaker the distance, and three fights removed from giving James Toney a hell of a fight.
Robert Helenius is a Finnish fighter, also based in Germany. Helenius had some level of amateur success, once winning a silver medal in the European championships, but his style is more suited to the professional ranks. Upon going pro, the "Nordic Nightmare" signed with Sauerland and picked up Ulli Wegner (Arthur Abraham, Marco Huck, Sven Ottke) as a trainer, and has since gone 11-0. While his career started slowly (compared to Pulev), through 11 fights he's still beaten fringe contender Taras Bidenko, a severely faded version of Lamon Brewster, Gbenga Olukun and former British heavyweight titlist Scott Gammer.
For a discussion of the factors I'm looking at, please go here - discussion of tools, skills and attributes.
A breakdown of the fighters comes after the jump.
Handspeed - Helenius doesn't have great handspeed, but he puts his weight behind his punches quite frequently. He likes to paw with his jab a little too much, but when he throws a combination, he has sneaky handspeed. He's no Wladimir Klitschko, but he's no Valuev either, and his handspeed is a good deal better than Alexander Dimitrenko's. It's good enough that he shouldn't be completely exposed by it at higher levels. Pulev has above average speed for a man his size. He's quick enough that he's able to move his head and catch someone with a counter. His right hand can be especially quick from time to time, and he's had a noticeable speed advantage over everyone he's faced. Helenius - C, Pulev - B-; Advantage: Pulev.
Chin - Neither man has been down or hurt as a pro. Neither fighter was knocked out in the amateurs that I know of, although I've seen a couple of clips of Pulev being buzzed as an amateur. Both have already faced fighters who are known for having decent power, and it hasn't bothered either one. We'll find out a lot more as the men progress. Grade incomplete, but likely advantage Helenius.
Relfexes - Helenius doesn't fight with a style that relies on too much reflexes. He's a tall guy who likes to fight like a tall guy, so his game is more like "keep away." When opponents are in range, he does like to pick off shots with his gloves, which he's only so-so at. However, he's good at recognizing openings, and has been a very accurate puncher thus far in his career. On the other hand, Pulev seems to have very good reflexes for a heavyweight. He's good at putting himself into a shell at the last second, and also pretty good at moving his head out of the way to avoid shots. He's not as good at recognizing openings, however, although his combination punching style has a tendency to create openings for him. Helenius - C, Pulev - B-; Advantage: Pulev.
Power - Helenius has 7 knockouts through 12 fights, although that's somewhat deceptive. Early in his career, his trainer had him working on other issues, so he went to the decision in four of his first five bouts. Since then, he's shown good but not great power. When he really gets leverage into his punches (which doesn't happen as much as it should because of his foot placement), he has thudding power, and he's hurt Lamon Brewster and Scott Gammer on one shot. He has an especially strong right uppercut to the body, which is just strange to watch from a guy this tall, but is shockingly effective. Pulev has won 5 of 7 fights by knockout, although only a quick chopping uppercut that knocked out Danny Batchelder was of the one punch variety. He has more than enough power to keep guys honest, but he's more likely to hurt someone on accumulation than on one shot. Also, almost all of his power seems to be in his right hand. Pulev has a current edge, but Helenius clearly has more raw power, if he learns to utilize it. Helenius - B- (B+ if he can improve his punching technique), Pulev B; Slight Advantage - Pulev.
Size - Both guys are huge. Helenius is listed at 6'6 1/2" tall and he looks every bit of it. In terms of his body, looks a lot like a mutant version of Kelly Pavlik, although much softer around the body. Pulev is listed at 6'4 1/2", but it looks like there might be an inch or so of exaggeration there. He's built like a larger version of Ruslan Chagaev - very broad, not cut, but lots of muscle under there. Helenius - A, Pulev B+; Advantage - Helenius.
Hand - Both men are right handed and have little to no versatility in that regard. Even.
Defense - Helenius fights tall, so in a lot of ways, his offense is his defense. He keeps his hands up enough and picks off shots to the head, although he holds his arms up so high that he gives up the body, which possibly even looks a little soft. As he continues to improve his jab, his defense should improve as a result. Pulev should have much better defense based on his style - he goes back and forth between a turtle shell and an evasive style where he avoids shots with movement. Unlike Arthur Abraham or Joshua Clottey, Pulev continues to move his feet when he shells up, so he's still able to come out of it with an effective counterpunch. When he's focusing on his defense, it's quite good. However, he's much less cautions than Helenius, and leaves himself open to be hit, especially when he's in the middle of an offensive flurry. Also, he sometimes gets lazy with leaving his lead left hand too low when not in his defensive posture. Helenius - C+, Pulev - B; Advantage - Pulev.
Ring Generalship - Helenius is adept at keeping fighters at the end of his jab, which is important for someone two meters tall. When guys get inside, he has been fighting out of it with hooks to the body, although there has been some clinching. However, Helenius really seems to fight with one style - the upright Euro style - and if someone is able to disrupt his rhythm, it could create problems. Pulev has a bit more of a tendency to let his opponent fight his fight. Part of that may be that he's just much more adaptable than Helenius, and he feels he's able to handle whatever's coming at him. Still, he's been able to do some things you don't see from too many heavyweights these days, like an ability to stick and move, and to parry and counter. Helenius has the advantage of letting you know when he's in the fight just by how he's fighting, but overall, Pulev's ability to adapt gives him a likely edge here. We'll know more for sure once they're challenged. Grade incomplete, but likely advantage to Pulev.
Footwork - This is an area Helenius really needs to work on. He fights with a really wide stance, and has a tendency to take big, lumbering steps as he's moving around the ring. Occasionally, he almost looks light on his feet, but usually he's very clumsy looking because of that footwork. Also, because he holds his legs too far apart, sometimes he gets a lot less power behind his punches than he should. Pulev has significantly better footwork. He keeps his body well centered, and he moves his feet in a way that he can quickly evade shots if he needs to. Sometimes he wastes energy by bouncing around too much, but since he stays on the balls of his feet, he should be able to use his feet to cut off the ring or get out of the way, as appropriate. Helenius - D, Pulev - B; Advantage- Pulev.
Head/Body Movement - Helenius is very stiff and robotic with his head and moves it very little, but he hasn't needed to move it much yet because he usually has such a reach advantage. Sometimes when he tries to avoid shots, he as a tendency to pull straight back. Who knows if that will ever hurt him, as most people simply wouldn't have the reach to take advantage of that mistake. I know I keep bringing up the name Chagaev, but Pulev moves a big like pre-Hepatitis Chagaev, albeit with better footwork to complement that movement. He doesn't keep either his head or his body stationary, and he's elusive enough to slip punches if he doesn't have the time to pull into a shell. Helenius - D, Pulev - B; Advantage- Pulev.
Endurance - It's early enough in both guys' careers that it's just hard to tell. Helenius has only gone a full eight rounds once. Against Brewster, he hadn't slowed down in the 8th round, when he scored the TKO (including an apparent knockdown that wasn't counted by the ref). Pulev hasn't even gone past six rounds yet. He's had three scheduled eight rounders, but they've all ended well before the fight was halfway done. There were a few times he looked like he needed a breather against Matt Skelton, but what do you expect in his fifth pro fight, and he had no such problems in six rounds against Olukun. However, Pulev has a style that will require quite a bit more endurance than the somewhat lumbering Helenius. Grade incomplete, but likely advantage to Helenius.
Punching Ability - When he gets his feet centered, Helenius throws punches quite well, and is able to put together a few at a time. He mostly pokes out that jab, and he likes to follow it up with right hand punches of all varieties. He's a good body puncher for someone his size, and is committed to throwing punches downstairs, especially in combination with a jab. Also, he's very accurate with his shots, picking them well and usually finding the target on his opponent that is most prone. When his feet are too wide, he throws arm punches that don't have much effect but score points. Pulev also likes his jab quite a bit, although he's a bit more likely to mix up his punches overall, throw a three or four punch combination, lead with the right hand, or just hammer away to break a guy down. He likes to throw the 1-2 combination quite a bit and sometimes falls a bit too in love with it. He's not as accurate as Helenius, but he'll throw in combination to different parts of the body to create openings. Helenius - B, Pulev - B; Advantage: push.
Heart / Desire - Who the heck knows with either of these guys. Neither of them has really faced any adversity. Helenius fought through much of his last fight with a broken hand. Pulev had a bit of a reputation in the amateurs as a dirty fighters, for whatever that's worth, and there were a couple of times where he looked a little frustrated at some of Matt Skelton's tactics. Grade incomplete.
Durability - Helenius suffered a broken hand in his last fight. Let's hope that one doesn't become a long-term problem. Pulev has had no injury problems that I know of. Grade incomplete, but likely edge to Pulev.
If you were going to ask me who will be the better heavyweight, without question I would tell you Pulev. However, if you change the question to whether either of these guys has the potential to knock off a Klitschko, then I'd change the answer to Helenius. Pulev has a lot of qualities that he's been taught very well, and since he has above-average athleticism for a heavyweight, he's able to take advantage of those skills. If his intangibles pan out, he could be a serious contender for quite a while. Helenius is more like a high upside, high risk prospect. Despite his age and amateur experience, he's far from being a finished product, and really could stand to use more time improving his flaws before he steps up to the next level. Even as such, his size, together with the skills he does have, could be enough to give a lot of fighters trouble, and if he were to face Wladimir, he'd be the most naturally gifted fighter to face Wlad that is his own size.