THE very first professional boxing tournament to be held in Finland took place on May 16, 1935, at the Messuhalli, in Helsinki. British boxing under the Queensberry rules commenced 64 years previously and the United States, Australia and France all become significant players in the professional game before the first world war. By the 1920s the sport was firmly established in Italy, Spain, throughout Scandinavia, and in parts of Latin America. Finland came to the game quite late but, when it did, it was down to one man.
Gunnar Barlund won the 1934 European amateur championship at heavyweight, eliminating the Great Britain entry, Pat Floyd, along the way. He also competed at the 1932 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. It was natural that he should turn professional but, without the option for him to do so in his native country, he made his debut in Sweden. His first opponent was a decent British heavyweight from Windsor, Jeff Wilson, a veteran of 64 bouts. Wilson was a decent journeyman, used to going the full distance, but Barlund blew him away in one round. After boxing three more times in Gothenburg, and having established a good start to his career, Gunnar boxed in front of his home crowd for the first time. The Helsinki fans saw him knock out Arno Koelblin, a very good German heavyweight, in eight rounds.
In his next contest Gunnar boxed in the UK for the first time, beating the South African, Ben Foord, on points over six rounds at Wembley Stadium on the undercard of the second contest between Walter Neusel and Jack Petersen. BN commented that “Barlund was always the hurtful man of the two. He kept up a non-stop attack with a good variety of punches, and Foord held somewhat. Foord was the better boxer, but his defence was quite unequal to the task of keeping the Finn at bay.”
Foord was the real deal, and this win was an excellent one. Barlund’s next bout, back in Gothenburg, was against another British fighter, Charlie Smith of Deptford, and the Finn re-found his knockout punch to dispatch Smith in the fourth. After another seven wins Barlund returned to the UK to hammer the Irishman, Pat Marrinan, in two rounds at the Royal Albert Hall. It would have been normal, by now, for Barlund to seek a contest for the European title, but with Finland not yet affiliated to the EBU, Barlund turned to the United States where the real money was to be made. Arriving in New York in the late summer of 1936, Barlund won his first three bouts convincingly, all in New York City. By the time he was matched again, both the world heavyweight champion, Jimmy Braddock, and the number two challenger, Joe Louis, came along to see what all the fuss was about.
The Ring magazine stated that his opponent, Tom Beaupre, gave him few problems and they quickly inserted Barlund’s name directly below that of Max Schmeling and Joe Louis, as the number three contender for the world heavyweight title. In retrospect, this was underserved.
Barlund had not beaten anyone of real note and as exciting as might have he appeared, he was soon to be found out. Losses to Nathan Mann and Bob Olin followed, and when Barlund returned to the UK to face the New Zealander, Maurice Strickland, at Earls Court, he lost again, this time by disqualification. The BN headline read “Strickland bursts the Barlund bubble” and this was true, for Barlund never regained the fistic heights that he had been used to. He soldiered on until 1948, winning 56 of his 87 contests but he had succeeded in putting his native country upon the fistic map, and he paved the way for further Finnish greats, including Elis Ask, Risto Luukkonen, Olli Maki and Erkki Meronen. More recently, Robert Helenius and Eva Wahlstrom have kept the flag flying.
Gunnar died in 1982 and Helsinki honoured him with a statue.