It could be a big weekend for Filip Hrgovic, but he has been waiting a long time for it. On Saturday night, on the Oleksandr Usyk-Anthony Joshua undercard in Jeddah, the unbeaten Croatian finally gets to take part in an IBF heavyweight eliminator when he faces Zhilei Zhang. Victory would put him near the front of the line to face the winner of the main event.
Hrgovic has been lined up for an IBF eliminator for a long time. The only problem is finding someone to face him. It is more than a year since Michael Hunter pulled out of an eliminator against Hrgovic and the IBF went down their rankings more than once before finding someone in Zhang who was willing to box him.
“It’s almost two years I have been waiting for this fight and it is very frustrating,” Hrgovic said. “All the time I was expecting that some deal would be done but it has not happened until now. It was a long, long journey to this fight and I am excited that it is finally happening.”
The fight will be a clash of former Olympic super-heavyweight medallists – Zhang won silver in Beijing in 2008, Hrgovic claimed bronze in 2016 in Rio. The age gap between the pair – Hrgovic is 30, Zhang is 39 – means they never boxed each other in the amateurs.
“I remember him from the amateurs but I never fought him,” Hrgovic said. “I remember watching him at the 2011 World Championships in Baku.
“He’s a good fighter. He’s a big guy and had a great amateur career. This is a big opportunity for him so he will be motivated for sure. He’s a good fighter but I am better.
“I’m motivated. I can’t believe this is finally happening.“
One of the downsides of Hrgovic seemingly scaring away many ranked heavyweight opponents is that he does not believe he has had the chance to properly show what he can do yet. It was back in 2019 that he beat Eric Molina on the Joshua-Ruiz 2 undercard the last time the boxing heavyweight circus came to Saudi Arabia and he felt then he was on the verge of his big breakthrough. He is still waiting.
“They say you need a good dancing partner to show what you can do,” he said. “For the last two years I have been asking my promoters to get me a big fight or get me a big name, while I have been training really hard. I know what I can do, I want to show it.
“But this is a good fight for me and I have a chance to show my skills. I’m 30 years old and the best years are still to come. I think for the next five years I will be in the best shape.”
Hrgovic has been training in Houston with Ronnie Shields in a gym with no air-conditioning, so he feels he is well accustomed to the heat of Jeddah, but even if victory would make him the IBF’s mandatory challenger to the winner of the main event, he knows better than to pin all his hopes on that fight happening.
“Hopefully I will fight the winner soon, I don’t want to be waiting for years and years,” he said. “No matter who the winner is, I will be ready. But we will see what is going to happen, maybe the unification will happen. But the most important thing is that I win this fight and am ready for what happens next.
“There is no point thinking about facing Usyk or Joshua or [Tyson] Fury because there are so many scenarios that can happen. Fury said he is going to retire but no one believed it. But it could be that titles are vacated, or it could be a unification, so I am not thinking about that.”
He is expecting a competitive fight in the main event, though, with Joshua attempting to win back his WBA, WBO, IBO and IBF titles.
“Joshua will be fighting for his career and that is what makes it an amazing fight,” Hrgovic said. “Usyk will be motivated by the war in his country too.
“Usyk outboxed Joshua in the first fight but I think that defeat will have woken Joshua up, he’s a dangerous guy.
“There were a lot of things he didn’t do that he should have done. He didn’t throw body punches, he didn’t throw the left hook, he left a lot of space between the two. I think he can do a lot better.
“Last time I was expecting him to beat Usyk, because Usyk looked really bad against [Derek] Chisora and in his first heavyweight fight [against Chazz Witherspoon]. It was almost like Joshua didn’t start, he was waiting, waiting, waiting for 12 rounds.”
Ron Lewis is a senior writer for BoxingScene. He was Boxing Correspondent for The Times, where he worked from 2001-2019 - covering four Olympic Games and numerous world title fights across the globe. He has written about boxing for a wide variety of publications worldwide since the 1980s.