The end is near for the search to secure a heavyweight willing to next face Filip Hrgovic.
BoxingScene.com has learned that the IBF will permit an extension of one business day for the next two candidates—Demsey McKean and Zhilei Zhang—to accept an invitation to enter talks for a final title eliminator with Croatia’s Hrgovic. A decision was initially due by end of business day Friday, but the belief that this matter will be resolved provided leeway for an extension to close out the matter.
Zhang is expected to land the assignment—or at least the right to negotiate such a fight—as BoxingScene.com has learned that Australia’s McKean (20-0, 13KOs) has already turned down the invitation and will instead proceed with an already scheduled February 27 fight on DAZN from The O2 in London. Zhang cannot formally accept the offer until McKean—who is ranked one spot higher at number twelve in the current IBF heavyweight ratings—officially rejects the sanctioning body’s invitation.
Both boxers were contacted by the IBF via official letter earlier in the week after seven other heavyweights were forced to decline the offer for a variety of reasons. The unlikelihood of Zhang (21-0-1, 13KOs)—ranked number thirteen—soon transitioned to reality as the IBF made its way further down the list.
Luis Ortiz, Joe Joyce and Murat Gassiev all cited injuries in declining to enter talks with Hrgovic. Former heavyweight titlist Andy Ruiz Jr. (34-2, 22KOs) informed the sanctioning body that he will require more recovery time before returning to the ring, thus leaving him ineligible.
New Zealand’s Joseph Parker passed on the opportunity, citing a desire to pursue more lucrative offers—including a desired rematch with Ruiz who he outpointed to win the vacant WBO heavyweight title in December 2016. Parker lost the belt in a March 2018 unification bout with Anthony Joshua (24-2, 22KOs), who is ranked number four by the IBF but who is contractually bound to a rematch with reigning WBA/IBF/WBO/IBO titlist Oleksandr Usyk (19-0, 13KOs).
Germany’s Agit Kabayel (21-0, 13KOs) removed himself from the mix as he awaits a rescheduled date for his long-ago planned showdown with record-tying former cruiserweight titlist Marco Huck.
Paris’ Tony Yoka (11-0, 9KOs) is the only IBF-ranked heavyweight to so far agree to negotiate for a title eliminator with Hrgovic (14-0, 12KOs), who he has twice defeated in the amateurs including in the semifinal round of his eventual Gold medal run in the 2016 Rio Olympics. Progress was made, only for Yoka to have to walk away when the IBF ruled in favor of an appeal filed by Martin Bakole, who offered documented proof of being owed a rescheduled fight with the unbeaten Frenchman.
Similarly, McKean isn’t expected to abandon current plans. The 6’6” Australian southpaw is due to face Argentina’s Ariel Esteban Bracamonte as part of a DAZN undercard supporting WBO cruiserweight titlist Lawrence Okokie in a title defense versus Poland’s Michal Cieslak.
Once the invitation is declined by McKean, it will allow Zhang—a two-time Olympian (2008 Beijing, 2012 London) who took home the Bronze in 2008 Beijing—to accept and enter talks for a fight he has sought since the pandemic. Zhang and Hrgovic were both on the same November 2020 DAZN card in Hollywood, Florida, both openly discussing the possibility of facing one another under such circumstances.
It’s been a slow road to get them in the ring, though the day draws nearer. Zhang has since fought to a draw with Jerry Forrest in their February 2021 thriller in Miami and scored a second-round knockout of Craig Lewis last November at Madison Square Garden’s Hulu Theater in New York City. Both bouts as well as his appearance on the November 2020 DAZN show all came as part of a co-promotional agreement with Matchroom Boxing.
Hrgovic enjoys a similar relationship with Matchroom, who partners with Wasserman Boxing to guide the career of the 2016 Olympic Bronze medalist. Efforts to move him into a title eliminator have been an issue for more than a year. Hrgovic was poised to face second-generation heavyweight Michael Hunter II, who walked away from a fight that went to purse bid—and won by Matchroom as the lone bidder—to instead what he viewed as a more favorable and lucrative road with Triller Fight Club.
The inability to land a relevant heavyweight opponent left Hrgovic to settle for a pair of stay-busy fights, both resulting in third-round knockout wins over unbeaten but obscure opposition.
Hrgovic toyed with Montenegro’s Marko Radonjic, scoring five knockdowns in nine minutes of ring time last September in Klagenfurt, Austria. Less than three months later came his latest win, needing just 6:40 to rid himself of Germany-based Serbian heavyweight Emir Ahmatovic last December in Las Vegas. The win extended Hrgovic’s current seven-fight knockout streak, while having yet to be extended past eight rounds.
Once the IBF invitation is accepted by Zhang—presumably by Monday—a 15-day negotiation period will be ordered for the two sides to reach terms. A purse bid hearing will be called if they fail to reach a deal.
The winner of the eventual eliminator will become one of three mandatory challengers in waiting for the forthcoming rematch between Usyk and Joshua. Joyce is the current WBO mandatory, while Trevor Bryan (22-0, 15KOs) holds a secondary version of the WBA title which he is required to next defend versus England’s Daniel Dubois (17-1, 16KOs).
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox