The process to secure an opponent for Filip Hrgovic is creeping closer to the one heavyweight on record who is willing to accept the assignment. has learned that former titlists Murat Gassiev and Andy Ruiz Jr. are the latest to decline an invitation to enter talks for an IBF title eliminator with Croatia’s Hrgovic. Gassiev and Ruiz were required to inform the New Jersey-based sanctioning body by January 21 as to whether they were available to pursue such a fight, though both cited injury rehabilitation as the cause for their lack of availability.

The IBF has yet to confirm the removal of Gassiev and Ruiz Jr. from the process or whether a similar approach will be taken of contacting two heavyweights at a time. The latter would mean that Australia’s Demsey McKean (20-0, 13KOs) and China’s Zhilei Zhang (21-0-1, 13KOs) are on deck.

Former IBF titlist Charles Martin is currently ranked number-ten, but is coming off a sixth-round knockout loss to Luis Ortiz in their semifinal title eliminator on January 1 in Hollywood, Florida.

Of the remaining candidates, Zhang is ranked number twelve—one spot below McKean—and is long on record of his interest in a showdown with Hrgovic (14-0, 12KOs). Such a fight is the most realistic option, though one that can’t be made without formally going through the process of contacting the IBF-ranked heavyweights in order.

McKean is currently scheduled to face Argentina’s Ariel Esteban Bracamonte on the undercard of the February 27 DAZN show from The O2 in London. The fight will be the second for the 6’6” Australian heavyweight southpaw since entering a promotional agreement with Matchroom Boxing last November.

Barring his being pulled from the show in favor of a fight with Hrgovic, a decline by McKean would lead to Zhang being the next highest ranked contender available to accept the fight.

Zhang is also promoted by Matchroom, who serves as Hrgovic’s co-promoter along with Wasserman Boxing. The relationship between Matchroom and Zhang dates back to when the unbeaten Chinese heavyweight—a two-time Olympian (2008 Beijing, 2012 London) and 2008 Olympic Silver medalist—appeared on a November 2019 show in Monte Carlo. The two sides entered a promotional agreement the following September, with Zhang having since fought on three Matchroom shows.

Included in that list is a fourth-round knockout of Devin Vargas on a November 2020 DAZN show that also saw Hrgovic prevail in a fifth-round stoppage of Rydell Booker. The two heavyweights have since remained in each other’s sights, though failing to yet meet at the crossroads.

That day could finally soon arrive.

The removal of Gassiev from the process was hardly a surprise. The former unified cruiserweight titlist from Vladikavkaz, Russia has fought just twice since moving up to heavyweight following his July 2018 near-shutout loss to Oleksandr Usyk (19-0, 13KOs) in their undisputed cruiserweight championship.

Gassiev debuted at heavyweight with a first-round knockout of Nuri Seferi in October 2020, followed by a fourth-round stoppage of Michael Wallisch last July. Gassiev was due to face Andrei Rudenko last December, only to withdraw from the fight due to an elbow injury which remained a factor to the point of passing on the chance to enter negotiations for a fight with Hrgovic.

Ruiz (34-2, 22KOs) has not fought since a twelve-round, unanimous decision win over Chris Arreola last May in his first fight under head trainer Eddy Reynoso. The bout was his first appearance since his pair of title fights with Anthony Joshua in 2019. The California-based boxer became the first boxer of Mexican descent to capture a piece of the heavyweight crown, winning the WBA/IBF/WBO/IBO following a seventh-round stoppage of Joshua In June 2019 at Madison Square Garden.

The December 2019 rematch saw Ruiz grossly out of shape and soundly outboxed by Joshua at a makeshift venue in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia. Plans for a fight with Arreola originally targeted a May 2020 date, only for the pandemic to slow the sport—and Ruiz’s career—to a crawl.

Following his win last spring, Ruiz opted to proceed with arthroscopic knee surgery which he delayed for three years. The heavyweight was seemingly on the verge of returning in late 2021 or the first few weeks of 2022, though with his timeline now further delayed.

Hrgovic has been on the hunt for a title eliminator for the entirety of his post-pandemic run. The 2016 Olympic Bronze medalist has been ambitiously matched since his September 2017 pro debut, though with the competition leveling off due to the ongoing struggle to find willing participants.

In his most recent start, Hrgovic earned a third-round knockout of unbeaten but obscure heavyweight Emir Ahmatovic as part of a December 5 DAZN show from MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. The bout marked his second consecutive third-round knockout over an undefeated heavyweight, having done the same to Marko Radonjic last September 10 in Klagenfurt, Australia.

The hope is that the IBF’s efforts to expedite the process will lead to a willing challenger for Hrgovic sooner rather than later. Gassiev and Ruiz join a growing list of heavyweights who have passed on the offer for a variety of reasons.

Ortiz, former WBO titlist Joseph Parker (30-2, 21KOs), Joe Joyce (13-0, 12KOs) and Agit Kabayel (21-0, 13KOs) similarly declined. Ortiz is recovering from a hand fracture suffered in his knockout win over Martin. Parker has expressed an interest in pursuing a rematch with Ruiz, whom he edged in December 2016 to win the vacant WBO heavyweight title.

Joyce is currently the WBO mandatory challenger to the heavyweight belt, thus already due a shot at the winner of the forthcoming Usyk-Joshua rematch. Kabayel is stuck in a holding pattern while waiting on plans to materialize for a long-ago scheduled showdown with record-tying former cruiserweight titlist Marco Huck in a fight eyed for this spring.

The one heavyweight who has so far accepted was France’s Tony Yoka (11-0, 9KO), the 2016 Olympic Gold medalist who was forced to withdraw due to circumstances beyond his control.

Yoka entered talks with Hrgovic in hopes of resurrecting their amateur rivalry, having twice avenged an old loss with wins in the 2015 World Amateur Championship and the semifinal round of the 2016 Rio Olympics. The process was nixed when Martin Bakole successfully appealed to the IBF that he was still owed a fight versus Yoka after their scheduled January 15 bout was postponed—in writing—to a later date in March.

Whoever accepts from McKean, Zhang or Hughie Fury (26-3, 15KOs)—the last remaining ranked heavyweight not committed to another fight—will then have 15 days to work out terms for the final eliminator to avoid a purse bid hearing. The winner of the eventual title eliminator will become the mandatory challenger to Usyk, who became a two-division titlist following his points win over Joshua (24-2, 22KOs) last September. A rematch is currently in the works, likely to take place later in the first half of 2022.

Jake Donovan is a senior writer for Twitter: @JakeNDaBox