The search continues to find an available ranked heavyweight challenger for Filip Hrgovic.
Hopes of matching the unbeaten Croatian with former amateur rival Tony Yoka in a final title eliminator were thwarted late Thursday evening. The IBF ruled in favor of an appeal filed by Martin Bakole, who less than 48 hours prior successfully argued that he is still owed a fight with Yoka which leaves the unbeaten Frenchman ineligible to enter an agreement with any other opponent.
Veteran boxing scribe Dan Rafael was the first to reveal the news in an overnight tweet.
Yoka (11-0, 9KOs) previously accepted an invitation to enter talks for a fight with Hrgovic (14-0, 12KOs) to determine the next IBF mandatory challenger to current unified IBF/WBA/WBO/IBO heavyweight titlist Oleksandr Usyk (19-0, 13KOs). The process was challenged by Bakole (17-1, 13KOs), who still awaits a rescheduled date for his postponed fight with Yoka. The two were due to collide January 15 at Accor Hotel Arena in Paris, only for Covid restrictions to shut down the card and leaving event promoter Allstar Boxing France to publicly declare an indefinite postponement.
Bakole and trainer/manager Billy Nelson provided written proof to the IBF that they were assured a rescheduled date in March. More germane to their appeal was the in-writing guarantee that the event was merely postponed and not outright canceled, which leaves Yoka ineligible for a title eliminator or any other fight.
With Thursday’s ruling, Yoka and his team can be expected to revisit plans to face Bakole in March or whenever France’s government once again permits large gathering events.
Meanwhile, the IBF is forced to continue down the list of ranked contenders, which will mean a fourth heavyweight being contacted to face Hrgovic. Veteran heavyweight contender Luis Ortiz and former WBO heavyweight titlist Joseph Parker were already offered a similar opportunity which they rejected for varying reasons.
Ortiz (33-2, 28KOs; 2NC) remains the number-two ranked heavyweight following his off-the-canvas sixth-round knockout of former IBF heavyweight titlist Charles Martin earlier this month. The win was immediately followed by an offer from the IBF to enter talks with Hrgovic, only for the Miami-based Cuban southpaw to decline due to a fractured hand suffered in the win over Martin which leaves him unavailable to fight in the next few months.
Hrgrovic and his team—Wasserman Boxing and Matchroom Boxing—were hoping for a springtime fight date.
New Zealand’s Parker (30-2, 21KOs) was presented with the official invitation letter on January 5, declining the offer mere days later. Parker—who is coming off a repeat win over Derek Chisora last December 18—and his team cited that a different course was already being sought, including hopes of a rematch with former unified heavyweight titlist Andy Ruiz (34-2, 22KOs).
The IBF moved on to Yoka, who accepted the invitation and immediately entered talks. A pro fight with Hrgovic would come with a compelling backstory, as the two met three times in the amateurs. Hrgovic owns a win from back in the 2010 World Youth Championships.
Yoka has since twice avenged that defeat during their adult years, outpointing the Croat in the final round of the 2015 World Amateur Championships and again one year later in the semifinal round of the 2016 Rio Olympic super heavyweight bracket. Hrgovic was left to take home Bronze, while Yoka went to claim Olympic Gold following a win over England’s Joe Joyce (13-0, 12KOs), who—fittingly—is the next highest-ranked IBF contender.
Joyce previously defeated Hrgovic via narrow decision during the 2012-13 season of World Series of Boxing.
An invitation is expected to be submitted to Joyce, per sanctioning body protocol. However, the unbeaten Brit is also coming off an injury while presently serving as the WBO mandatory challenger. Shoud he decline the invitiation, the IBF would then move on Agit Kabayel (21-0, 13KOs), with former unified cruiserweight titlist Murat Gassiev and Ruiz ranked after the unbeaten German. Kabayel would be the sanctioning body’s best hope of moving forward with such a fight, as he is not currently attached to any other major fight at the moment.
Further down the list is China’s Zhilei Zhang (21-0-1, 13KOs), the one heavyweight who has been vocal about facing Hrgovic. However, the two-tour Olympian—who claim a Silver medal in 2008 Beijing—who would have to wait out rejections from at least five other heavyweights ahead of him to receive such an offer.
The process to find a willing opponent to participate in the title eliminator has been the one way to slow down Hrgovic’s career trajectory. The 6’6” heavyweight has been moved at an aggressive pace, though with his competition level quickly leveling off due to an inability to get the top contenders in the ring.
Hrgovic has been gunning for a shot at a heavyweight title since the pandemic, fighting twice late in 2020 in hopes of next entering a title eliminator. One was sought with Michael Hunter II, the second-generation heavyweight who ultimately moved in a different direction after not being pleased with the terms of the purse bid which was won by former promoter Matchroom Boxing. Hrgovic has since settled for a pair of wins over unbeaten but obscure heavyweights Marko Randonjic and Emir Ahmatovic, both of whom the undefeated Croatian stopped inside of three rounds.
For now, Hrgovic and his team will wait for a ranked heavyweight accept the IBF invitation. The process calls for a three-day period upon receipt of letter to accept the offer. From there comes a 15-day negotiation period before the matter is sent to a purse bid hearing.
The winner of the eventual IBF title eliminator will then wait out the result of the forthcoming rematch between Usyk and former two-time unified titlist Anthony Joshua (24-2, 22KOs), which is being eyed for the spring.
Jake Donovan is a senior writer for BoxingScene.com. Twitter: @JakeNDaBox