The search for a willing heavyweight to face Filip Hrgovic could lead to restoring a rivalry with an old amateur rival.

France’s Tony Yoka is the latest to receive an invitation from the IBF to enter talks for a planned heavyweight title eliminator. The offer comes ahead of what would have been fight week for the unbeaten Frenchman, whose scheduled January 15 clash with Martin Bakole was postponed due to crowd restrictions in France in efforts to combat the Omicron variant.

Yoka (11-0, 9KOs)—who captured a Gold medal in the 2016 Rio Olympics—was given three days from receipt of invitation to accept, at which point he will be instructed to enter negotiations for an ordered title eliminator versus Hrgovic (14-0, 12KOs) to determine the mandatory challenger for the IBF heavyweight title. The same courtesy was extended to Luis Ortiz and Joseph Parker, both of whom declined for varying reasons.

A pairing between Yoka and Hrgovic comes with a built-in backstory. The familiar amateur rivals last met in the 2016 Olympic super heavyweight semifinals, with Yoka claiming a decision as part of his Gold medal run. Hrgovic went home with a Bronze medal for Croatia, with both boxers turning pro the following year.

Yoka also eliminated Hrgovic from the quarterfinal round of the 2019 World Amateur Championships, for which he claimed top honors in the super heavyweight division.

Hrgovic has been moved at an aggressive pace, though with his competition level quickly leveling off due to an inability to get the top heavyweight contenders in the ring. The 6’6” heavyweight—who trains out of Miami under the tutelage of Pedro Diaz—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.

Yoka has seen his career surge since the pandemic, posting four wins over mid-level opposition. The run began with a first-round knockout of countryman and former title challenger Johann Duhaupas in September 2020, followed two months later with a ten-round shout of veteran divisional gatekeeper Christian Hammer.

The 2021 campaign for Yoka saw fight twice including a big reception in Paris hometown last September, where he stopped unbeaten but overmatched Petar Milas inside of seven rounds. The win came six months after turning away Joel Djeko whom Yoka stopped in the twelfth and final round of their EBU heavyweight title fight last March in Nantes, France.  

A fifteen-day free negotiation period will be allotted if Yoka accepts the IBF invitation. Neither party can enter an agreement for another bout once the eliminator is formally ordered, per IBF rule 9.a.2 (Purse Bids—No Intervening Bouts).

Should Yoka decline, the IBF is required to continue down the line until finding an available challenger. The heavyweight contenders ranked after Yoka are: England's Joe Joyce (13-0, 12KOs), a 2016 Olympic Silver medalist who lost to Yoka in the finals; and Germany's Agit Kabayel (21-0, 13KOs). 

Joyce is the top-rated WBO heavyweight contender, though the IBF would come before the Puerto Rico-based sanctioning body in the current rotation of mandatory challengers.

The winner of the eventual IBF final eliminator will become the sanctioning body’s mandatory challenger to Oleksandr Usyk (19-0, 13KOs), who also holds the WBA “Super”/WBO/IBO belts. Ukraine’s Usyk obtained the belts in a September 25 win over England’s Anthony Joshua (24-2, 22KOs). A rematch between Usyk and Joshua is currently eyed for the springtime.

Jake Donovan is a senior writer for Twitter: @JakeNDaBox