Heavyweight up-and-comer Tony Yoka’s deal to be co-promoted by Top Rank is set but the company remains unsure when he will be able to make his United States debut.
Yoka, one of boxing’s best prospects, and French promoter Jerome Abiteboul finalized the co-promotional deal with Top Rank earlier this year -- although it has not been formally announced yet -- with the plan to bring France’s Yoka to fight in the United States in March.
Initially, the discussion centered on Yoka, who won the 2016 Olympic super heavyweight gold medal for France by close decision over Joe Joyce of Great Britain, making his Top Rank debut on March 14. The fight would have been on the undercard of the featherweight world title bout between Shakur Stevenson and Miguel Marriaga at the Hulu Theater in New York, but those plans fell through, and then the card was canceled anyway as the sports world began to shut down because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Then Top Rank was making plans to have Yoka box on the undercard of the fight between unified light heavyweight world champion Artur Beterbiev and mandatory challenger Meng Fanlong, of China, on March 28 at the Videotron Centre in Quebec City, Canada, not far from the Russia-born Beterbiev’s adopted hometown of Montreal.
Top Rank chairman Bob Arum figured that it would be a good fit to have Yoka fight in front of a French-speaking crowd in Quebec City, but then that show, like so many others, was also canceled due to the worldwide spread of Covid-19.
Even though Top Rank resumed putting on events in June with two ESPN-televised shows per week inside the “bubble” of the conference center at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Yoka was a no-go to appear on any of those cards because he was not able to travel to the United States, Arum said.
“We made the deal with the French promoter Jerome and wanted to bring Tony over to fight here in March, but then everything shut down and even though we’re back to doing fights, because of the travel ban we can’t bring him over to fight, which we would have done,” Arum told BoxingScene.com.
“How can I bring him in with all the restrictions (on international travel to the United States)? So because of that Jerome is supposed to be scheduling him for a fight in France in September and after that we will hopefully be able to have him come to the United States to fight.”
The 28-year-old Yoka (7-0, 6 KOs) became a superstar in France by virtue of winning the Olympic gold medal and then signed a lucrative television deal with Canal+, but Arum said he could bring him additional exposure by having him fight on ESPN platforms. Top Rank, as the promoter of heavyweight world champion Tyson Fury, has also been seeking to add its stable of big men.
“I watched some of his amateur fights and (Top Rank head matchmaker) Bruce (Trampler) showed me one of his pro fights. Yoka is a real talent and he’s very personable,” Arum said. “Will he be a world champion? Possibly. He was a top amateur and he is a good professional, and he’s extremely intelligent. He has all the qualities I like in a fighter.”
If Yoka, who is trained by American Virgil Hunter, does fight in September it will be one year since his last bout, which was a third-round knockout of Michael Wallisch.
It will be the second year-long layoff of Yoka’s career. Yoka has only fought twice since a 10th-round knockout of David Allen in June 2018, notching a third-round knockout of Alexander Dimitrenko last July and then knocking out Wallisch. But that layoff was due to Yoka’s own doing as opposed to an injury or a worldwide pandemic.
After missing three drug tests, the French Anti-Doping Agency suspended Yoka for one year. Arum said he is hopeful Yoka can get back to a more active schedule.
“An athlete only has a certain number of years in their career unlike normal people, who are not athletes. An athlete’s career is limited,” Arum said. “Hopefully, we will be allowed to bring him here later this year or early next year. In the meantime, he will fight in France.
“Our deal with him was done but, obviously, things are on hold as far as having him fight in the U.S. but not because of anything he has done or because of us.”
Dan Rafael was ESPN.com's senior boxing writer for fifteen years, and covered the sport for five years at USA Today. He was the 2013 BWAA Nat Fleischer Award winner for excellence in boxing journalism.