Filip Hrgovic finally has a heavyweight rival with whom to negotiate for his next fight.
BoxingScene.com has learned that Zhilei Zhang has accepted an invitation to enter talks for a final title eliminator with Croatia’s Hrgovic. The move allows for the IBF to formally order the fight, after which point the two sides will have fifteen days to work out terms to avoid a purse bid hearing.
The development potentially puts to rest a process that has seen nine other heavyweights turn down the offer for a variety of reasons. Several contenders ranked above Zhang are coming off injury, while others have scheduling conflicts—including Australia’s Demsey McKean, who was one spot above Zhang in the IBF heavyweight ratings. The 6’6” Aussie southpaw declined the fight last Friday, as he is already scheduled 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.
It left Zhang as the unlikely candidate—at number 13 in the latest IBF ratings—to potentially land the assignment, though one of the few heavyweights who was always open to the opportunity.
The only other heavyweight along the way to say yes was Paris’ Tony Yoka (11-0, 9KOs), who owns two wins over Hrgovic in the amateurs—including a points win in the semifinal round of his Olympic Gold medal run in 2016 Rio. Yoka accepted the IBF invitation to enter talks last month, only to have to bow out after the IBF ruled in favor of an appeal filed by Martin Bakole claiming he is still owed a rescheduled fight with the unbeaten Frenchman.
Yoka and Bakole were due to fight January 15 in Paris, only for the event to be postponed until a yet-to-be-confirmed date in March due to Covid-related restrictions in France. The distinction between the event being postponed rather than canceled provided an airtight case for Bakole.
For similar reasons, McKean chose to stay the course. McKean recently signed with Matchroom—who has promotional rights on Hrgovic (along with Wasserman Boxing) and Zhang.
Among the other candidates to receive the offer but who declined were Luis Ortiz, Joe Joyce and Murat Gassiev—all of whom 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.
It all leads to China’s Zhan—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.
The winner of the proposed Hrgovic-Zhangh title 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