Often, the little-known contenders amongst boxing’s most enthralling division spring surprises that derail the journeys of its commercial juggernauts. Muhammad Ali shattered the brutal, heartless facade of Sonny Liston; Buster Douglas shocked the world when stopping an untouchable Mike Tyson; whilst Hasim Rahman hit the jackpot, defeating an outstanding champion in Lennox Lewis. It happens.

As the sun sets in the Croatian capital of Zagreb, the piercing, predatory eyes of heavyweight prospect Filip Hrgovic (7-0, 5KOs) seemingly narrow. The expectation from Eastern Europe is heavyset, with the Olympic bronze medalist aware he shoulders the hopes of a nation. With tourist havens such as Hvjar and Dubrovnik, it was easy to forget the gritty upbringing of those suburban families living amongst Croatia’s less picturesque surroundings.

Hrgovic was one of five children, who’d grown to score points in non-contact sports before lacing up his gloves. His siblings had dipped in and out of boxing, whilst his father wasn’t keen – a welcome change in narrative.

“I grew up in Zagreb. My childhood was very ordinary. I remember most that as a young boy I trained basketball, that was the whole world to me and I wanted to become an NBA player. Later, at age 13, I decided to start boxing, and since then I have had dreams of becoming a world champion in boxing.”

“It is a big family, seven of us: my parents, two brothers and two sisters”, he continued, “My family gives me maximum support, but it is hard for them to watch, especially for my mother and sisters. They helped a lot with logistics during my amateur career so, without them I wouldn’t have succeeded.

“My younger brother also trained boxing and with only six months of training, he won the bronze medal in the cadets European Championship. A huge talent but because of health problems he had to stop. My younger sister also trained in boxing and she was the Croatian champion. My mother trained handball all her life, but my father was not a sports guy, and I can’t say that we’re a big sports family.”

An elite amateur, Hrgovic had taken the leap from winning the ‘World Series of Boxing’, signing professional papers and debuting in September 2017 following the disappointment of his Olympic campaign the preceding summer. Now only twenty-six and the owner of a reported 74-15 amateur record, he is looking to stamp his authority on the heavyweight division, sooner rather than later.

He’d already knocked out fringe, world-level fighter, Amir Mansour, before most recently dominating the durable Kevin Johnson over eight rounds. Hrgovic, standing at 6’6, was preparing to take his next step, but I’d been keen to understand the mechanics of his transition as he’d reached the number eight ranking in the WBA and number twelve ranking with the IBF.

After securing a gold medal in the AIBA Youth World Championships (2010), he equalled that achievement at the European Championships in Samokov (2015). When sealing that initial podium position in Baku almost nine years ago, he defeated Frenchman Tony Yoka who would later become his conqueror in South America.

Filip had introduced himself to the wider boxing public, but would suffer a painful defeat in Rio as the two met in the semi-finals. Both men then decided to turn professional, Hrgovic with Team Sauerland and Yoka with Richard Schaefer’s Ringstar Promotions. The prospect of the pair facing off in the years to follow seemed inevitable, in a thrilling European grudge match.

Hrgovic told me, “I think the main difference is that professional boxing carries a business side with it, so boxers should be businessmen – smart and tactical. In the amateurs, it’s about fighting in tournaments and training hard. I think professional boxing is a much higher level, and it all comes down to how popular you are and how many tickets you sell.”

“In 2019, I expect a minimum of three matches maybe four. My promoter, Team Sauerland, has signed an agreement with Eddie Hearn and DAZN. So I plan to have three fights by October and then perhaps even a fourth at the end of the year if there’s time and strength. So, my goal is to win my fights and achieve the best possible ranking.

“It’s great for my career because my fans can now watch me in USA on DAZN and Sky Sports in the United Kingdom. These are two of the biggest boxing markets so surely my popularity will increase and I’m looking forward to keeping busy and improving my record.”

With Eddie Hearn’s Matchroom USA and streaming partner DAZN hosting shows across the United States, it appears Hrgovic is in the perfect position to capitalise on the sport’s growth. They have also signed American heavyweights Jarrell Miller and Michael Hunter, as well as former undisputed cruiserweight champion, Oleksandr Usyk, who is now campaigning for titles in the glamour division to replicate his achievements at the weight below. Realistically, the Croatian knockout artist would be expected to reach the top of the division alongside the next wave of contenders with names like; Yoka, Daniel Dubois and Efe Ajagba. Hrgovic was hungry now, but knew his place in the pecking order.

The confidence displayed by ‘El Animal’ isn’t completely unfounded. Only this week, former unified world champion Wladimir Klitschko was quoted as stating Filip would become a heavyweight world champion. It wasn’t his only experience at the top level. He had mixed it with the best, infamously sparring with David Haye ahead of the Bermondsey man’s proposed contest with Tyson Fury. Anyone who’d been looking forward to that all-British encounter, twice cancelled, could point the finger loosely at the Zagreb man for one of their shelved meetings.

“Yes, I went to David Haye’s boxing camp in 2013 when he was preparing for the fight with Tyson Fury, which in the end never happened. It is true I cut him in the sparring, it was the last round of the last sparring session, and I cut him with a right cross. Unfortunately, these things often happen in the boxing [ring]. Maybe it was his destiny not to fight Fury. He wasn’t angry; he said, ‘things happen for a reason’. After a few years, Tyson Fury becomes the world champion, so who knows what it would have been like today if I didn’t cut him!”

As Hrgovic awaits his next announcement, he was working hard with head trainer Pedro Diaz in Miami. The pair were approaching their first year together, with the former Cuban national coach building his stable impressively with fighters such as world champion, Ivan Baranchyk, and two-time Olympic gold medalist, Guillermo Rigondeaux, previously representing his Mundo Boxing gym.

Sparring and training with Tyrone Spong, he had a fellow world-ranked heavyweight to share the experience with. Spong had reached the top of the mixed martial arts world, as well as being one of the world’s greatest ever kickboxers, driving professionalism into his young stablemate. The pair both harbour the same dream, with one chasing the clock and the other looking to fulfil his potential.

Looking back on his rivalry with Olympic champion, Tony Yoka, his amateur career had also seen him defeat fellow heavyweight prospects Sergey Kuzmin and Joseph Parker. The division is experiencing a certain congestion, with promotional alliances potentially stifling some excellent tests. The studious Hrgovic was keen to push himself into contention, referring to the school of the nineties when looking at the heavyweight landscape. Evidently, the disappointment of Rio stayed with him as he looked to bury those memories, whilst sounding laser-focused on achieving for his Croatian people.

“The situation and the atmosphere in the heavyweight division is phenomenal. The division has returned to its old glory. Next to the three top names [Deontay Wilder, Anthony Joshua and Tyson Fury], we have great boxers like Dillian Whyte, Joseph Parker, Oleksandr Usyk, Alexander Povetkin, Luis Ortiz and young prospects like me, Yoka, Joyce and many more.”

“Currently there is tremendous competition with ten or fifteen top fighters and I do not think that even in the ’90s there was such a [strong] concentration of good boxers in this category. I am looking forward to having many big fights in the future.”

Regardless of the three or four fights he was planning within his first year at DAZN, the goal never seemed to fluctuate. Filip didn’t skip a beat when discussing his ultimate aim – to become the best in the world. Those eyes that would cut through opponents, sharp and intimidating, remained forever focused as he continued working alongside his promoter, Nisse Sauerland, plotting the most effective way to crash the party.

Hrgovic seemed centred as he discussed the impact that boxing had on his life. Despite dedicating his time to family away from the gym, it was the grip of the sport that took precedent. It was everything. Other hobbies would come and go, just as basketball had during his childhood in Zagreb, but he was here for one thing. Being known as the best fighter on the planet seemed to be the only thing to satisfy him – anything else was classed as failure.

“Boxing is my life; it is a religion to me, 24 hours-a-day, everything is centred around it. I have never done anything except boxing, so I don’t know what I would do instead. I gave my life for boxing, and hard work pays off.

“My goal in the amateurs was to become the best in the world, but I did not succeed. I was third at the Olympics, although all of them expected me to be first. For some strange reasons, a match in the semi-finals of the Olympics I did not do so well. I fought at less than 70% of my potential, and I was so disappointed. Now I see that has happened for a reason and that’s why I have even more motivation to be the best in the world as a professional.” 

Article by: Craig Scott

Follow Craig on Twitter at: @craigscott209