IBHOF inductee Graham Houston believes Rio 2016 Olympic super-heavyweight gold medallist Tony Yoka may not hit the same heights in the pro game after another underwhelming display.
After two disappointing performances in a row, it looks as if France’s Olympic gold medallist Tony Yoka might be close to reaching his ceiling as a professional heavyweight.
First, Yoka won a lacklustre 10-round decision over trial horse Christian Hammer last November. Well, fighters sometimes have off nights. But on Friday Yoka was unimpressive again when scoring a last-round win over Joel Tambwe Djeko, who until two fights ago was boxing as a cruiserweight.
Yoka is a big man at 6ft 7ins and 240 pounds. He has boxing ability, obviously. Yoka jabs well to head and body and he keeps a tight defence. A boxer doesn’t win an Olympic gold medal without being competent.
Yet something seems to be missing with Yoka. In his last two fights he has been more workmanlike than wonderful.
It’s strange, because in in a three-fight stretch a couple of years ago it seemed as if Yoka was really coming into his own as a pro fighter, with consecutive KOs over seasoned opponents.
Alexander Dimitrenko and Michael Wallisch each went out in the third round.
Then came what, at least on paper, was a highly impressive result, a one-round demolition of veteran fellow-countryman Johann Duhaupas, who in 2015 lasted into the 11th round against Deontay Wilder and who two years before meeting Yoka gamely stayed in there for the full 12 rounds with the massive Big Baby Miller.
On closer examination, though, perhaps those Yoka KO wins were a bit misleading.
Dimitrenko was 37 and he had been stopped in his last two bouts. Wallisch had been knocked out inside five rounds in two of his last three appearances. And Duhaupas, at the age of 39 and having boxed just once in the past two years before meeting Yoka, was at the end of his career,
Yoka, to his credit, showed a finishing instinct in these fights. He hurt his opponents and he went for the stoppage.
But against Hammer, although Yoka won every round he just seemed to be going through the motions. He was mauled to his knees a few times. Hammer was cut over the eye early in the bout but seemed to have made up his mind that he wasn’t going to get stopped. He even seemed to mock Yoka’s punching power, indicating that he didn’t think Yoka could hurt him. (And nor could he, come to that.)
Then we come to Friday’s bout with Djeko. The odds on Yoka winning by KO/TKO were 3/1 (-300). But the European Union title fight went into the 12th and final round, and it looked sure to go the distance when Tambwe suddenly turned away in surrender after getting hit by a left jab flush on his swollen right eye, a finish similar to the one in the fight between Yoka’s old amateur rival, Joe Joyce, and Daniel Dubois. There were just 80 seconds remaining when the referee waved the finish.
To me, Djeko was the moral winner. A massive underdog (Yoka was a 1/50 favourite at some outlets), Djeko put up a tough, stubborn fight. He looked big and strong at 231 pounds and he was able to take Yoka’s best punches.
Djeko had flashes of success when he let his hands go, and he rolled with punches nicely when backed up on the ropes. If it hadn’t been for his swollen and closing eye, Djeko would surely have heard the final bell.
Sure, you could say that Djeko was essentially looking to keep out of trouble and go the distance, and that it isn’t easy to stop a survival-minded opponent. That is true. But, that said, Yoka simply wasn’t convincing.
True, Yoka has had only 10 pro bouts. But he turns 29 next month and he had a long amateur career at a high level. Surely he can’t have peaked?
An Olympic gold medal isn’t a guarantee of pro success, of course. Think of Italy’s Franco De Piccoli, heavyweight gold medallist at the 1960 Rome Olympics.
A hard-hitting southpaw, De Piccoli won his first 25 pro bouts (20 KOs) before suffering back-to-back stoppage defeats against the sturdy New Yorker Wayne Bethea and Joe Bygraves, the Birkenhead-based Jamaican who won the British Empire heavyweight title.
I’m not suggesting Yoka is another De Piccoli, but there must now be serious doubts about whether the French hope can go all the way.
Yoka showed some vulnerability in the amateurs, losing several bouts inside the distance, and there’s the possibility that maybe he just isn’t top-level pro boxing material.
Joe Joyce, who lost a debatable decision to Yoka in the Rio Olympics super-heavyweight final, looks much more of a pro fighter, not as polished as Yoka but more rugged and willing. Joyce is a big, strong man who is hard to discourage and he has an excellent left jab. I’d make him favourite over Yoka.
Filip Hrgovic, the big man from Croatia who won and lost against Yoka in the amateurs, is another who simply seems more suited to pro boxing.
However, there’s always intrigue about an undefeated Olympic gold medallist. And it’s the old story: We can’t be sure how good Yoka is until he loses. Maybe, when facing his biggest test, Yoka could rise to the occasion.
But, on the evidence of his last two fights, my suspicion is that, moving forward, the people behind Yoka will need to match him with care.