Filip Hrgovic: Will He Be Croatia’s First World Heavyweight Champion?

At just 2-0, it may be that Filip Hrgović is a little too green for a detailed look, but all the other numbers are right.

Twenty-five years of age and listed at 6’6”, Hrgović has tipped the scales at 223 and 224lbs respectively in his two professional outings to date and although shorn of fat, there is a hint of the raw-boned to his perfectly proportioned frame that will allow for weight gain.

This is a big man, and although he is yet to prove that he is in possession of the big heart necessary to carry him to the summit of the heavyweight mountain, his physicality seems equal to the task.

Out of Zagreb, Croatia, Hrgović first drew attention in 2010, winning the amateur Youth World Boxing Championships, beating Tony Yoka (also a budding pro, and one who is working closely with Virgil Hunter) in the final. His victim in the semi-final should raise more eyebrows: one Joseph Parker.

Almost slender as a teenager, Hrgović boxed well against Parker, already demonstrating neat footwork and showing unerring accuracy with an ill-opposed jab; handspeed was his big problem, but what he lacked in dynamism he compensated for with finesse. The judges saw the contest close throughout but to me it looks more like Hrgović is just shepherding Parker from corner to corner with incremental footwork, a lovely one-two and a nice improvised right uppercut.

Great success then followed in the World Series of Boxing, conceived as an amateur/professional crossover which has drawn no small amount of criticism for muddying the waters which divide the two codes. For all that there may be some truth to this, the WSB is a superb nursery for prospective professionals, and Hrgović thrived, capturing honors in three of the five seasons in which he competed.

Winning gold in the 2015 European Championships might have been the natural time for him to begin an assault on the professional ranks, but the 2016 Olympics proved too tempting. His run to the semi-final of that tournament included a brutal knockout of Cuban southpaw and Pan American gold medalist Lenier Pero.

In the semi-final, Hrgović came unstuck against Yoka, and a meeting between these two somewhere down the line seems very possible. Hrgović defeated the Frenchman clean back in 2010 but dropped a narrow split decision to him at the World Championships of 2015; their Olympic meeting was even closer and by my eye the wrong man took the split.

That, however, is the eye of a professional boxing fan. Hrgović was aggressive throughout while Yoka expertly countered him over the jab. The body-attack Hrgović has developed boxing to a code that generally doesn’t reward such punching will stand him in good stead in the professional ranks and I thought it went unrewarded here; nevertheless, the Croatian turned professional with Sauerland Promotions in the wake of the Olympics as a bronze medal winner rather than a gold medal winner – not a part of the plan.

Hrgović seems relaxed about his prospects as a professional, and mature in his expectations.  He recognizes that he has exited a world of allowances and scholarships and entered a world where, potentially, millions are to be earned but he has spoken openly not only of the failings of the Croatian amateur system but also on the limitations of the professional sport. This is a man who knows that knockouts and excitement are equal to media attention and that media attention is equal to money.

Hrgović turned pro in September of 2017 against Raphael Zumbano Love, a multiple times winner of the Brazilian national heavyweight championship and cult hero who sported a record of 39-16-1. For comparisons sake, Anthony Joshua boxed Love in his twelfth professional contest.  Despite his relatively young years, Hrgović seems a man in a hurry.

He was in a hurry, too, on that September evening in Riga, forcing the referee’s intervention after about ninety seconds of the first round with a fuselage of punches. Hrgović needs to tidy up a bit when he is probing, but when he is in full flow he is arguably already where he needs to be, leaving thundering, accurate punches precisely on the spots they need to find. Love was mentally unraveled within a minute.

In October, Hrgović stepped out again, this time against fellow unbeaten prospect Pavel Sour, whose record stood at 6-0.  Scoring another first round stoppage, Hrgović feinted with the jab, dragged it across the straight-line for his right, and boomed home a quivering straight through the gap he had worked. Messages of disaster swamped Sour’s nervous system as he tried to raise himself and again collapsed, a stoppage reminiscent of Mike Tyson’s over Trevor Berbick.

Two fights, two devastating knockouts.

Of course, this is what a heavyweight prospect is supposed to do.  Love was not the fighter he had been and may not fight again; Sour was completely unproven although unbeaten. Mashing out limited opposition early is Hrgović’s job right now. Still, it is worth mentioning that Deontay Wilder fought professional loser Ethan Cox in his first contest; Joseph Parker took the same approach against Dean Garmonsway for his debut. Hrgović has the feel of a fighter in synergy with his promoter, and that synergy says that he is ready for an early push.

I suspect that Wilder, Parker and Joshua are too far down their own respective paths and worth far too much money to be likely future opponents for him, so this is a fighter who may help define the next generation.

There is some tidying to do if he is to get there. It will be interesting, for example, to see him in with a ranked counter-puncher or live veteran with the skills or wiles to bring him forwards and then strike. For all that I felt Hrgović deserved the nod in last year’s Olympic semi-final, Tony Yoka did befuddle him with mobile reactive tactics.

Leaving aside for the moment that he will probably run into Yoka himself at some stage, there will be other well-equipped opponents keen to take advantage of this weakness, should it remain one.

On the other hand, Hrgović will have much more time to stalk and break down such opponents and he already has the bare bones of the footwork that permits such work. Clearly more suited to the professional than the amateur ranks, the combination of a mature body-attack and this neat (if not always graceful) mobility might be the seeds which will turn a weakness into strength.

And if that chink in the armor remains, Hrgović will still entertain, for all that he may not fulfill his potential. He is one-hundred miles of bad road from achieving all that some expect of him and that journey will include stops for a chin-check, a true test for his stamina and sore demands upon his courage in addition to this stylistic interrogation; only a chosen few make scratch.

I’ll be along for the ride.

Editor’s note: In his next article, Matt McGrain looks at heavyweight hopeful Arslanbek Makhmudov who makes his pro debut on Friday in Toronto.

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