Promoter Kalle Sauerland announced last week that Tony Yoka accepted an IBF heavyweight title eliminator with Filip Hrgovic, a rematch of the 2016 Olympic super heavyweight semifinal, but the fight is now in jeopardy over a contract dispute.
Yoka, an Olympic gold medalist, signed on January 15 in Paris to fight Martin Bakole, but the ESPN+ fight was postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions in France. Bakole’s trainer and manager, Billy Nelson, told ESPN that the contract stipulated that Yoka’s French promoter, AllStar Boxing president Jerome Abiteboul, decide in writing whether the fight will be canceled or postponed.
Abiteboul wrote that the fight would be moved to March 5 or 12, whichever date worked best for French network Canal+, Nelson said.
Following Sauerland’s proclamation, Bakole’s legal team sent letters to the IBF, petitioning the organization to rule that Yoka will not be available to participate in the Hrgovic match due to the rule banning contracted boxers from competing in other fighters. IBF sanctioned fighting.
IBF President Daryl Peoples told ESPN a ruling was imminent.
Yoka’s co-promoter, Top Rank, is engaged in negotiations with Sauerland over the proposed Hrgovic match and is leading the legal battle with the Bakole side.
“All parties are waiting for the IBF to make a ruling on whether Yoka-Hrgovic can move forward,” said Top Rank spokesman Evan Korn.
Nelson told ESPN: “People have to fulfill their contracts, don’t they? The IBF rules are very clear: if you sign a contract you are not available to fight in an eliminator. He is trying to start a new life for himself in the UK 400,000 euros goes a long way to help him and his chances of winning the world title himself.”
The contracted payday is four and a half times the best purse of Bakole’s career, according to Nelson, who lives just yards away from the fighter outside Glasgow in Greengairs, Scotland.
Bakole (17-1, 13 KOs) spent the past few years splitting time between Scotland and his native Democratic Republic of the Congo before moving full-time in October.
Bakole, the brother of cruiserweight title holder Ilunga Makabu, has racked up six straight wins since a 10th round TKO loss to heavyweight Michael Hunter in 2018. Most notably, Bakole took a unanimous win over Sergey Kuzmin in December 2020.
“I think you have to blame the French promoter purely because we have a contract with them that is still valid,” Nelson told ESPN. “I just think it’s very unjust and unfair that you can even talk to someone when you sign the contract.”
The prospect of a fight between Yoka and Hrgovic arose after Luis Ortiz and Joseph Parker both turned down an eliminator against Hrgovic. It’s a tantalizing matchup with two of boxing’s best heavyweights.
Yoka (11-0, 9 KOs) and Hrgovic (14-0, 12 KOs) have both enjoyed underpowered opposition as they developed into heavyweight contenders, but each fighter’s level of talent has never been questioned. Hrgovic, 28, won a bronze medal for Croatia in that 2016 loss against Yoka, 29. And both men were named on ESPN’s list of boxers set to compete in 2022.
Usually a fight between such highly regarded talents comes to the fore when a heavyweight title is at stake. But it looked like the chance to quickly move into a championship fight now was too good for both sides to pass up.
Now the fate of the Hrgovic-Yoka fight is decided by the IBF.