Heavyweight boxing is, as we all know, the glamour division of boxing. And while the Klitschko Era was a bit of a down period for the class — through no real fault of the Klitschkos, they were just miles better than their competitors — the last few years have seen the sport’s biggest and baddest experience renewed interest and excitement, and the more casual audience’s curiosity has been piqued once more.
Tyson Fury, Deontay Wilder, and Anthony Joshua rule the division now, and have for a while, save for Fury’s near three-year absence from the sport and Andy Ruiz Jr’s six months as part of the elite tier in 2019. And there are some solid veteran contenders out there, too, not to mention former cruiserweight king Oleksandr Usyk joining the division in 2019, with an eye on a belt in 2020.
But today we’ll take a look at five rising names in the division who haven’t mixed in with the contenders yet, but look to have the goods. These are names the hardcore fans will know, but others may not, and should.
We’ll go in alphabetical order here, and obviously there are definitely more than five noteworthy heavyweight prospects out there, but these are all guys who have a good chance of breaking through — or at least taking their shot against a contender or even titleholder — by the end of 2020.
The 25-year-old Ajagba, a PBC fighter originally from Nigeria, took up the sport at age 17 in 2011, so he’s not a lifelong gym rat dreaming of boxing glory since he was just a little kid. He was a soccer (football, I know) player for years before getting into the sweet science.
As an amateur representing his home country, he won bronze at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and gold at the 2015 African Games, and he qualified to represent Nigeria at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. He advanced to the quarterfinals before losing to Kazakhstan’s Ivan Dychko, a two-time Olympic bronze medalist and longtime amateur standout.
Turning pro in the summer of 2017, Ajagba relocated to the United States and has settled in Texas, where he works with respected trainer Ronnie Shields, who speaks incredibly highly of Ajagba’s work ethic and willingness to learn. Thus far, his most famous pro moment came in Aug. 2018, when he was scheduled to fight Curtis Harper in Minneapolis. Instead of actually fighting Ajagba, Harper waited for the bell to open the first round, then left the ring, resulting in a disqualification at 0:01, the shortest pro boxing match in history.
Ajagba stepped up the competition a bit in 2019. In March, he blew away veteran Amir Mansour in two rounds, and followed up in April with a two-round wipeout of Germany’s Michael Wallsich, who did show up with an actual game plan, it just didn’t work. Ajagba ended the year with a wild, fifth round stoppage win in a crazy slugfest with Iago Kiladze on Dec. 21, a fight where Ajagba got overconfident with his opponent in trouble and found himself having to get off the canvas. Ajagba, however, mostly controlled the action and perhaps learned a lesson about aggression.
But it was in July that we may have gotten our true best look at Ajagba to date. As part of the FOX prelims for the Pacquiao-Thurman pay-per-view in Las Vegas, Ajagba was matched with Ali Eren Demirezen, the first professional meeting between two fighters who fought at the 2016 Olympics.
Demirezen, from Turkey, became the first man to go the distance with Ajagba (12-0, 10 KO), and gave the hyped prospect some really good work. Official scores were 97-93, 99-91, and 99-91, the latter two giving Demirezen no real credit, but we had that one 96-94 for Ajagba, and that should be seen as a valuable learning experience for him, one where he faced an opponent who had a good plan, gave it a legitimate shot, and was able to hang in there and not be thrashed in short order. Ajagba, to his credit, showed ability to adjust when things didn’t just fully go his way right off the bat.
The 22-year-old Dubois, a British fighter promoted by Frank Warren, is the youngest fighter we’ll talk about here, and perhaps the best-promoted. At 14-0 (13 KO), Dubois experienced a breakout year in terms of attention and hype going his way, and he backed it up in the ring on five occasions.
In March, Dubois knocked out Razvan Cojanu late in the second round at Royal Albert Hall. Cojanu is a former world title challenger, but probably never should have been; still, it was a solid win for a young prospect.
Dubois kept on his tear in April, blasting out a game Richard Lartey in the fourth round. There were some good exchanges in that fight, and Ghana’s Lartey fought with a fearlessness that Dubois really did need to see, to know that even if you have an opponent overmatched, not all of them will just flat out crumble.
A big domestic fight came in July, as the vacant British title was put up for grabs between Dubois and fellow unbeaten prospect Nathan Gorman. It may seem silly now if you saw the fight, but many were picking Gorman to win and expose the thought-to-be-more-raw Dubois, including two of our staffers and Tyson Fury.
Instead, Dubois absolutely dominated Gorman en route to a fifth round knockout victory to claim the Lonsdale Belt. The fight seemed pretty much over by the third, actually, when Gorman was dropped and on bad legs upon standing, but Gorman threw caution to the wind and launched wild enough shots that Dubois had to be careful not to run into anything.
Following that impressive victory, which silenced a few more enduring doubters, Dubois closed the year with wins over Ebenezer Tetteh, who was unbeaten but way overmatched, and Kyotaro Fujimoto, who — if we’re being honest here — showed no actual interest in fighting Dubois once the bell rang, and for good reason, as he was undersized and way out of his depth.
Unlike some other modern heavyweights, such as the aforementioned Ajagba or Deontay Wilder or Anthony Joshua, Dubois did grow up in boxing, starting at age nine. He didn’t have a deep amateur career past the youth stage, as he opted to turn pro in 2017 at age 19 instead of chasing the 2020 Olympics, which was in the cards for him if he’d stayed amateur. When you combine his youth, size, power, and skills that may be sharper and more developed than some thought at the midway point of 2019, we might be talking about the highest-ceiling prospect in the division right now.
The man on this list closest to competing for a world title is probably Croatia’s Hrgovic, a 27-year-old who won gold at the 2015 European Amateur Championships and bronze at the 2016 Olympics, the latter coming via controversial semifinal loss to eventual controversial gold medalist Tony Yoka.
Promoted by Matchroom, Hrgovic (10-0, 8 KO) went 3-0 in 2019, trotting the globe and getting rid of all of his opponents in short order. First up was Texas groin punch specialist Gregory Corbin, who was gone in 60 seconds on a card in Maryland.
Mexican scrapper Mario Heredia was next up in August in Hermosillo, and Hrgovic finished that one in the third round. Finally, he headed to Saudi Arabia on Dec. 7 for the big heavyweight card headlined by Ruiz-Joshua 2, where he didn’t have the prettiest performance but dominated former title challenger Eric Molina, scoring a third round stoppage in a fight where Molina looked washed and kind of disinterested in fighting.
Hrgovic has a strong KO percentage so far, obviously, but he’s not the flashy type. He’s a good boxer with heavy hands, attacks the body when he can, and has shown the ability to finish. TBRB already have him ranked as the No. 10 heavyweight in the world, and while I’m personally not quite there yet, I can see the reasoning. This is a dangerous guy who is truly knocking on the door, and if it weren’t for sanctioning body politics — Anthony Joshua, a fellow Matchroom fighter, may have to make two mandatory title defenses this year — there’s a good chance he’d be in a title fight by the end of 2020. He still could be, of course, but at the very least he should be in soon with a legitimate contender. A fight with Alexander Povetkin, for instance, could make a lot of sense.
It’s tough to call Joyce a prospect, because the big Brit is 34 years old, which makes him older than Joshua or Fury by a few years, and older than Wilder by a month. But “The Juggernaut” is right on the doorstep, too, and deserves mention here.
Joyce (10-0, 9 KO) was originally slated to be in the ring early in 2020, as he was lined up to go to Germany in mid-January to face Marco Huck for the European heavyweight title. That fight has been scrapped, though, with Huck injured, and now there’s renewed talk of Joyce facing fellow Warren heavyweight Dubois, possibly in April. Both sides say they’re interested, and Warren says he’s interested. It’s a fight the British Boxing Board of Control ordered for last summer, but Joyce stepped aside for the time being, allowing Dubois-Gorman to go ahead instead, with the thought always that eventually, he and Dubois would cross paths.
Joyce took up boxing really late, starting at age 22, after a track and field career was brought to an end due to injuries. As an amateur, he won gold at the 2014 Commonwealth Games and 2015 European Games, bronze at the 2015 World Amateur Championships, and silver at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, where he really could have, perhaps should have, won gold in the final, but he also probably should have been fighting Filip Hrgovic in the final and not Tony Yoka, and that’s a whole other story, anyway.
Turning pro in 2017, Joyce stepped right into a 10-rounder for his debut against Ian Lewison, who had challenged for the British title in his previous bout. Joyce stopped Lewison in the eighth round.
He fought three times in 2019, facing a trio of battle-tested veterans of various remaining quality. In February he defended the Commonwealth heavyweight title with a sixth round TKO win over former WBC titleholder Bermane Stiverne, and returned in May at Lamex Stadium with a third round stoppage of Alexander Ustinov, one of the few men in pro boxing whose tank-like build surpasses even that of Joyce.
Joyce got his best test to date in July against former world title challenger Bryant Jennings, who had more left in him than Stiverne or Ustinov. The American Jennings came over to London and gave Joyce a good 12 rounds, losing a decision. We had that one closer (114-113 Joyce) than the judges did (115-112, 117-110, 118-109), and like Ajagba’s win over Demirezen, it was surely a valuable experience for Joyce; not everyone is going to go away so easily.
Style-wise, Joyce is pretty plodding, but he can let his hands go and throw a lot of punches, as we saw against Stiverne in particular, and he’s got a better gas tank than you might expect just look at him. And again, this can’t be overstated: at 6’6” and generally around 260 pounds, the man is just built like a refrigerator, he’s thick and sturdy, has the type of frame that generates real power without a lot of speed; thudding power, not sharp power. At his age, we’ll know what he’s really capable of within the next two years. He may not have the miles on the odometer, but the clock ticks regardless, and new, younger fighters are going to keep coming in waves.
We’ve mentioned France’s Yoka a couple times here, noting his two controversial Rio 2016 wins over Hrgovic and Joyce that led to a gold medal. But the 27-year-old “La Conquete” (“The Conquest”) was a real amateur standout regardless, deserving no worse than bronze at those Olympics, and while he’s had a rocky pro career in some respects, he probably does deserve mention.
Yoka (7-0, 6 KO) turned pro in 2017, like a lot of the 2016 Olympians, signing with the upstart Ringstar outfit and making his pro debut in June of that year. He won his first four bouts pretty handily overall, then faced Dave Allen in June 2018. He stopped Allen early in the 10th and final round, but a month later he was banned for one year by the French Anti-Doping Agency after missing a series of drug tests over a one-year period between July 2016 and July 2017. He appealed, but it was rejected the next month.
So Yoka sat on the sidelines until July 2019, when he returned to face faded veteran Alexander Dimitrenko in Antibes. Dimitrenko was stopped in the third round, and Yoka came back two-and-a-half months later against Michael Wallisch, stopping the German at nearly the exact same time, 10 seconds earlier in the third than he’d put away Dimitrenko.
Yoka is a lean and long heavyweight, 6’7” with an 82-inch reach, generally right around 240 pounds on the scales. He doesn’t seem to be a mega monster puncher in the Deontay Wilder mold, but he certainly can generate some boom and goom, and and he’s got some boxing skills. Beyond his 2016 gold in Rio, he won gold at the 2015 World Amateur Championships, too, beating Hrgovic, Joyce, and Ivan Dychko in his final three bouts to take the top honors there. He hasn’t fought pro outside of France yet, and to really get in the mix he might need the exposure of going international, but he is a legitimate prospect, all controversies and drug test issues aside. He’s not someone to just sweep under the rug and forget.