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A Different Animal: Filip Hrgović is using pain as motivation

Filip Hrgovic prepares to fight Emir Ahmatovic in 2021 (Ed Mulholland/Matchroom)
Though unbeaten so far as a pro, Croatian heavyweight Filip Hrgović suffered the most painful of losses earlier this year and will now approach his 15th pro fight with a different kind of mindset

THE first time I watched Filip Hrgović fight, or indeed heard the name, he had just turned 21 and was an amateur boxer mixing it in a gym full of professionals. The year was 2013, the gym was beneath a railway arch in London, and Hrgović, though speaking very little English and having even less experience in the company of pros, would around that time trade punches with the likes of David Haye, Deontay Wilder, Mariusz Wach and Richard Towers and never once look out of place. More than just survive in their company, in fact, he would flourish, often appearing the most rounded, balanced and, yes, professional of the lot.

At just 21, it was quite the introduction and his name, while perhaps not the easiest to say, was one far easier to remember. “He’ll go a long way,” Adam Booth, Haye’s trainer and the one responsible for bringing Hrgović over, would tell me back then. “He’s got it.”

Almost a decade on and Hrgović is still very much on his way. A pro now, and an unbeaten one at that, the six-foot-six Croatian turned 30 in June and is, like anyone else, a product of all his life experiences so far. 

“I remember that,” he said of his time in Vauxhall. “It was a good camp. David Haye was preparing to fight Tyson Fury but it never happened. (It never happened because Hrgović reportedly cut Haye in a sparring session just days from fight night.) It was a shame. It would have been a good fight.

“It was a good time for me there, though. I was an amateur and it was a really good experience. I sparred with David Haye, Deontay Wilder, everyone. I was not scared. I was young and hungry. It gave me a lot of confidence.

“I didn’t become a better fighter (as a result of the spars), but when you spar with guys like that and you see you can handle them and are doing good, that gives you a lot of confidence at a young age. It gave me confidence that I could do great things.

“After that I became European champion, Olympic bronze medallist, and WSB (World Series of Boxing) champion a few times. This kind of sparring is very good for young fighters.”

Clearly a boxer keen to learn, Hrgović, known as “El Animal”, was not about to stop there. He would, as both an amateur and pro, continue to seek out sparring with top professionals; men from whom he could learn; men he would one day look to replace at the top of the heavyweight tree.

“I sparred (Wladimir) Klitschko and was in his camp two times,” said Hrgović, who also sparred Kubrat Pulev as an amateur. “The time with Klitschko was great. He is a really good fighter. I thought the sparring with him was going to be easier than it was. When you look at him on TV, he doesn’t look so spectacular. People think he is boring or something, but he is a really, really great fighter and really hard to box with.”

For a fighter like Hrgović, the journey was always going to be this way. Having been born and raised in Croatia, hardly a boxing hotbed, there was a sense from day one that he would have to travel for his education and that he would therefore have to grow accustomed to living elsewhere for weeks and months on end. Accepting of this, he nevertheless harboured dreams – and still does – of one day bringing the world heavyweight title home to defend it on familiar ground.

“It’s not so popular,” he said of boxing in Croatia. “Maybe at the moment it is a little bit more popular because we have a few professional fighters out there. Something happens, people talk about boxing. But generally, it’s not so popular.

“We don’t have a big tradition in boxing. We don’t have a lot of coaches or managers or promoters or anything. Amateur boxing doesn’t offer good conditions for the fighters. In Croatia, there is no system for the amateur fighters, so if you want to succeed you just need to be crazy. You need to put your head through the wall. But it is what it is. I think I have had much more of a struggle in my career to get to where I am now than some fighters from big countries like Great Britain, USA, Russia, or Kazakhstan. They have a much better tradition in boxing and much better conditions. If you want to succeed from a small country, you have to work harder.

“I think if I become champion, hopefully one day I will defend the title in Croatia. We will have 50,000 people in a stadium and we can do that, for sure.”

Going back to the start, Hrgović, in light of his size, had a choice. He could, on the one hand, do the obvious thing and pursue a career as a basketball player. Or, and this is the option he ultimately took, he could see the value in a long reach and wide stance, and explore the possibility – and risk – of becoming a heavyweight boxer.

To play basketball, of course, would have been the safer and more lucrative option, yet Hrgović decided in the end to go with the latter, knowing, should he reach the very apex of the sport, it would be a far more rewarding journey. 

“I played basketball for five years but I was a kid at that time,” he said. “I played from eight to 13 years old. It was not at such a serious or high level, but I liked basketball a lot.

“I also liked boxing, though, and now it’s my life. People think it’s strange, but a lot of people love boxing. I don’t know why because you’re getting punches in the head. But a lot of people fall in love with boxing and I did as well.”

Hrgović’s love for boxing resulted in him winning a silver medal at the 2015 European Championships, as well as a bronze at the 2016 Olympic Games. He would then decide to turn pro in 2017, stopping in one round the Brazilian Raphael Zumbano, whom Anthony Joshua boxed in his 12th fight, on his pro debut.

Since then, however, progress has been steady rather than remarkable for Hrgović. He has, in the five years since, beaten trial horse heavyweights like Éric Molina, Amir Mansour, and Rydell Booker, but has still to really be tested as a pro, nor produce the kind of performance that could potentially make him a household name. 

“I am happy, but I think it could have been better. A little bit,” he admitted. “I think I was ready a few years ago for some bigger names and bigger fighters, but I didn’t get the chance with some big names. I didn’t get the chance to show my skills.

“I think it is not too bad, though. I’m 14-0 now, I’m undefeated, and I’m fighting for the chance to get a title shot. I think it was a good journey. It was just a warm-up (the first 14 bouts). Now I feel I can do much, much more, though, yes, I am sad because I didn’t get some big names in the last few years.”

The reason for this, of course, is the exact same reason why he spent his formative years travelling for his education. “I’m from a small country and I don’t bring too much money to the table,” Hrgović said. “That was one of the reasons, maybe. Also, everybody knows they will have a hard fight with me, so they ask for a lot of money. But I wanted to fight some bigger names and I didn’t get the chance. The next five years, or maybe even more, will be the best in my career. I feel really good, I’m healthy, and I’m still hungry. I feel like there are going to be lots of big fights in front of me.”

Hrgovic attacks Emir Ahmatovic during their December 4, 2021 bout at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas (Ed Mulholland/Matchroom)

Thirty is still young for a heavyweight, so there is clearly no rush with Hrgović, despite his extensive amateur background and undeniable fighting pedigree. His next fight, too, set for Saturday (August 20), represents an encouraging step in the right direction, delivering both a good opponent and a wonderful stage on which to impress.

His opponent in Saudi Arabia will be China’s Zhilei Zhang, a fellow undefeated heavyweight with whom Hrgović has been linked for some time. Yet, even better than that, this 12-rounder is set to take place in the very same ring in which leading heavyweights Oleksandr Usyk and Anthony Joshua will settle their score later that night.

“It’s a big stage and a big opportunity for me,” Hrgović said. “I hope to show good boxing and beat this guy.

“I think he’s a good fighter. He’s a southpaw, he’s big, and he has pretty fast hands for his size. He’s brave, but I think I’m a different kind of animal here. I have lots of advantages and I just need to be myself. I need to box good. I can’t relax or underestimate him.

“I fought in Saudi Arabia in 2019 (against Éric Molina) and that was another huge event at that time (Anthony Joshua defeated Andy Ruiz in the main event). It was a big experience for me to be part of that. I think, because I’ve already fought there and experienced that atmosphere, I will be even better this time.”

In addition to being better than he was in 2019, it is also likely Hrgović will be considerably better than he would have been had he boxed Zhang, 24-0-1 (19), back in May, when the fight was originally scheduled. It was around that time, after all, Hrgović’s father sadly passed away and the fight, which was booked for Las Vegas, had to be pushed back.

“Yeah, it has been a tough year for me,” Hrgović, 14-0 (12), reflected. “I’ve been waiting for this fight for almost two years. A lot of things happened to this fight, and also in my personal life, so I’m just happy it is finally happening.

“I feel proud of myself because my dad passed away a few months ago and it has been a really hard time for me and my family. But, despite that, I have found the strength to do a great camp. I have been here in Houston (Texas, USA) for three months training really hard and I’m proud of myself that I could do that.”

Having received an early glimpse of his stoic demeanour and mental fortitude almost 10 years ago in London, when Hrgović overcame both the language barrier and the pressure of professionals, it comes as no surprise to learn of the speed with which he has put himself back together following the most painful of losses.

For within an arsenal of plenty strength is just one of his many eye-catching attributes. It is, for Hrgović, a heavyweight strength. A brute strength. A youthful strength. Yet, more than that, it’s perhaps the strength of Hrgović’s mind, something he has trained since childhood and something that is a prerequisite of being a boxer from Croatia, that could make weaklings of heavyweights considered equals in stature.

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