It’s a fortuitous and lucrative moment to be near the top of the heavyweight division.
Anthony Joshua holds three of the belts and is set to defend against Kubrat Pulev, and Tyson Fury’s star has never shone brighter after his TKO victory over Deontay Wilder. Those two will compete in a trilogy fight this summer.
Then there’s Adam Kownacki, rightfully considered a bona fide heavyweight contender being rated by all four sanctioning bodies. As long as he keeps winning, Kownacki will be getting a crack at a world title, and his next bout, a title eliminator Saturday against Robert Helenius, will be yet another showcase of what he’s able to do in the ring.
As much as Kownacki will own the main event spotlight, he’s not the only heavyweight to keep an eye on Saturday. Efe Ajagba and Frank Sanchez, both undefeated, are also on the card, and among an emerging class of big men on the rise.
These are the fighters who will one day be challenging for world titles and could well carry on this heavyweight renaissance.
On the cusp
Agit Kabayel | 19-0, 13 KOs
Based in Germany, Kabayel, 27, is a solid grinder who feels most comfortable breaking down his foes in methodical fashion on the inside in a way that seems to fit his physical dimensions (6-foot-3, 235 pounds). As you peruse his ledger, there is one particular victory that stands out — a hard-earned 12-round victory over Dereck Chisora in November 2017.
But since then, Kabayel has fought just twice — once each in 2018 and 2019. With a new promotional pact with Top Rank, he hopes to work his way into a title shot. Currently, Kabayel is ranked fourth by the IBF, 15th by the WBC and 10th by the WBA.
Strengths: Very good fighting inside. He will steadily attack the body in a relaxed fashion inside the pocket.
Weaknesses: By today’s standards, Kabayel is not the biggest heavyweight. You wonder how he would fare against the taller fighters in the division who would keep him at bay with a long jab. His inactivity is also concerning.
Next fight: March 28 vs. TBA in Germany.
Frank Sanchez | 14-0, 11 KOs
Sanchez, 27, a 6-4, 220-pound former Cuban amateur standout is now training with Eddy Reynoso (who also trains Canelo Alvarez) in Southern California. Sanchez had an active 2019 with victories over Willie Lake Jr (KO2), Jason Bergman (TKO2), Victor Bisbal (TKO4) and, in his most recent bout, scored a 10-round unanimous decision over Jack Mulowayi.
Sanchez turned pro near the end of 2017, then fought 10 times in 2018. The plan is to move Sanchez as quickly as possible. Lupe Valencia, who co-manages Sanchez alongside Mike Borao, told ESPN, “Frank is 27, he’s got great amateur experience, so he’s not a guy who needs a ton of professional fights before doing big things.”
Valencia believes Reynoso can help Sanchez to polish his game. How he looks Saturday night will determine what path Sanchez’s management team takes for the rest of 2020.
Strengths: Athleticism, hand speed and a willingness to mix it up. While many of his Cuban compatriots have been accused of being safety-first in the pro ranks, you can’t stick that label on Sanchez.
Weaknesses: Will overcommit to his punches and leave himself vulnerable as he gets his head out in front of his feet.
Next fight: Saturday night vs. Joey Dawejko in New York
Efe Ajagba | 12-0, 10 KOs
Efe Ajagba, who fights Saturday on the undercard of Adam Kownacki-Robert Helenius, carries great power in his right hand. Meg Oliphant/Getty Images
Ajagba, 25, who represented Nigeria in the 2016 Olympics, now resides in the Houston area, where he trains under well-regarded trainer Ronnie Shields. Ajagba’s power is considerable — so much so that Shields has to use specially made pads for Ajagba to hit while they work together in the ring.
Ajagba is a muscular, well-built heavyweight at 6-6, 235, and he has quickly become must-see TV. His last bout, against Iago Kiladze on Dec. 23, was a memorable shootout, which saw Ajagba come off the mat in Round 3 to score a fifth-round KO victory. That fight showed his flaws defensively, and raised a key question — is his power enough for him to follow the path of Wilder, or will he end up more in line with the career of Michael Grant?
Strengths: Physical prowess, great power with his right hand and intimidating presence in the ring.
Weaknesses: Needs to work on head and upper-body movement and tucking in his chin.
Next fight: Saturday vs. Razvan Cojanu in New York
Filip Hrgovic | 10-0, 8 KOs
Heavyweight Filip Hrgovic dropped Eric Molina twice en route to a third-round KO victory in December. Ian Walton/Matchroom Boxing
Hrgovic, 27, of Croatia, came into the pro game with the requisite amateur pedigree. He captured the gold medal at the 2015 European Amateur Boxing Championship and earned a bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics.
Hrgovic is 6-6, 240, and fights out of the orthodox stance. Two fights stand out early in Hrgovic’s pro career. In his sixth outing, he stopped Amir Mansour in three, and then scored an eight-round decision over Kevin Johnson. After aligning with Matchroom Sports, Hrgovic stopped the normally durable Gregory Corbin in Round 1. Corbin had never even been knocked down before their fight. In his most recent outing, Hrgovic notched a third-round knockout against Eric Molina on the undercard of the Andy Ruiz Jr.-Anthony Joshua II.
Strengths: Above average power, stout right hand and physical strength. His right cross is his main weapon, and he is crafty in how he sets up for that punch.
Weaknesses: He’s not very athletic, a bit stiff in his movements and has a one-dimensional offensive attack.
Next fight: April 17 vs. Jerry Forrest in Oxon Hill, Maryland
Arslanbek Makhmudov | 10-0, 10 KOs
This Russian is a prodigious puncher: whatever he strikes, he hurts. Makhmudov, 30, who is based in Montreal, has fought past three rounds just once — when Jonathan Rice pushed him into Round 7 before succumbing to Makhmudov’s power.
In his most recent bout in December, Makhmudov stopped Samuel Peter in one round, and before that he drilled Julian Fernandez in three. He is under the tutelage of trainer Marc Ramsey, who has another Russian powerhouse in his stable in unified light heavyweight titleholder Artur Beterbiev. At 6-6, 260, Makhmudov is an intimidating figure, and what he lacks in elegance he more than makes up for with brute strength.
The KOs he scores are downright scary.
Strengths: Unreal punching power and unwavering confidence in the ring.
Weaknesses: Doesn’t have great speed, and his punch resistance at this point is unknown.
Next fight: TBA
Blue chip prospects
Daniel Dubois | 14-0, 13 KOs
England’s “Dynamite” is quickly rising up the boxing ladder. In 2019, Dubois notched five knockout victories versus the likes of Cojanu, Richard Lartey, Nathan Gorman, Ebenezer Tetteh and Kyoto Fujimoto.
That isn’t a “Murderers’ Row” by any stretch, but he passed the eye test as he exhibited great improvement in his last several fights. As he began his career, he looked like a long-term project; now he looks like a legitimate prospect. He might have the highest ceiling of anyone in this bunch, especially given his age of 22. His handlers think so much of him that they pulled the trigger in making an all-British showdown with Joyce on April 11 at the O2 Arena.
At 6-5, 240, Dubois is a heavy-handed fighter who has smoothed out the rough edges. Where he was once a bit mechanical and stiff in his movements, he now looks more natural and fluid. He is equally adept at digging a left hook to the body, or shooting a right hand over the top. He’s muscular without looking muscle-bound.
Strengths: Natural strength, well-rounded offensive attack and power in both hands.
Weaknesses: He might be getting moved too quickly by his handlers. His chin hasn’t been tested, but the Joyce fight should provide an answer to that concern.
Next fight: April 11 vs. Joyce in London.
Bakhodir Jalolov | 6-0, 6 KOs
Hailing from Uzbekistan, Jalolov, 25, is part of a wave of talented prizefighters such as Murodjon Akhmdaliev, Israil Madrimov and Bektemir Melikuziev. This crew will soon be winning world titles in a variety of weight classes.
Jalolov, who stands at 6-7, 244, is a southpaw with rare hand speed and fluidity for a man his size. His left hand is lethal, but he has a well-rounded offensive arsenal.
”He’s a complete animal, he’s a freak of nature for his size,” gushed Lou DiBella, Jalolov’s promoter. Because Jalolov is still attempting to qualify for the 2020 Olympics, even as a professional, DiBella said he didn’t want to move him too quickly.
Jalolov has already participated in one Olympics. In 2016 he lost to Joe Joyce in the quarterfinals. In a rather infamous bout, at the 2019 AIBA World Boxing Championships, Jalolov starched American Richard Torrez in one round.
When Jalolov returns to the pro game, he will be trained in Indio, California, by Joel and Antonio Diaz, like much of the stable handled by Alik Frolov and Vadim Kornilov.
Strengths: For his size, Jalolov is extremely graceful. He can punch with both hands, and in combinations.
Weaknesses: His experience. Like every other prospect, we will soon find out about his chin.
Next fight: TBA
Tony Yoka (right) defeated Joe Joyce to win an Olympic gold medal in Rio in 2016. YURI CORTEZ/AFP/Getty Images
Tony Yoka | 7-0, 6 KOs
Yoka, 27, who won a gold medal for France in the super-heavyweight division at the 2016 Olympic Games, looks the part of a modern day heavyweight at 6-7, 240. But there is a dark cloud over Yoka’s head, as he was suspended by the French Boxing Federation from July 2018 to July 2019 after missing three drug tests.
Since that point, he stopped veteran trailhorse Alexander Dimitrenko in three rounds, and then did the same to Michael Wallisch. His preferred weapon is his right cross, which he doesn’t hesitate to use over and over again. He boxes out of a tall, upright orthodox stance and has above average athletic ability.
Strengths: Tall, lean physique. Looks relatively agile in the ring, with a solid right hand.
Weaknesses: A bit of a one-trick pony as he needs to develop his left hook.
Next fight: TBA