The Olympic super heavyweight preview
The super heavyweight division at the Olympics, equivalent to the heavyweight division in the professional ranks, is where the seeds of stardom are planted. Success afterward is never guaranteed, however. Not all the winners ever pan out and not all of them ever even enter the pro game. Lennox Lewis, Wladimir Klitschko and Anthony Joshua are all gold medalists who have gone on to pro superstardom. Audley Harrison never lived up to expectations and neither did Tyrell Biggs. Roberto Balado and Roberto Cammarelle will always be seen as a case of “What if?” as they never went pro.
This year in Rio de Janeiro, another crop of 16 big men enter the ring to battle it out for Olympic glory and the chance to catapult into stardom. The medalists will find themselves surrounded by promoters rushing to them with money and promises in hand, hoping to secure a golden ticket to cash in on down the line, in the form of a world heavyweight champion.
First, they have to fight. In this year’s field, there is a ton of possibilities. There isn’t a clear favorite. As far as the gold medal goes, there are probably about five who legitimately have a chance to win. The battle for the two bronzes could add another four at least.
Starting with the Top 5, we have Tony Yoka, Joseph Joyce, Magomedrasul Majidov, Ivan Dychko and Filip Hrgovic. All could conceivably win gold and it’s hard to split them. The recent World Championships in October saw Yoka beat Dychko to win gold in the final but it doesn’t tell the whole story.
Yoka had three very close fights that all went his way, first against Hrgovic, then against Joyce and then Dychko. Personally I thought he lost all three but, again, they were quite close. The 6-foot-6 Yoka moves very well for a man of his stature and is probably the best athlete in the division. He’s got sharp counters and fast hands, with fast feet to get out of the way and move laterally around the ring. He’s definitely more of a boxer than a puncher but that doesn’t mean he can’t punch. His main flaws have been his stamina and durability, having been stopped in the past with a tendency to fade later in the fight, due to his high-energy style. At the World Championships last year, he was able to overcome being wobbled and hurt by Joyce and his stamina has seemed to improve recently.
With Dychko, you have a tall boxer from Kazakhstan who won bronze at London 2012 and took silver at the last two World Championships. He lacks explosiveness but is a solid, technical long-range boxer who moves pretty well for such a tall guy at 6-foot-9. His main problem is, for the most part, he has one gear and is one-paced but that usually works for him against almost anyone. You could definitely say he’s a Klitschko type. While he doesn’t have a glass jaw, by any means, he was heavily knocked out in the final of the 2013 World Championships by Majidov in a fight in which he was up by two rounds.
Majidov from Azerbaijan, and formerly of Russia, is a rugged banger known for his punching power. He pressures opponents and scores a lot of stoppages and that’s why people have wanted him to go pro for years. His status as elite has been unquestionable, winning bronze in 2012 and winning gold at the 2011 and 2013 World Championships. Although he’s seen as a bit of a boogeyman by many, he may actually be declining. At almost 30 years of age, he has a lot of miles on his body and has mostly been fighting in APB (AIBA Pro Boxing) for the past few years. When he returned to the three-round format in the European qualification tournament, in April, he made it to the final before being outworked in a close fight by Joyce, in which he was hurt by a body shot in the final round. There’s no doubt he can still win and hang at the elite level but he may not be the monster he once was.
Joseph Joyce may be almost 31 years of age but, in boxing years, he’s quite young, having only started training at 22. In recent years, he’s established himself as one of the best in winning the Commonwealth Games in 2014, the European Games last year and getting a bronze at last year’s World Championships. At 6-foot-6, he’s an imposing figure and has the best stamina of any fighter in the division, bringing pressure nonstop for the whole fight, as well as being able to jab and move laterally on the outside. For such a big guy, he’s a very good body puncher. There’s a notion that he’s chinny because he’s been stopped a few times but that hasn’t happened since 2013 and, since then, his defense has also notably improved. Joyce really has come a long way in the past three years and he’s capable of winning gold.
Lastly in the Top 5 is Filip Hrgovic of Croatia. At 6-foot-6, he can fight backing up or going forward, countering or leading. He varies his attack to the head and body, something he’s honed in his 29 World Series of Boxing fights, in which he has a record of 25-4. Despite being a WSB standout, he’s failed to win the big one in amateur tournaments, his best accomplishment being winning the European championships last year. Hrgovic didn’t make the 2012 Olympics or medal at any World Championships but his level is certainly up there with the elite and he’s as good as he’s ever been right now. These Olympics have to be his breakout moment.
Below those five, we have a crop of fighters who can contend for a bronze but are unlikely to make it to the final to compete for gold: Bakhodir Jalolov and Mihai Nistor, plus Erik Pfeiffer and Lenier Pero, with slim chances.
Jalolov is a young, tall Uzbek southpaw and a pretty straightforward technical boxer who can win fights by using his length to control range. His style is similar to Dychko but, so far, Dychko has gotten the better of him on multiple occasions. Jalolov may have more of a dig to his punches than Dychko. He hasn’t fought many of the other fighters in the field, due to being relatively new to the top super heavyweight scene, so it’s yet to be seen how he does against elite competition, aside from Dychko.
Nistor is the definition of a relentless pressure fighter. He’s a southpaw and doesn’t stop coming. Like Hrgovic, he’s come up short in the big tournaments, with his best result being bronze at the European Championships. In 2011, he stopped Anthony Joshua and is the only man to ever do so. Nistor is pretty small, compared to the other giants in the super heavyweight division, so he’s always going to have his work cut out for him as he has to work very hard to win fights. Currently the APB champion, the Romanian may be in the best form of his career, also beating Hrgovic by split decision a month away in an all-out war. He gave Oleksandr Usyk his toughest fight in WSB.
After Jalolov and Nistor, there’s a drop-off. Pfeiffer of Germany has some good results on his resume but usually comes up short against the top competition. He’s also been stopped multiple times, including by Nistor in APB last year and was knocked out in the first round by Andrey Afonin in March. He has won two World Championships bronzes.
Pero is unlikely to medal but he’s a tricky Cuban southpaw who can cause trouble. He lacks the strength, size and power to do well among top competition but is capable of dishing out boxing clinics.
In the subsequent tier below the nine aforementioned fighters are Ali Demirezen, Efe Ajagba and Guido Vianello. The most interesting of these three is Ajagba, who is somewhat of an unknown quantity. Clearly the best fighter out of Africa, he won bronze at the Commonwealth Games in 2014. He looks to be tall and quick but there’s not much footage out there on him over the past few years. Demirezen is a standard and tough, come-forward fighter who comes up short against better competition, although he has stopped Tony Yoka in APB, albeit past three rounds. Vianello won the world qualification tournament in Azerbaijan in June. He throws wild punches sometimes, while standing at range and falling inside, like a lot of Italian fighters do but he’ll stay closer and trade a bit more, generally trying to outwork opponents.
As for the rest of the field, they’re presented here as somewhat of an afterthought because I wouldn’t give them much chance to sniff a medal. Mohamed Arjaoui of Morocco has been around for a long time but has never gotten past a fringe middle-of-the-pack level internationally. Davilson Morais is an unknown, for the most part. Third place via default at the African qualifiers was the best result of his career and, other than that, there’s very little information on him, other than a few clips from the highlights of that qualifier, which don’t indicate he’ll be able to win a single fight at the Olympics. Edgar Munoz is 33 years old, used to fight at light heavyweight and has never medaled at any big international tournament. Nigel Paul may be the biggest man in the division but he’s only been boxing for a year-and-a-half with less than 20 fights to his name. Clayton Laurent is also big but has never risen above the mid-level. Finally, Hussein Ishaish isn’t bad but is undersized, especially for his high-pressure style.
A lot of determining who wins any medals really counts on how the draw is set up. It may end up that two of the better fighters end up fighting in the quarterfinals while two lesser ones fight in another bracket. Cuts may also be a factor from fight to fight, though we’d certainly hope not.
Most people who have interest in this tournament want to look for fighters with big potential in the professional ranks. In this year’s field, there’s a number of fighters who could realistically transition over to the pros. Obviously whether they’d be successful remains to be seen.
Filip Hrgovic is who I see having the best potential for the pro game out of the whole lineup. He’s still young, at the age of 24, and has such vast experience in the WSB. He’s done five rounds on numerous occasions and has a good style to transition, scoring a lot of stoppages. He’s not boring and still has a lot more potential. He’s already sparred David Haye, Wladimir Klitschko and Kubrat Pulev, among others.
The conundrum for Majidov and Joyce is their age. For Majidov, it’s rare that fighters from Azerbaijan go pro, as they’re well taken care of. As has been said previously, he also might be declining due to the high amount of wear and tear he’s picked up over the years. Even though Joyce will be 31 in September, he could become a star immediately with how the UK boxing landscape is right now. He’d have to be fast-tracked, of course, but he has more than enough experience in WSB and fighting top competition in tournaments to warrant that. By boxing standards, he’s a young 31 and could be built up for a year, or maybe two, and then start heading toward the top if there are no slip-ups. He has an all-action style and very good stamina that most heavyweights lack. He’s sparred rounds on rounds with Anthony Joshua, who says Joyce is one of the best he’s ever sparred.
Dychko is about to be 26 and would be compared to the Klitschko brothers, just because of his height, style and where he’s from. He doesn’t set the world on fire but he gets the job done. He does lack the strength and power the brothers have, however. Dychko’s style and temperament align with the criticism the Klitschkos have received over the years, Wladimir in particular. Like Hrgovic, he also went to the Klitschko camp to spar Wladimir this year.
Yoka is a very marketable fighter with a lot of ability and he’s only 24. The problem is, in WSB and APB, his stamina hasn’t been up to par and he fades because of his high-energy style. If he can learn to not be so frenetic, then he has the skills to do well. On the other hand, he’s also been stopped and hurt numerous times and that’s a reason for concern but he does seem to be improving on that aspect of his game. His recent APB fight from May, in which he stopped Marin Mindoljevic in four rounds, was a big step in the right direction.
Jalolov’s size and southpaw style alone would take him a long way. He’s not even close to the finished product and the Uzbeks are well taken care of, especially those with a lot of promise like him, so I’d be surprised if he turned pro any time soon. Nistor would face the same size issues in the pros but he’s been up to nine rounds in APB where he stopped Erik Pfeiffer. He could get to a certain level but, if he could make cruiser, he’d be a monster there.
All of that will have to wait until after the Olympic Games, when we’ll have even more insight based on the results.
As for predictions on how this all pans out, out of everyone in the field, I lean toward Joyce taking gold, if I have to pick one fighter. His form, in the past year, has been great and he seems to still be getting better. His style is hard to deal with for anyone and his superior conditioning is key. I’d say Majidov will be more in the running for a bronze as he may have slowed down a bit and boxer-stylists like Yoka and Dychko might be able to evade him, as well as Hrgovic being able to trade with him. For silver, it could be any of the aforementioned three but I’ll go with Hrgovic, who should be in his best form. Yoka and Dychko should make it to the semifinals, barring having to fight another top fighter beforehand.
It should be emphasized that, between the aforementioned Top 5 I’ve highlighted, that it’s really a toss-up as to how this tournament is going to play out. That’s what makes this year’s super heavyweight division so intriguing: a number of fighters who can medal with potential to transition to the pros, all battling it out for Olympic glory.
You can follow Rian Scalia on Twitter @rian5ca.