Filip Hrgovic thrust himself into world title contention as he claimed a generous unanimous decision victory over Zhilei Zhang in their IBF heavyweight eliminator on Saturday.
The 30-year-old survived a first-round knockdown as well as multiple scares against the 2008 Olympic silver-medallist in what proved a peculiar contest that consisted of a slippery canvas, a clash of heads and stoppage opportunities on which neither man could quite capitalise.
With the win Hrgovic extended his unbeaten record to 15-0 (12 KOs) as one of the self-proclaimed ‘most avoided’ heavyweights in the division, while the result marked the first defeat of 39-year-old Zhang’s career.
It was Zhang who put himself in the ascendency with a first-round knockdown after catching an off-balance Hrgovic with a right-hand that clipped the back of his opponent’s head.
Image: Filip Hrgovic, Zhilei Zhang
Hrgovic responded positively in the second and began to showcase his own power when he landed two clean right hands to Zhang’s chin, but to no avail.
The Croatian emerged for the third with blood trickling down his body after an accidental clash of heads, not helped by more punishment by Zhang including another fierce left to push his man up against the ropes.
Power was matched by precision in the fourth as Zhang nailed an uppercut within a slick combination, before he threatened to stop it two rounds later with a dominant period that had Hrgovic wobbling in the corner.
It was Hrgovic’s turn to let loose with a thumping right to Zhang’s chin, but again the veteran looked undeterred and managed to hit back as still the more dangerous-looking of the two.
What had started as an enthralling contest fell into a messy patch as conditioning became a factor and both men sought to preserve energy where possible in the closing stages.
Suddenly Zhang erupted into life again and again looked close to stopping Hrgovic in the ninth only to appear to run out of steam at the vital moment.
He then took a bizarre fall, not ruled a knockdown, in the 11th partly caused by a strong spell from Hrgovic but also a watery-canvas that had troubled throughout the second half of the fight.
By the closing bell it felt a difficult matchup to call, but it was Hrgovic who found himself on the favourable side of the judges’ cards to come through the toughest test of his professional career by a considerable distance.
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