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Tony Yoka Has His Eye on the Prize at the Top Rank Gym

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  • Tony Yoka Has His Eye on the Prize at the Top Rank Gym

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    By Arne K. Lang

    Las Vegas is a magnet for world class boxers from around the world. There is an abundance of gyms with regulation-sized boxing rings and many visiting fighters make the rounds during their stay here. In any sport, one improves by practicing against near-equals or those that are more advanced and Las Vegas invariably offers better sparring than a foreign fighter can find in his homeland. Several months ago, this reporter was tipped off that Great Britain’s Joe Joyce was in town training at Ismael Salas’s gym and this week we encountered Joyce’s great amateur rival (and likely future opponent) Tony Yoka at the Top Rank facility.

    Born in Paris to a Congolese father and French mother, Yoka, who speaks perfect English, is from a fighting family. His father Pascal Yoka fought as an amateur and is a full-time boxing coach. Younger brother Victor Yoka is poised to turn pro and a third brother, Axel Yoka, has his sights set on representing France in the 2024 Paris Olympics.

    “Axel is a light heavyweight,” says Yoka. “We three brothers come in different sizes.” Standing six-foot-seven, Tony Yoka, 29, towers over middle brother Victor who accompanied him to Las Vegas. Victor, a junior welterweight at the amateur level, is listed by boxrec as five-foot-nine-and-a-half.

    Pascal Yoka, the patriarch, was 12 years old and living in Kinshasa in the Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire and formerly a French colony, when Muhammad Ali and George Foreman came to Kinshasa to do battle in the fight immortalized as the “Rumble in the Jungle.” It was a heady moment for the locals, the whole city was on pins and needles, and a seminal moment for the elder Yoka who was inspired by all the hubbub to embrace the sport of boxing.

    Tony Yoka will take an 11-0 (9 KOs) record into his May 14 engagement in Paris with 17-1 Martin Bakole. His amateur career culminated at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio De Janeiro where he won the gold medal in the super heavyweight division. His significant other Estelle Mossely, who competed as a lightweight, accomplished the same feat. They became the darlings of the French sporting press and eventually the parents of two children.

    Fairytale stories don’t always have fairytale endings and the twin gold medalists divorced last year. Tony notes that he lives five minutes away from Estelle in Paris which makes it easier for him to keep involved in the lives of their two young sons, aged four and two. (Estelle Mossely, 10-0 as a pro, plans to keep fighting. She recently signed on with Probellum, the company founded by former Golden Boy Promotions CEO Richard Schaefer.)

    Yoka scaled high hurdles in Rio. His wins over Croatia’s Filip Hrgovic in the semis and Joyce in the finals came via split decisions. Both bouts were rubber matches. He and Hrgovic first met in 2010 in Baku, Azerbaijan, when both were teenagers. His initial encounter with Joyce came five years later in Baku in the finals of the European Games.

    Yoka lost his first meeting with Hrgovic but rebounded to win the Youth Olympic Games tournament three months later in Singapore. His opponent in the finals was Joseph Parker who would go on to win and lose the WBO version of the world heavyweight title and is currently a stablemate of Tyson Fury. He and Parker would spar many times after Parker turned pro, swapping leather at the private training facility of Parker’s coach Kevin Barry in the Greater Las Vegas community of Henderson.

    For a few brief days this past January, it appeared that Yoka and Filip Hrgovic would renew acquaintances this Spring in an IBF eliminator. It would have been a joint promotion between Germany’s powerful Team Sauerland and Bob Arum’s Top Rank. However, Yoka was contractually bound to fight Martin Bakole and was forced to back out. If Yoka vs. Bakole had come off on the original appointed date in January -- it was pushed back four months by the pandemic -- Yoka vs. Hrgovic, a delicious pairing of undefeated young heavyweights, might be coming our way very soon.

    “I know I’m a lot better than (Bakole),” says Yoka, “but I know enough not to underestimate anybody. Down the road I would love to fight Hrgovic again.”

    As an Olympic gold medalist in boxing’s heaviest division, Tony Yoka has a tough act to follow. His predecessors include George Foreman, Lennox Lewis, Wladimir Klitschko, and Anthony Joshua.

    He rattles off their names with the notation that they all went on to win what was once recognized as the richest prize in all of sports, the world heavyweight title.

    “I plan to go where they went,” he says without a trace of arrogance. Stay tuned.

    Arne K. Lang’s latest book, titled “George Dixon, Terry McGovern and the Culture of Boxing in America, 1890-1910,” will shortly roll off the press. The book, published by McFarland, can be pre-ordered directly from the publisher ( or via Amazon.