Joshua Buatsi has talked about wanting to be more active, having fought once in each of the last two years after a beginning to a pro career that had some observers declaring him to be the future of the light heavyweight division. Buatsi was so committed to the mission of being more active that he was willing to fight his good friend Dan Azeez this past weekend.
It didn’t come together without a little prodding, however. In an interview with Declan Warrington of Boxing News, Buatsi revealed that the fight was offered to him twice, but he insisted that he wouldn’t fight his friend. The two were frequent sparring partners, pals with friend groups that were intertwined enough to go for frequent dinners together. However, when the stakes of a WBA title eliminator were added to the pot, it was too sweet to pass up.
Buatsi and Azeez sure didn’t fight like friends, going toe-to-toe for twelve rounds at Wembley Arena on a Saturday event aired on Peacock and Sky Sports. Buatsi fought with a sustained ferocity that he hadn’t shown—or perhaps hadn’t had to show—in the past, spending long portions of the bout in the pocket, digging to the body with left hooks. If anything, the familiarity the two had with one another emboldened them, with Buatsi in particular sometimes hunching over and offering himself for inside exchanges, the ones the hard-charging Azeez needed to engage in if he wanted to win.
In the end, Buatsi beat him at his own game, never letting the pendulum of momentum swing in his opponent’s favor as entertaining as the bout was. To be clear however, this wasn’t a stay-busy fight for Buatsi, begrudgingly facing a buddy in order to cash a cheque. This was a justified title eliminator between two fighters ranked in the Top 10 of the division near universally by any outlet issuing divisional rankings.
“We’ve had loads of spars like that,” said Buatsi when asked if the bout resembled the many sparring sessions the two had shared together. “I just expected a tougher Dan Azeez, and that’s what showed up. Every round was tough for me. There were times that I caught him and I was like, “Dan, you’re not gonna fall down?” There was a round where I landed three left hooks and Dan was still there and I was like, “damn, this is gonna be a long night for me.”
Buatsi scored two knockdowns in the 11th round (although at least one of them, by his own admission, ought to have been ruled a slip attributed to a wet canvas) and earned a unanimous decision victory by scores of 117-109 twice and 116-110. With the victory, Buatsi netted the British and Commonwealth light heavyweight titles, but more importantly in terms of the global scene, became the mandatory challenger for the WBA title currently held by Dmitriy Bivol.
“As much as I want the spotlight on me, I want it to be on Dan Azeez as well. He pushed me every round. It took two of us to make that fight happen. I wanted to win, that’s because if I lost, there’s nothing there for me,” said Buatsi at the post-fight press conference.
“I’ll say here in front of everyone. The friendship with me to Dan doesn’t stop, it had to be on pause because we had to fight eachother, and I’ll say unfortunately, but for me it doesn’t stop. In the ring, Dan said I love you Josh, I said I love you too bro. There’s respect, yeah, for people, but after twelve rounds like that in front of everyone in smaller gloves, it goes up.”
With the victory, there’s plenty there for Buatsi, although some of it may require more waiting, which he doesn’t seem keen to be doing anymore. Bivol is now locked in to a June 1 title unification bout with Artur Beterbiev, a mouthwatering clash between the division’s giants that the public has been begging for over the last few years. That eliminates most of, if not all of 2024, if one is thinking realistically in terms of modern boxing scheduling, if Buatsi were to wait for Bivol or Beterbiev specifically.
“I haven’t turned down an opponent to say, ‘Oh I don’t want to fight this guy’. My coach [Virgil Hunter] said you could fight for the title or fight Bivol in a couple of fights. But he didn’t say that means we wouldn’t say yes to it,” Buatsi told BoxingScene in June of 2023 in response to reports that he’d turned down a fight with Bivol in the past. “Saying that in a couple of fights’ time would leave me more prepared doesn’t mean that we wouldn’t have been prepared had the opportunity been given. They’re killers [Bivol and Beterbiev], but I believe I’m one too. It’s that simple.”
Buatsi has an opportunity to change the public narrative on that front, but also in terms of the light heavyweight division being simply Beterbiev, Bivol and everyone else, a collection of interchangeable potential challengers to them. Rather, he can follow up a victory over The Ring’s No. 6-rated Azeez by challenging another London-based slugger in Anthony Yarde. Yarde is ranked No. 3 by The Ring, and perhaps just as importantly, gave Beterbiev one of his most difficult fights, relatively speaking, in January of 2023.
“Of course, this was a final eliminator, but we live in England, we live in London, so that’s a fight people want to see. So, people active is very key to me, and myself as a boxing fan, I’d like to see that fight pretty soon. So yeah, I like to be active,” said Buatsi following the Azeez bout.
After all, this close to the top of the ladder, there are no friends, and no rungs you can opt to skip.