Dan Azeez and Joshua Buatsi may have sparred, they may share friends and they frequent the same areas but they took totally different routes to tonight’s WBA light heavyweight title final eliminator.
Azeez started on the small halls but has steadily risen through the ranks, claiming area, English, British, Commonwealth and European titles and winning over fans with his old school, non-nonsense attitude.
Until tonight, Buatsi has flattered to deceive as a professional. The Olympic bronze medallist has undoubted talent but his career has been a slow burner. His supporters have found it impossible to leave the bandwagon though, believing that it was a matter of time before he realized his true potential.
After a long, drawn out build up it was unsurprising that both fighters felt their way into the fight. Working behind their jabs, ducking under each other’s right hands and refusing to open up and put themselves at risk early in the fight. Buatsi took the center of the ring, trying to prevent Azeez from building any forward momentum. The exchanges were short and sharp. One Buatsi left hook drawing a quick right hand in reply from Azeez.
That looping overhand right worked well for Azeez in the second. Three times he managed to land the shot over the top of Buatsi’s left hand. Buatsi seemed to be concentrating on working to Azeez’s body when they came in close and he managed to find gaps in Azeez’s tight guard.
Azeez was presenting a compact, small target. Biding his time and throwing that right hand over the top when Buatsi worked to the body. Business picked up in the third round, Buatsi getting off first with the more explosive shots and putting his shots together in combination but Azeez more than happy to punch with him and answer back.
Buatsi stuck with his plan and continued to attack the body. Azeez seemed to be reacting to the attacks and had forgotten about his jolting jab. Buatsi would throw to the body and draw a response from Azeez and his faster hands and more correct shots were allowing him to capitalize on the gaps he left.
Buatsi seemed to have established a foothold. He was cleverly finding room for his left hook and was able to land it to both head and body, Azeez fired back with his right hands but Buatsi’s hand speed was allowing him to have success during the exchanges. Azeez landed a flush right hand with caused Buatsi to bang his gloves together and walk forward into an exchange. The fighters were happy to exchange but Buatsi’s shots looked to be having more effect.
After a quiet sixth which Azeez punctuated with a solid right hand, Buatsi took the center of the ring again in the seventh and looked comfortable, boxing and picking his shots whilst Azeez stepped around him. The pace was definitely suiting Buatsi who flicked out his jabs and looked for that left hook. Azeez’s corner begged him to attack the body, but he just couldn’t find his rhythm or work with any consistency. Too often he would close the distance without throwing and get hit by a jab or left hook, or fight his way inside but then get beaten to the punch inside by Buatsi who continued to stab away to the midsection.
Azeez remembered the jab ninth and suddenly things began to fall into place for him. Almost instantly he developed a little bounce in his step, the right hand landed and he worked his way close. It was Azeez’s best round for some time but Buatsi wouldn’t allow himself to be dominated. He let Azeez have his burst and then responded well. There were no devastating shots, or punches that made Azeez had but he landed enough to make Azeez think twice about throwing.
Azeez’s jab was his key but he just couldn’t establish it regularly enough. When he landed it, the right hand would follow. When he forgot about it, Buatsi was able to get off first and his were the more eye catching, clean shots.
Azeez tried to up the tempo in the eleventh and managed to draw Buatsi into a couple of hard exchanges. Buatsi was still the faster, more accurate fighter and he was again landing the harder, more hurtful punches. Throughout the fight the referee had asked for water to be wiped up off the ring canvas and suddenly, at the moment Buatsi unloaded a combination, Azeez slipped and went down. He threw himself back into the fray but Buatsi landed another big right hand and Azeez’s legs again went from underneath him and he hit the canvas for a second time. The slippery canvas definitely played its part in both knockdowns but Buatsi definitely landed punches. They were legitimate knockdowns.
Tired, hurt and out of ideas, Azeez stumbled forward in the twelfth but the snap had left his work and Buatsi put an exclamation mark on his performance. He stunned Azeez as the fight drew to a close and looked to be on the verge of a spectacular finish. Azeez (20-1, 13 KO’s) dug in and made it to the end but the result was a formality.
Buatsi (18-0, 13 KO’s) was given a deserved unanimous decision. Marcus McDonnell scored it 116-110 whilst Howard Foster and Michael Alexander had it 117-109. Buatsi became the new British and Commonwealth light heavyweight champion and also became the mandatory challenger for Dmitry Bivol’s WBA title.