Joshua Buatsi (left) and Dan Azeez at the weigh-in for their British/Commonwealth light heavyweight title bout. Photo by Lawrence Lustig / BOXXER
Joshua Buatsi proved himself a level above his friend Dan Azeez – and perhaps even Britain’s finest light heavyweight – by easing to the status of mandatory challenger to Dmitry Bivol with victory in their British and Commonwealth title fight.
If in the aftermath of his departure for BOXXER, Buatsi’s previous promoters Matchroom had accused him of avoiding Bivol – The Ring’s No. 2-rated light heavyweight and WBA titleholder – perhaps the finest performance of his promising career has potentially put him in contention to fight the Russian next.
He spoke, post-fight – as he did during its lengthy build-up – of wanting to next fight Anthony Yarde, who next week fights Marko Nikolic, and if he succeeds in not only doing so but remaining undefeated, he will be established as the outstanding challenger to the winner of the undisputed title fight between Bivol and Artur Beterbiev expected to be confirmed for Riyadh, Saudi Arabia on June 1st.
Saturday’s victory at London’s Wembley Arena over the 34-year-old Azeez – awarded via two scores of 117-109 and another of 116-110 – proved Buatsi the leading light heavyweight in south London. He lives in Croydon; Azeez in nearby Lewisham. Yarde is from Hackney, in east London, and where previously a fight between he and Buatsi may have decided the finest at 175 pounds in the English capital, Callum Smith’s defeat by Beterbiev and the reality that against him Yarde was more competitive means that they could instead be determining the UK’s best.
When they arrived at their post-fight press conference the right side of Azeez’s face – his cheek in particular – was swollen as a consequence of Buatsi’s determination to land his left hook. That it was two right hands that preceded the two knockdowns in the 11th round, and that Buatsi’s body punching more consistently impressed, demonstrates how one-sided their fight became.
The 30-year-old Buatsi, on account of both his modesty and his respect for his friend whose face he had disfigured, in no way carried himself like a triumphant fighter. The acrimonious conclusion to his association with Matchroom, his relative inactivity – worsened by the back injury suffered by Azeez that forced the postponement of their original fight date of October 21 – and the pressure he was under to beat an opponent seen as the underdog and who moves in the same social circles meant that his performance and victory would have been cathartic, but instead his focus had moved to Yarde.
“If I lost there was nothing there for me,” he said, and perhaps accurately – despite the excitement that existed around him as a consequence of his displays while winning his Olympic bronze medal at Rio 2016. “There was a lot of pressure on both of us.
“We’ve done it [spoken to each other] many times sparring but it was weird that it was happening mid-fight. We were talking and the referee was in the ring, but I don’t even remember him. The friendship, to me, doesn’t stop.
“I moved over to BOXXER and Sky Sports to be more active [Matchroom’s broadcaster is DAZN]. I’m sure someone’s going to say, ‘Is the [Anthony] Yarde fight next?’ Of course, it was a final eliminator [to fight Bivol], but we live in England; we live in London, and everyone wants to see that fight as well.”
Azeez has previously spoken of his admiration for Marvin Hagler, so the knowledge that he lost his undefeated status at the same venue at which Hagler experienced one of his greatest lows – racist abuse prevented him celebrating his victory in 1980 over Alan Minter for the world middleweight title and therefore the start of his career as a world champion – may provide him with the type of warped comfort that perhaps only comes to those born to fight.
There were times when the talented Buatsi made him look one-dimensional, but he continued to fight with aggression, even as he cut an increasingly exhausted figure, and will recognise that his presence in Britain’s most competitive weight division – Craig Richards and Lyndon Arthur are further potential opponents – means that his career can be rebuilt.
Buatsi had edged the opening rounds via first the authority of his jab and then his success to head and body and the effectiveness of his superior punch output. He remained typically open to the right hand – the numerous rounds they have sparred together, including as recently as March 2023, means that Azeez will have anticipated that more than most – but he was relatively comfortable absorbing his friend’s power and therefore willingly traded with him, and to the extent that in the fourth round he was threatening to start breaking him down.
What continued to unfold was a fight in which Azeez remained competitive but was consistently less effective, until in the 11th round when his exhaustion – more than the also-tiring Buatsi’s power – meant that he was at risk of being stopped. He had hurt Buatsi with a right hand in the 10th, but it was a right from Buatsi, combined with the increasingly slippery surface they were fighting on and his fatigue – that forced the first knockdown. With Azeez on his feet and again willingly trading another right hand forced another knockdown on the stroke of the bell. Again, the condition of the canvas had not helped his stability, but the referee Bob Williams ruled that both were legitimate, and by then it was transparent that it would matter little on the three judges’ cards.
“I think one of them was a slip,” Buatsi said. “That area there was very slippery. Sometimes I’d slip and Dan would be like, ‘Woah’, like, ‘Be careful’. There were times he’d slip and I’d be like, ‘Thank God for that cause I’m going to try and hit you’. The second one was definitely a slip.”
“He slipped first, actually, and then my corner [led by trainer Buddy McGirt] was like, ‘Stop crying, you princess’, then straight after I slipped and he was like, ‘See?’,” explained Azeez. “And then I slipped again, and both times I got the count.”
At the conclusion of an evening on which Adam Azim, Ben Whitaker and Caroline Dubois – like Buatsi among BOXXER’s leading fighters – recorded respective victories over Enock Poulsen, Khalid Graidia and Miranda Reyes, their promoter Ben Shalom spoke of Buatsi-Azeez as an “advert” for British boxing and commended their “honesty and integrity”. He then proceeded to praise Saudi Arabia’s growing influence on the sport he wanted to be seen as having the best intentions for, as though he is interested in anything other than their vast reserves of cash.