Azeez and Buatsi shaping up for Hagler-Leonard battle of London

Dan Azeez does not hide from it. The light-heavyweight contender adores the legacy left by the late former middleweight great Marvin Hagler.

Azeez attended the press conference to announce his fight with Joshua Buatsi this week wearing a Hagler-esque WAR baseball cap, and Hagler-style sunglasses. In the ring, Azeez dons Hagler-type velour shorts.

Also, like Hagler, Azeez comes to fight in an exhaustive fashion and much of his route to being 20-0 and being on the cusp of a world title fight has been done the hard way, as Hagler did things.

In the opposite corner, on October 21 in London’s O2 Arena, is his version of Sugar Ray Leonard. Although Hagler and Leonard were not friends, Buatsi and Azeez are and they have spent many rounds sparring one another. But, like Leonard, Buatsi was an Olympian who turned pro with much fanfare. 

Buatsi is quick to point out that getting to the Olympics is a different type of challenge and still tough, and he’s right, but after that it typically includes a form of privilege that those who have to scrap for high purses through their early pro fights are not afforded.

Buatsi-Azeez is not Hagler-Leonard, but the narrative is similar and the mindsets overlap. This is London 2023, not Las Vegas 1987. It is not for all of the marbles but the right to fight for one of the marbles; in a weight class that scarily boasts Artur Beterbiev and Dmitry Bivol.

“It’s the same thing,” Azeez said, when asked about the parallels. “Hagler came up the hard way. How many fights did he have to fight before he even got a world title shot, opposite Leonard who was the Olympian and the golden boy. That created the chip on Hagler’s shoulder and he was always trying to prove a point.”

Azeez has doubled down with that underdog, blue-collar mindset, and the hunger that the brilliant Hall of Famer showed in his preparation and his fights.

“What made me love Hagler so much is I can relate to that,” Azeez added. “I’ve had to go through the same thing. I’ve had to win every single bloody belt there is to get to where I am. If I could have skipped one, I would have, but no. I had to really earn my stripes to get to where I am.”

Now he has British, Commonwealth and European titles on his mantlepiece. But Azeez wants more and he wants to show that he deserves it.

“I feel like I’m always in a position where I have to prove myself,” Azeez added. “And as annoying as it might be, it’s a positive because it drives me. It gives me that extra, that edge. Do you know what I mean? That’s one thing, even in the Rocky movies, you’ve got to have that edge. Once you lose that edge…That’s my edge, always trying to prove myself and prove the doubters wrong.”

The doubters will say 18-0 Buatsi has too much skill. His pedigree is too great. That it is the time for him to tap into his vast potential and display what he has. With that in mind, they have sparred many rounds and Azeez has no doubts that they will combine for a special fight, and one that pits the relentless, hard-bitten underdog against the more flashy Olympic bronze medallist.

Either way, Azeez is pitching for a Hagler-Leonard of South London fight.

“Yeah, definitely,” he said. “That’s what I want. He [Buatsi] said it himself. That’s my style. I’m a come forward fighter and he’s definitely not going to be backing away, he’s going to be saying, ‘Whatever you’ve got, bring it. I’m the guy.’ We do it in sparring all the time, so I know what he’s going to do, he knows what I’m going to do and we’re just going to meet in the middle and it’s going to be like a bomb.”