Azeez wary of fractured social circles ahead of showdown with Buatsi

Dan Azeez has had to shield himself from those he knows best in an attempt to retain his focus for Saturday’s fight with Joshua Buatsi.

They fight at Wembley Arena for Azeez’s British and Commonwealth light-heavyweight titles and in an eliminator for the WBA title held by Dmitrii Bivol after their original date of October 21 was postponed when Azeez injured his back.

That they are long-term friends who have sparred numerous rounds together and move in the same south London social circles – Azeez is from Lewisham and Buatsi nearby Croydon – meant that his injury and the postponement prolonged debate among their many mutual friends, and Azeez explained: “I try and take myself out of that. I’m the one fighting so I try to keep myself in my own little bubble and own little world and prepare for the fight and focus on the process of getting there. But I know, probably, there’s loads of WhatsApp groups – everyone talking, definitely. But I’ll stay out of it.

“It’s a big fight. Even when I go places – I might go to a petrol station and a random I maybe don’t even know, ‘I can’t wait for your fight – get the win; you’re representing Lewisham’ so I know amongst our circle it’s definitely going to be the talk of the town. 

“Even just the other day, and I had to stop at roadworks, and the workers was like, ‘I can’t wait for your fight – you better win’. ‘Thank you, I appreciate it.’ And I’ve got tinted windows; I don’t even know how he even saw me through the car [laughs]. 

“You know as well as I do that [as soon as the fight was postponed from October], ‘Did he really have an injury? What happened?’ That was definitely another talking point – I guess it made for even more chitter-chatter. Not even just amongst them, but in the boxing world – people are still debating whether I did get injured now. I know a lot of my mates have probably been arguing with a few people – it probably makes it more personal for them – but that’s boxing. It’s not anything new. I just didn’t think it would happen to me, or at the time that it’d be such a serious injury. I’ve fought before with injuries and never thought I’d have to pull out of a fight, but when you get told you’re not fit to box, it hits home for real. 

“I wanted to go through my whole career and say, ‘I’ve never pulled out with an injury’ – have that as one of my mantras; that tough-man mentality; especially a big fight like this – but fate has its own plans. Boxers have too much of an ego sometimes; we need to be saved from ourselves at times. I was at a back specialist with [promoter] Ben Shalom and a doctor, and if it weren’t for them I’d have tried to box. ‘You’re not fit to box, so you can’t.’”

Azeez, at 34 four years older than Buatsi, then paused when he was asked if he expected the day to come when he would fight the fighter he perhaps knows better than any other. They last sparred in March when Buatsi helped prepare him for the European title fight he won later that month in Paris against France’s Thomas Faure.

“Yes and no,” he eventually responded. “At first – even Josh has said it – there’s two people he wouldn’t fight. Me and another mate of ours, Duane Sinclair, but after he fought [Craig] ‘Spider’ Richards, who we also know from the circuit, he came in the gym one day and was like, ‘Dan, actually I think we could fight’, so I think from then we probably thought maybe we can. Prior to that it was, ‘Nah, we wouldn’t fight’. After that, I think he was basically saying, ‘It’s not that bad; I’m sure we can fight and still be mates’. That’s what he was basically saying. If it’s for a lot of money or a world title, why not?

“One thing I remember about that spar – he was trying to mimic [Faure], regardless of whether he’s going to be getting a hiding or it wasn’t working for him, he was actually trying to emulate my opponent. He was switching [stances] as well. Which is good. You can’t aks for anything better. Some people just come in and do their own thing; he will actually try and emulate the person I’m trying to fight, which is really, really good and helps me out a lot.

“We was still always sparring like how we spar. Even though he said that we still didn’t think it would actually happen. If it did, definitely far, far down the line – not as quick as how it has now.”