Friendship on hold until Sunday as Buatsi prepares to face Azeez

Joshua Buatsi and Dan Azeez might be friends, but they are expected to deliver one of the fights of the year on Saturday when they collide at London’s O2 Arena.

Buatsi is the former Olympian who has yet to dazzle as a pro. Azeez is the low-key slow burner who has risen through domestic title victories to become European champion. The winner is on the cusp of a world title fight at 175lbs,

Buatsi has spent several months in California working with trainer Virgil Hunter this year, but through it all, and over the years and having sparred hundreds of rounds with Azeez, he never considered that one day they might fight.

“Not at all,” Buatsi insisted. “I knew Dan was a light-heavyweight just like myself, but did I think our paths would cross? Not at all. Hence we were at a point when we had the same trainer, my amateur trainer, but I moved on, went to the States and now we are fighting. No, it’s not something anyone saw.”

Buatsi rejects the notion that he is ‘the silver spoon kid’ in the story, rewarded for his perceived Olympic privilege with money and opportunity while Azeez built himself up on a tougher path in the shadows.

“It’s not that at all,” Buatsi said, of the storyline that is selling the fight. “He’s probably just given that narrative better than I have. Yeah, he had to come up and win all the other titles, but we can all go to the background and talk about people’s upbringings. I wasn’t born in this country, I’ve entered the tournaments, I’ve been in the position where I was not the person who had the best [attributes]of everyone but through hard work and consistency – when people were out partying and having their fun – I was dedicating myself to getting to the Olympic team and dedicating myself to getting a gold medal. Of course, when you turn pro you start differently [to someone without an Olympic appearance], but there’s that narrative that he’s coming from the bottom, bottom, that’s not the case. But it’s something he’s done well, to be fair. And that’s how people see him. But it means nothing.”

While their paths branched off into different continents, they were often reunited, as friends and sparring partners, and they followed and supported one another over the years.

“I followed him in terms of I sparred Dan all the time,” Buatsi explained. “Whenever he fought, I would always message him and say, ‘Look, good luck. All the best. I hope you win’. That’s just normal for someone that you like and Dan is someone that I like, but come October we have to fight.”

The two have developed a friendly but professional feud since the fight was signed a couple of months ago. At the press conference, there were some tense exchanges, but both downplayed them (“I said some stuff but I was also smiling all the time,” Buatsi said). 

“People can’t expect the friendship to continue while we are preparing to take each other out, but after October the friendship will resume,” Buatsi said. “Between now and then, he’s an opponent. He someone that’s in my way in terms of where I want to get to.”

There is another plotline that Buatsi is quick to dispel, too, and that is that he is a heavy favourite. Azeez is the man in form and, as Buatsi points out, Dan has worked his way up the ladder and into the rankings of the major sanctioning bodies.

“He’s the main guy [Buatsi has fought so far], he’s the best guy I’m going to have fought and people find it hard to give him credit but if you look at the rankings, Dan is top three in most of the sanctioning bodies and he’s won the European,” Buatsi explained. “Dan’s a very, very good fighter. The public seems to be struggling to give him that credit, and before I knew I was going to fight him I was singing off the same hymn sheet. Give him the credit he deserves, he’s a very good fighter.”

Buatsi won a bronze at the 2016 Rio Olympics so he is used to pressure. He will likely start favourite on Saturday, too, but he is ready to make a statement against his friend.

“Pressure and expectation it’s the same thing,” Buatsi said. “Expectation has pressure too. To me it’s all the same thing. There’s always pressure. Every fight is pressure. There’s also pressure outside boxing. People want to limit things and make it all personal and I say there are pressures everywhere, everyone has pressure in their lives, so if you’re trying to inflict more pressure on me it’s never going to work. We’ve all got pressure that we’re dealing with.”

The end result, promoter Boxxer hopes, is that the two friends and South London rivals create fireworks at the O2 and Buatsi is sure the styles will blend for a thrilling war.

“I’m convinced that’s what’s going to happen,” Buatsi continued. “Regardless, I’ve said Dan is a fighter that fights with passion. You can see it so I’m expecting it to be a good fight. It will be an entertaining fight.”