By Elliot Worsell

IF blessed with the power to make big decisions, or, failing that, an array of alternative options from which they could both choose, it’s probable British light-heavyweights Joshua Buatsi and Dan Azeez would not be fighting each other this Saturday (February 3) or, for that matter, any other Saturday. Were it up to them, you see, they would prefer to be friends rather than rivals and they would likely be supporting one another rather than attempting to do harm to one another, as will be the case at Wembley Arena this weekend.

That’s not to say they have been forced into this fight. Nor that they had no say. The truth is, on a purely business level, the fight makes sense. It makes sense because they are two of the best light-heavyweights in Britain, they are both from London, and they are both unbeaten. If not friends, in fact, Buatsi and Azeez would be natural rivals, competitive ones, and this fight would have been viewed as an inevitability from early on in their respective careers. They would, in this hypothetical scenario, have no doubt taken turns to compare their results against common opponents and would have derided the other for not impressing them when sitting ringside in an effort to goad them into a future fight. They would have questioned the other’s ability and said, “Yeah, I’ll fight him for free if that’s what it takes to get the fight made.” They might have even allowed things to get personal, either because of the feeling between them or because they see it as a way of selling the rivalry and the fight.

As it is, Buatsi and Azeez have done none of this. On the one hand, they have done none of this because from the outset this was the unlikeliest of rivalries; a fight between friends nobody, let alone the two of them, ever felt would one day materialise. Yet, also, the pair have done nothing to sell either the rivalry or this fight because that’s simply not them. It’s not their character, it’s not their priority, and it’s not what they do best.

Indeed, if one really wanted to get down to brass tacks, much of the reason why Buatsi and Azeez are fighting each other is because only together do they find relevance and meaning in 2023. Certainly, there are few other light-heavyweights in and around them who would jump at the chance of fighting them given the risk-reward ratio and the fact that neither man, Buatsi nor Azeez, can be considered a household name in the UK. This, to some extent, therefore leaves them stuck, needing to take fights like this one because it is their only option in terms of generating momentum and money and becoming something more than what they both currently are. Win this fight of course and for one of them there is sudden hope: hope they can become a bigger name, hope they can secure bigger fights, and hope they will in the future not have to fight friends in order to grab attention and make money.

Joshua Buatsi and Dan Azeez (Lawrence Lustig/Boxxer)

In an ideal world, maybe things would have been different. In an ideal world, they would have been promoted differently from the get-go and even this fight, a very good one, would receive all the attention funnelled the way of inferior fights and inferior fighters this month. But nothing about boxing is ideal at the moment. Nor is anything fair.

Still, that doesn’t make this fight between Buatsi and Azeez any less intriguing. While no blockbuster by any means, it nevertheless carries the feeling of a battle between true professionals, both of whom have done things correctly but perhaps not received credit, until now, for all they have done. In that sense, although the levels are not remotely comparable, one would be forgiven for calling it a UK version of Terence Crawford vs. Errol Spence. For that fight, much like this one, was never going to hit the numbers of a Saul “Canelo” Alvarez fight in Las Vegas, yet there remained a real hunger for it on the part of hardcore fans primarily due to the quality of talent on display. Not only that, Crawford and Spence, like Buatsi and Azeez, were two unbeaten fighters whose inability to sell themselves had maybe hurt them at the box office and left them with no option but to at last fight each other at a time when, typically in boxing, powerful fighters retain the power to avoid the most challenging fights.

To now obtain that power, Buatsi and Azeez must meet and then move on. For one of them this could mean moving towards a world title shot, whereas for the other it will mean remaining where they are, only with a first defeat on their pro record and the battered pride of having surrendered bragging rights to a local rival; albeit more friend than foe.

Proper men, and proper competitors, you sense both know what is at stake on Saturday. Azeez, as good a talker (in the traditional sense) as you will find in British boxing these days, at least if it’s honesty you want, wore a hat made famous by Marvin Hagler during a press conference to announce this fight many weeks ago. Red, with “WAR” written across its front, this hat not only signalled Azeez’s intent on fight night, but it also had a way of infecting his speech, his demeanour and his overall mindset, something that has carried throughout subsequent weeks. Now, in fact, it is hard to look at Azeez, or listen to Azeez, and not see “Marvelous” Marvin. Now it is hard not to consider Azeez, 20-0 (14), as someone cut from the very same cloth.

Similarly, when one recalls Buatsi, and both how he talks and fights, it is a challenge not to compare him with another God-fearing hulk of a man who won an Olympic bronze medal as a light-heavyweight: Evander Holyfield. He, like Buatsi, was a boxer of few words and always quick to thank God both before and after fights, yet, unlike Buatsi, the “Real Deal” flourished at a time when boxing was more embracing of the strong, silent type and not quite as desperate for all its potential stars to be showmen constantly making noise and peacocking on social media. He could, in other words, build the old-fashioned way – the right way – and not have to worry about being criticised by either promoters or fans for being “boring” or not selling himself. Back then, the likes of Holyfield could just knuckle down and get on with it.

Nowadays, of course, there is no such luxury, of which Buatsi stands as proof. Unbeaten in 17 fights, the fighter from Croydon has caused barely a ripple since turning pro in 2017 and has in recent times moved promotional outfits – going from Matchroom to Boxxer – on account of either a reluctance or an inability to make a splash on DAZN, Matchroom’s latest home. Ask Matchroom, and they will say Buatsi simply doesn’t produce the numbers when it matters, even if the fights they put on for him were of no interest to anyone outside the fighter’s own family and friends. Buatsi, meanwhile, would instead point to the DAZN app and ask, “How can anyone expect a boxer to excel commercially when they are hidden away on a platform still only a few people know about?”

That was Buatsi’s argument when news broke of him leaving DAZN and it’s a stance he has maintained ever since. For it to really carry weight, though, the 30-year-old must now prove, on Sky Sports, a platform more familiar to the British public, that the issue was not him but rather the platform itself.

Joshua Buatsi (Lawrence Lustig/Boxxer)

To be shown to be right, he must take the correct fights, like this one against Azeez, and he must then win them in impressive fashion, which is something Buatsi, 17-0 (13), could be accused of failing to do during some previous wins. Without impressing, Buatsi naturally becomes an easy fighter to ignore and forget – again. He also puts more and more pressure on himself to become something he is not.

How strange it is, too, that Buatsi, one of the most exciting boxers at the 2016 Olympic Games, has struggled to get going – and yes, excite – as a pro. Why that is, it’s hard to say, but perhaps in the end, having beaten the likes of Craig Richards (UD 12) and Ricards Bolotniks (TKO 11) in second gear, all he needs is a fight against someone capable of bringing out the best in him; someone, that is, with whom he is more familiar and therefore more incentivised to beat and beat well.

For Buatsi, that man could, rather ironically, be Lewisham’s Azeez, one of his best friends in the sport. If just in the respect of styles, Azeez, all energy and forward motion, will clearly present a style with which Buatsi, an aggressive counterpuncher, can have some fun. He will also likely leave gaps for Buatsi to exploit and, better yet, such is Azeez’s engine and desire, Buatsi will on the night surely be asked the all-important question: How much do you really want this?

Frame it like that, rather than as a reluctant meeting of friends, and Saturday’s fight makes a lot of sense. It makes a lot of sense for Buatsi, for the reasons already outlined, and it makes sense for the 34-year-old Azeez as well, if only because beating Buatsi should deliver him the attention he perhaps already deserves for having won 20 straight fights, claimed British and European titles, and always given value for money.

He won’t be lacking for either confidence or momentum, Azeez, that much is obvious. In fact, one could go so far as to say he has more of both than Buatsi right now, simply because of recent form and his relatively swift rise to prominence. Yet, irrespective of all that, it is hard to ignore the fact that these two men know each other so well, having sparred for years, and that Azeez has already acknowledged Buatsi’s superior talent. That, of course, doesn’t mean talent and talent alone will be enough to win a fight like this, but one still has to wonder what it is they both know about each other and how that knowledge will impact what happens on the night.

Likely, it will be a hard fight, whatever the result. For although some boxers familiar with one another lapse into a kind of reticence and apathy when the first bell rings, there is enough drive, determination and desperation in the eyes of both Azeez and Buatsi to assume they will instead go the other way, neglecting the usual “feeling out” process in order to simply pick up where they left off the last time they shared a ring. Should that be the case, it will then come down to either who wants it more or who is simply more skilled, with Buatsi, the one whose skills might be that bit better, and whose speed should allow him to get off first, our pick to prevail on points.

On the Wembley Arena undercard Adam Azim, 10-0 (7), will make the first defence of the European super-lightweight title he won when stopping Franck Petitjean inside 10 rounds in November. His opponent this time around will be Enock Poulsen, a Zambian by way of Denmark who holds a record of 14-0 (5) and is a former European champion himself, having also beaten Petitjean over 12 rounds in 2022.

Meanwhile, as well as Azim there will be appearances in London from Caroline Dubois, 8-0 (5), Ben Whittaker, 5-0 (4), and Francesa Hennessy, 2-0 (1).