EVENTUALLY, if you watch enough boxing and watch enough boxers, you will understand that not everybody is cut out to be a star, an A-side, or even someone deserving of headline status. And that’s just fine.

For some, irrespective of their talent or unbeaten record, those are positions not for them but for others, and so long as they are aware of this, and do all they can to work around it, they will have a very good and successful career nonetheless.

One such fighter is Joshua Buatsi, the 2016 Olympic bronze medallist who tonight (May 6) in Birmingham moved to 17-0 (13) as a pro with a one-sided thrashing of Poland’s Pawel Stepien. That win, like so many of Buatsi’s previous 16, was a performance as dominant as it was dull, sadly resulting in many of the audience vacating their seats ahead of the final bell, moving as though their football team had just conceded the fourth goal in a drubbing. Moving as a collective, this was not an evacuation designed to disrespect Buatsi or even make some grand statement. Instead, so predictable was the win over Stepien, many simply thought, You know what? Life’s too short for this. Let’s go home. They then promptly left the Resorts World Arena knowing there would be no drama to follow, nor any fear of missing out as they made their way to either their car or a train station.

Buatsi, of course, would have been unaware of this. Too focused to see anything beyond the ring, he may have been conscious of the gradual strangling of the atmosphere as the fight went on, and increasing periods of silence during rounds, but, as far as he was concerned, he had one job to do – and, in some respects, did it well, too. He got the win. He lost barely a round in the process.

Critics, however, which should include those who left, will argue Buatsi’s job was more than to just win a fight against an unproven Pole who had never boxed outside his homeland until tonight. They will say the real job, having recently signed with Sky Sports and Boxxer and complained about his treatment at his previous employer, was to grab the limelight and the attention of all who, sadly, ended up turning away. In other words, merely winning tonight in Birmingham was not enough for Buatsi. He had to impress. He had to dazzle. He had to produce the kind of performance people would talk about afterwards and not try to forget.

As it turned out, in that regard he failed. He stayed unbeaten, which remains the thing most important, but even Buatsi himself graded the performance a “five out of ten” when interviewed about it afterwards. Worse than that, though, because these performances seem to be forming a pattern, and because DAZN and Matchroom saw no value in Buatsi unless he was paired with Dmitry Bivol, one does to start wonder about the Londoner’s place in the sport and his worth as a headline attraction. That’s not to say his talent and skill level is undeserving of that; far from it. He is still a very capable and quality operator on his day. But, equally, we must look past this idea that every quality operator is going to become a famous face and household name in the sporting world. Some, despite their best efforts, will never get close to this. Nor should they overestimate their worth or believe that merely outboxing an unknown opponent for 10 or 12 rounds is enough to deliver them the pay-per-view opportunities they all believe they deserve.

In fact, the history of boxing is littered with men like Buatsi, none of whom became superstars or A-sides or headline attractions. They still all achieved, of course, and many still became world champions, but throughout their career they would have been called things like “underrated” or “unappreciated” and had to settle for plying their trade in quiet, empty arenas, never doing quite enough, either in the ring or away from it, to entice the kind of following that would flock towards fighters perhaps less talented than them. Because that happens, too. Just because you are a good technician does not mean people care to watch you box. Conversely, there are many fighters who made a lot of money from sold-out shows despite never scaling the heights of their profession or proudly wearing an unbeaten record like a badge of honour.

Lawrence Okolie fights David Light at the Manchester Arena on March 25, 2023 (Lawrence Lustig/Boxxer)

In boxing, there is no right or wrong way to do it, nor a proven formula or template. Here, in the case of Buatsi, the only sensible route it would seem is to follow in the footsteps of Lawrence Okolie, his good friend and former amateur team-mate. He, after all, left Matchroom for Boxxer a little before Buatsi and he, like Buatsi, endured a tough time of it on his Boxxer debut back in March. It was a tough time for Okolie only in the sense that he struggled to entertain against David Light, his opponent, but, again, that was as much the job requirement as the win itself. He knew it, too, which is precisely why he was so keen to then box again and so keen to chase a fight against Chris Billam-Smith in Bournemouth later this month. That, in contrast to the Light affair, promises to be compelling and watchable and, ultimately, meaningful.

And that’s the key thing here. A fight must be meaningful in order for men like Okolie and Buatsi to engage us and have us watch their fights uninterrupted; not, as was the case with both, doing chores between rounds, making a caffeinated drink, reading a book, or checking your phone to see if others are as bored as you are.

For whatever reason, neither Okolie nor Buatsi are blessed with the ability to capture the imagination, thrill a crowd, or even draw a crowd to a fight unless the fight means something on a competition level. Against men like Light and Stepien, they, and their promoter, should have known they were on a hiding to nothing.

Match them with an equal, however, and that will all change. Both add value to their respective divisions, clearly, but what they really need is an A-side against whom they can truly flourish. In Okolie’s world, that means Billam-Smith who, unlike Okolie, has developed a decent-sized fanbase (in Bournemouth) on account of his swashbuckling style and honest, down-to-earth personality. In the end, everything Billam-Smith brings to their scheduled fight trumps all that Okolie brings to the fight, particularly in an era in which belts (Okolie holds the WBO cruiserweight title) are becoming less and less important and less and less indicative of a boxer’s ability. He brings eyeballs. He gives the fight a weight it would otherwise lack.

The same goes for Buatsi and the possibility of a fight against Dan Azeez. In many ways, Azeez, the European champion, would represent Buatsi’s Billam-Smith; someone whose rise has been a kind of Cinderella story and therefore easy for the general public to both understand and support. That may be a reality tough for Buatsi to accept, because he has unfortunately been inflated by the views and false promises of others, but it is the reality nevertheless. Without the likes of Azeez and Anthony Yarde, and the various other British light-heavyweights who can do things he cannot, there is a danger that Joshua Buatsi becomes a fighter everybody respects but few choose to watch.