By Declan Taylor
IF YOU had visited Dan Azeez during this latest training camp, you might have just found him lying flat on his back in the middle of the ring.
That was not because he was routinely dropped by his sparring partners throughout the last few months but rather due to the latest member of his training team – a sports psychologist.
There was a time when such a move was seen as a sign of weakness. Indeed when Carl Froch employed one ahead of his 2014 rematch with George Groves, the challenger used the appointment as a stick with which to beat the champion. A few months later, Froch knocked Groves out at Wembley.
So avid is Azeez’s pursuit of staying injury free, that he will do absolutely anything if it might provide him with ‘even an extra one per cent’. Of course, this weekend’s fight against Joshua Buatsi was supposed to take place back in October but a last-minute back injury forced Azeez to withdraw and forced Boxxer to pull the fight.
Now, 15 weeks later, the pair will finally meet at the Wembley Arena for Azeez’s British and Commonwealth light-heavyweight titles. At the time of writing, neither man is injured and the fight is happening. For Azeez, ensuring as much has been a job in itself.
“I got the back injury the week before fight week,” he tells Boxing News. “I was sparring and when I came out it felt a bit weird but because of the adrenaline it wasn’t as bad. But then when it settled I could feel it wasn’t right.
“And as the day wore on it got worse. I had done all my sparring though so I thought I could manage it, I only had to get the weight off. But when the next day came I couldn’t really move so then I didn’t even know how I’d be able to get the weight off.
“Then by the Monday it was really bad and that was when we called Ben Shalom. He suggested we go to Manchester to see a specialist and I’m so happy he came because Ben can attest to what I was like. I remember the guy saying ‘when it happened last week, it was over’.”
What followed were days of scepticism from inside the boxing industry. There were suggestions that this was a fake injury, cooked up to allow Boxxer to pull a show which had failed to sell tickets. Azeez laughs.
“I just couldn’t believe how much shit people chat,” he adds. “I had actually seen the numbers for that fight and they were good. What pissed me off most was the people I actually know, who could get on the phone to me about it, saying those things.
“Obviously Josh knows me so for him to think me, Boxxer and Ben have plotted something… does he really think I’d do that? Come on. He definitely knows me. Maybe it’s the people who he is around who don’t know me, they’re the ones saying these things to him. ‘Buatsi, trust me, he’s doing this and that’. People can get in your ear.”
Immediately, thoughts turned towards a rescheduled date with Shalom suggesting that the pair might still fight before the end of 2023. All the while, Azeez was worried he might never box again.
“It was so bad,” he says. “I had never felt something like that and what really scared me was the fact I’m fucking 34 now. I’m thinking ‘is that me done?’ I’ve got all the way to here, headlining in a fight like this and this happens. Life is not no fairytale. That could have been how it was for me.
“I remember Paul Williams. I used to love him and then he was in an accident and never boxed again. I was wondering whether that would be my story. That kind of stuff was so emotional for me. When I was injured, simple things like taking a shit were a struggle.
“In the end though it made me count my blessings. This is just a fight. There are worse things happening in the world. I understand that Josh was frustrated by this but come on man. There are worse things that can happen, this fight is still happening and you’re still going to get paid. Shut the fuck up and stop acting like a diva.”
Once his initial mobility returned, months of arduous rehab was to follow and it was as much about his mind as it was his body.
“There’s a guy at my gym who does mental coaching and stuff like that,” Azeez explains, leaning back on the middle rope of the ring. “He has always been onto me saying ‘Dan, trust me, book an appointment, a lot of injuries are to do with mental stuff’. Normally I’d just think it’s all hocus pocus but after going through all of that I actually booked a session. I liked it, you know.
“He’s a sports psychologist. After the first one I booked more because of how much I liked it. He was just telling me to take myself to certain points. It involved a lot of thinking – taking myself to this place and that place. It was very weird.
“The first one was on Zoom but then it was in person. He just came down to the gym because he already trains at the gym too. He made me lie down in the ring, close my eyes and all of that, hour-long sessions.
“Now usually, I think these things are weird, I’m old school and was sceptical but this is about marginal gains. And if it doesn’t work then there’s nothing lost anyway. I think I’ll be continuing now, if it gives me even one per cent extra then why not?”
In a further quest for those marginal gains, Azeez also discovered a less orthodox way to loosen up his troublesome back in the form of Angolan dance Kizomba. The 20-0 (13) Londoner has been getting to as many of the £15 classes as he can manage, with the dancing style – which Google handily suggests is ‘too sensual’ – giving him licence to gyrate his hips more so than he does in sparring.
“I’m just trying to loosen up and get more fluid,” he says. “This was all part of the recovery. They said I was too stiff in the back so this was about getting me looser.
“I’ve done a few classes – I go Tuesdays and sometimes Fridays. There’s a few different spots, man. There’s a little Kizomba community and I’m starting to get in. I’m not in the WhatsApp group yet though. It’s £15 a session. Sometimes I go on my own, sometimes I take some of my mates so I don’t look like the worst person in the room.
“A lot of the great boxers used to do a bit of dancing in their training – Sugar Ray Robinson, Evander Holyfield, Vasyl Lomachenko. I can see why it helps. It’s active recovery. It gets the blood flowing but it’s not too strenuous.
“All I know is the back has been feeling a lot better since I started!”
But while the psychology sessions and Kizomba lessons might have dragged him closer to his peak physical condition, there is no denying that he remains the underdog in this fight. He is longer than 3/1 with most bookmakers who are banking on Buatsi’s seemingly better pedigree to ultimately shine through.
The 30-year-old’s career might not have hit the heights expected in the seven and a half years since he won bronze at the Rio Olympics but he is seen by many as a bridge too far for the ever-improving Azeez.
“It’s weird,” Azeez offers. “Buatsi thinks I’m the golden boy here – he thinks everyone is against him and that Boxxer, Sky, everyone is trying to make me the main guy. But I say ‘mate, you’re the fucking golden boy’. How has that switched to me? It’s funny that he thinks that.
“I’m big on earning your spot. I’m not a guy to try and fiddle through to get myself somewhere. I’m a big believer that you have to earn it so for me to be among those people fighting for world titles then I have to beat Buatsi. It’s simple.
“He’s the hurdle and he’s a credible one. At every stage of my career it has been about earning the shot; when I fought for the Southern Area, English title – one of the best in England, British title – against a former British champion – that was my step to be European level. Then I go over to France to fight for that title. Now this is my chance to show that I belong in that top tier at light-heavy.”
The truth is, Buatsi was once so far ahead of Azeez that the idea of them ever meeting was fanciful. Another wry smile breaks across Azeez’s face when he recalls one encounter with his London rival.
He says: “When he first joined Boxxer and I was ringside doing the commentary he made a little joke like ‘Oh Dan, you’re the British champion. I won that three years ago’. Funnily enough, nearly five years on he’s back fighting for that. It’s crazy.
“Right now he should be fighting for a world title. His peers from the same Olympic cycle are fighting for world titles, you’ve got guys in the Olympics after that one who are fighting in eliminators. So what’s happened? The pressure is on.
“He has a lot to prove as well. His career probably hasn’t gone the way everyone would have envisioned. I’m guessing for him it’s about proving that he’s still that guy. People expect more from him.”
With that, Azeez is on his feet, shaking hands and saying his goodbyes. It is not clear whether or not he has a Kizomba lesson to attend to but he does have a pair of cats waiting on his return home.
“Yeah I bought them not long ago,” he says, bringing up pictures on his phone. “They’re always fighting. I live on my own with these two Egyptian Maus. One is called Khalifa and the other is Moussa.
“It’s funny though because their roles have changed. At first Moussa used to be quiet, under the bed while Khalifa was active, out and about, breaking stuff. But over the last few months their roles have completely changed. But they are always fighting.”
A pair of London cats who have gone through something of a role reversal in the past few months and just cannot stop fighting? Suddenly that sounds very familiar.