By Elliot Worsell
SIX days after a 15-year-old girl was stabbed to death on her way to school, light-heavyweight boxers Joshua Buatsi and Dan Azeez appeared at Croydon’s Boxpark, just a stone’s throw from the bus stop where the life of that girl, as well as the life of the boy who killed her, tragically ended.
Wearing T-shirts emblazoned with the message “Lives Not Knives”, the pair’s arrival was without doubt timely, both for the area and the sport itself. Because while it’s true there are bigger names than Buatsi and Azeez, and boxers who would have brought to Boxpark a much larger crowd, it is hard to think of two men who better embody the sport’s ethos and, moreover, represent what it can do for youngsters from south London and beyond.
Of the two, Buatsi, born in Ghana but raised in Croydon and its surrounding areas, is considered the home guy, whereas Azeez is from just down the road in Lewisham. Their fight, meanwhile, now set for Saturday (February 3), takes place in Wembley and has been sold as a reluctant meeting of friends rather than a showdown between bitter enemies.
That, given all that happened to south London last year, is a key aspect of the narrative of this fight. After all, the more people who understand that boxing is not just an arena in which grudges and rivalries can be played out for money, but is instead an arena in which trained competitors can exhibit their skills and release from their bodies any anger and aggression, the better it is for everyone.
For tangible proof of this look no further than Buatsi and Azeez. Far from household names, they are nevertheless two pros whose quiet humility commands you to listen and whose preoccupation with the fundamentals of the sport – the basics, the learning, the fighting – offer a rather refreshing counterpoint to those who prefer to instead concentrate on the noise and the glitter. It won’t make either of them rich by any means, this approach, nor will it do a great deal for the interest in this fight, but sometimes, just sometimes, it is important for us, as a sport and as human beings, to remember what actually counts when all is said and done.
In this instance, with the events of Croydon bringing to the area both desolation and perspective, there would have been nothing more vital than the sight of noble men doing noble things. Furthermore, never has it been more pertinent to celebrate these men and these noble things than it is now, today, at a time when so much attention and money is thrown the way of men and women who serve only to undermine the integrity of the sport for their own selfish, narcissistic needs.
Role models for young boys and girls these men and women are not. Worse, though, they provide credence to the belief that money is everything and that we should all be doing everything in our power to obtain it, regardless of how much of our moral compass and humanity we must sacrifice in the process.
That’s a larger social issue, admittedly, but even for boxing, where historically young men from working-class backgrounds find a way out of their situation, or simply respite, one wonders what the fallout of all this will be. Will, for instance, the newfound focus on making noise in order to make megabucks create a new kind of boxer coming through the amateur ranks with a view to turning pro? Or, rather, will the reality that only creating noise will bring you financial success deter young boys and girls on council estates from picking up a pair of gloves in the first place?
The latter is a scary thought to consider, which is why boxers like Buatsi and Azeez are so vital to the long-term health of the sport at a grassroots level. Only boxers like those two, one suspects, can offer a relatable image of what a boxer is and can still be. Only boxers like those two keep the sport rooted in the community and indeed reality, something all-important when everywhere you look random men and women are calling themselves “boxers” and making more money and gaining more attention than actual boxers.
In either Buatsi and Azeez, young boys in Croydon would have seen something of themselves at Boxpark last year. Maybe the look. Maybe the voice. Maybe the attitude. Whatever it was, it could have been enough to inspire them to watch the fight, as the promoter would have hoped. Better yet, it could have been enough to inspire them to go to their local gym and deal with boredom and aggression that way as opposed to all the other ways society extends to its malcontent youth these days.
Because places like Croydon, where I not long ago lived (read: existed), have been struggling to staunch an open wound for some time. It leaks tears as much as blood, that place, and while for as long as I resided there I rarely sensed the danger I read was ubiquitous, you only had to walk through the high street, where locals convene and buy things they don’t need and can’t afford, all the while ducking kamikaze pigeons and avoiding eye contact with either the homeless or megaphone preachers, to see a community fuelled entirely by its collective misery. You then only had to see the piles of flowers in various places, often among them a cuddly toy or a school photo, to know the future, if such a thing even exists, is far from bright.
To fix the problem Croydon will of course need more than boxers like Buatsi and Azeez. However, what these two light-heavyweights represent in this day and age undoubtedly means more to communities like Croydon than the self-serving antics of boxers interested only in getting rich. They are, in boxing terms, both good boys, Buatsi and Azeez, and it will be an awfully sad day when boxing, this sport that prides itself on turning bad boys into good boys, no longer views good boys as being a valuable commodity. It will be an even sadder day when being a good boy is considered by both promoters and the sport’s fans to be “boring”, leaving good boys of the belief that they must become bad boys to achieve success and get what they want.