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Joshua Buatsi on Dan Azeez: ‘Even a good mate will try to hurt you’

“Just imagine you’re fighting your mate – a good mate of yours,” Joshua Buatsi instructs The Independent over the phone. Try it for yourself now. Maybe it’s a lifelong friend, your favourite colleague, or a sibling. “Imagine it’s at a big arena, the lights are bright, it’s on national TV, you have small gloves on, and they’re trying to hurt you.”

This would be the moral dilemma that Buatsi would be facing on Saturday, if only he saw any dilemma in punching his friend Dan Azeez in the face.

“You’re gonna fight back,” Buatsi continues. “I don’t know how competitive your spirit is” – probably not quite as competitive as his, admittedly – “but you’re gonna wanna come out on top. From the outside, people might feel it’ll be very difficult but once we’re in there, we’re in there. It’s you or them.”

Buatsi, 30, and Azeez, 34, have punched each other in the face before. Many times, in fact. Friends and sparring partners, the Britons have followed similar trajectories in boxing: both turned professional in 2017, both have remained unbeaten in the time since, and both have held the British light-heavyweight title. Buatsi (17-0, 13 knockouts) won the belt in 2019, with his most notable achievement before that victory being his Olympic bronze medal at Rio 2016. Azeez (20-0, 13 KOs) emulated his friend’s British title win in 2022 and will defend the gold in their main event at Wembley Arena.

A recent theme in boxing has been rivals – two promoters in particular – setting aside their differences. For Buatsi and Azeez, it is a matter of setting aside their similarities and sympathies. Friends turned foes, allies turned antagonists. “Of course, as you can imagine, I’m not gonna be texting or calling him every day – or asking him for sparring, funnily enough,” laughs Buatsi, the taller, rangier fighter in this bout.

“That aspect [of our friendship] has changed, but that’s very natural, man. After the fight, time will tell what the nature of the relationship’s gonna be, but leading up to it, it’s every man for himself. The next time we’ll be sharing a ring will be for a real fight.”

At this level, main events in the English capital rarely actually pit a Londoner against a Londoner. Buatsi, though, has been in such fights before and is “happy and humbled” to be another one, three months after he and Azeez were first set to square off. In October, Azeez suffered a back injury in his final training session for the bout, leading to the postponement of the fight on four days’ notice.

At the time, Azeez and Boxxer promoter Ben Shalom both acknowledged the development as “devastating”. Buatsi concurs. “That’s what made it harder: how close it was to fight night, the cancellation,” he says. “It was a hard pill to swallow but none of [the training] has gone to waste, and I keep saying to myself, a lot of people have been there before, I can’t feel like I’m the only one. But it’s something I wouldn’t wish on anyone else.”

Something that Buatsi does wish for others, however, sets a rare example; during his amateur career, the Briton undertook a university degree in management and sports science, intent on proving that young competitors can balance athletic and academic achievement. “I’d been doing the same in college, but uni was very different, very difficult,” he admits. “Of course, you know, your parents have an expectation – a good one, I should say, which kept me on my toes.

Buatsi has 13 KOs in his professional record of 17-0 (Getty)
Buatsi has 13 KOs in his professional record of 17-0 (Getty)

“That made me stay in education, because if not for them, I think I probably would have dropped out. But I’m glad that they pushed me like they did and made me realise how important it was. There’s a lot that I’ve taken from it. There weren’t many boxers that had a degree, so I said to myself, if I can go to uni and still compete at the Olympic level, I can show that it can​ be done, so other people can do it as well.

“Funnily enough, when I was turning pro, it was something I always said upfront: ‘Look, I’ve also been to uni, I’ve got a degree.’ It was something that stood me out among all my peers.”

On Saturday, Buatsi will stand across from the peer he knows better than all others. As he says, the true nature of his friendship with Azeez will reveal itself after this weekend, when the pair will beat each other up for a maximum of 12 three-minute rounds.

And in the coming weeks, as their friendship enters a new stage, Buatsi will likely seek peace in Ghana, where he was born and raised. “I remember a lot,” he says, reflecting on the first nine years of his life, preceding his family’s move to London. “I went to school there as well, so it’s quite fresh in my head.

Buatsi during his last fight, a unanimous-decision win over Pawel Stepien in May (Getty)
Buatsi during his last fight, a unanimous-decision win over Pawel Stepien in May (Getty)

“I remember the culture, certain things that have stuck with me – most importantly the weather; the weather was always good,” he laughs. All the time that Buatsi speaks about Ghana, he is audibly animated on the other end of the phone.

“I had a lot of family around me, I learnt a lot of life lessons that I still hold now. It just makes me appreciate life a lot more, and I’m thankful for the opportunities I’ve had – for sure, man. I’m always in Ghana; if I’m not in England to fight or in the US preparing for a fight, I’m in Ghana.”

Soon, west Africa. First, northwest London, where Azeez awaits.