Dan Azeez’s career stalled when on Saturday, over eight rounds at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park, he drew with Hrvoje Sep of Croatia.

In his previous fight, against his friend Joshua Buatsi in February, over 12 competitive rounds via unanimous decision he suffered his first professional defeat.

In the build-up to his fight with Sep, 38, he spoke about his return from that first defeat, and the wider picture of the light-heavyweight division in which he remains capable of again becoming a significant figure.


You’re returning from your first defeat, in February by Joshua Buatsi…

I’m back in very quickly and I’m happy. He’s good; good amateur pedigree; been in there with some good opponents. One of his two defeats was against [Latvia’s Ricards] Bolotniks – a good fighter I know a lot about, and he pushed him to the edge, so I know he’s gonna really bring it, which is good, because I didn’t want to just come back to a dull fight. I need someone that’s gonna push me, and I know he sees this as an opportunity to get himself into the mix, so it’s exactly what I need.

It’s no good me coming back and having two defeats. There’s still the pressure of, “I’ve got to get this win”. Whether I’ve been defeated or not, the pressure’s still there. I’m not saying it’s a negative thing – that’s what builds character. It shows what people are made of

If you’re scared of losing then you might as well not even get in there. It’s the, “It could not go my way, but I’m still gonna go and do it”. That’s the character. I was never, ever scared of defeat, or losing; I was scared of not performing to my ability. I’m always scared of that. Knowing I can do something and I don’t do it – that’s what scares me. 

It’s not, “I don’t feel invincible anymore”, it’s, “The comeback – I can show my character”. When everything’s going well, it’s all good to say, “Yeah, I’m the best”, but when it’s not going your way, how do you come back? That’s what I like about my favourite boxers. It’s not about they’re the most skilful; they’re undefeated. No. I liked to see them in adversity. That’s when I know, “This guy’s got character”. 

People like Carl Froch – a lot of people would be like, “He’s not the most skilful”, but he’s got balls. He’s one of my favourite British fighters. He doesn’t give a toss, and I like that. You show your balls; you show your heart; you show what you’re made of. That’s what I feel more pressure about. “The real me’s gonna come out – what am I made of?” That’s what inspires me.

It did hurt, because I don’t feel I let myself down, but I feel like I let others down at the time. After having time off and speaking to numerous people… I know a lot of people are underdogs in life and I wanted to do it for them, and show that, “It doesn’t matter if the odds are stacked against you you can do it”, and I fell into the trap of, “I’m the underdog”, and it showed on the night the reason why I was the underdog. I always root for the underdog – all the time – and I just felt like I let the underdogs down. But speaking to loads of people, “No, you didn’t let us down – you just inspired us more”, and so forth. 

You, unusually in the context of the modern era, attended the post-fight press conference and sat alongside Buatsi. How painful was that?

You’ve gotta be gracious in defeat; humble in victory. So the way I was happy when I was winning and it was going my way, I have to be humble. I always go back to character – I have to be a man. I lost to the better man on the night – how can I throw my toys out of the pram? No. You sit there. You face your opponent who beat you man to man; you congratulate him. I just thought, “I’ll go back to the drawing board; I’ll be back”. You’ve got people who watch you and look up to you – you’re a role model for people. What’s that – not going to the press conference? It wasn’t difficult. It was just one of the things you’ve got to do. 

When I first turned pro, I remember going up to Team GB [in Sheffield], where the elite amateur boxers train, and I was sparring. Funnily enough I sparred Ben Whittaker that day. I remember ‘AJ’ [Anthony Joshua] was there as well, and he was going through everyone at that time – it was early in his career. I was just looking at him, “Everything’s so easy for him”, and I remember him saying to me, “The higher you go, the harder it gets”. In my head I was thinking to myself, “What’s he on about? He’s blasting through everyone; look at him”. But it’s true, the higher the level you go, the harder it becomes. I was undefeated so I was in cruise. “I’ll keep doing what I’m doing”. But there’s another level and you have to search for that, and that becomes difficult when you can’t find it. “Let’s find that level I’ve got to get to.” Every step I’ve taken; every belt I’ve had, I’ve always been like that. Now I’m at world level and I’ve gotta really search and take the gear up.

We then saw images of the two of you on holiday together…

I just went out; wanted a breather. I’d been training from August – because it was a big fight – then I had the injury. Then I can’t rest; I’ve gotta do physio; I’ve gotta strengthen my back. That’s half a year of constant training, and for a fight of that magnitude – you’re in there battering yourself. “I just need to go and chill”, and I’m a gym rat. Since I turned pro, my life is the gym, so I just wanted to go away; rest and relax. Rest; recover; rebuild.

It was good. It felt really good. But as a boxer, and where I am in my career, after a couple of days, “I need to go to the gym”. It was good. I enjoyed it – I really did.

He invited me. I was in Africa, so he was like, “Yeah, you gotta come out”. After the fight, I saw him at a [Frank] Warren show. “Dan, if you fly out, you’ve gotta come out to Ghana – I’ll pay for your ticket.” I went Kenya; from there I went to Ghana; spent some time with him; chilled with him. Then I went to Nigeria, ‘cause I’m from Nigeria; then from there I went to Saudi [Arabia] to watch the AJ-[Francis] Ngannou fight. It was three weeks; four weeks. Just, chilled.

I was with [Buatsi] a couple days. He’s a Ghanian native, so he was showing me around; the places to eat. We was talking about the fight; what’s next; how training camp was; who he had for sparring; who I had for sparring. I’ve been sparring Buatsi maybe 10 years now, so I know what he brings. What surprised me was he had Bolotniks in his training camp, and I was out with Bolotniks in Canada, sparring [Artur] Beterbiev. 

After he fought Craig Richards, he said, “Dan, I think we probably could fight, you know, because afterwards it was alright”. Now, after the fight, I understand. We was just cool, man. He messaged me the other day asking how I am; he’s going to try to come to the fight. Obviously he’s a bit p***** with the [Anthony] Yarde situation, but hopefully we’ll get that fight. 

Yeah [he’s the best I’ve fought]. Rocky Fielding hit me, probably, the hardest. There was something about Hosea [Burton]. Shakan [Pitters] – six-foot-something – was a better inside boxer than I thought. Buatsi’s determination; his grit. That fight, he won that on, “I want it more than you”. He showed it. I can say, “Yeah, I really want that fight”, but he went in there and showed it. That’s the be all and end all of it.

You’ve sparred Artur Beterbiev. Having sparred and then fought Buatsi, how do they compare?

He obviously doesn’t hit as hard. But Buatsi’s probably sharper. Beterbiev – it’s just his power. But don’t undermine his footwork and his boxing ability. It’s just that his power’s… The other fundamentals are still up there as well, but because the power’s [so impressive] – that’s the main thing.

How did you feel watching interest grow in a fight between Buatsi and Anthony Yarde?

I definitely do think, “I had my chance”, but back to the drawing board. We’ll keep climbing the ladder. We’ll go again.

I’m a fan, more than anything. I got into boxing because I was a fan; that’s a real fan-friendly fight. I’ve sparred both of them. I’d love to see the fight. It’s been built up for long. It’s not something I found difficult to hear afterwards – it’s boxing.

It’s a big shame. That’s the reason why I fought Buatsi. I didn’t have to fight Buatsi. I could have easily said, “No”. I had a good opponent that I was going to fight, to defend the European Q&A: ‘Super’ Dan Azeez – Boxing News. I could have relaxed and took my time, but it’s a fight, and once I heard he wanted it, “Come on then – let’s go”. He obviously heard the other way that I wanted it. “Yeah, let’s have it.” We’ve both got that same kind of character. “If you wanna fight, let’s fight.” I don’t ever wanna regret not fighting my peers at the time I was around. That includes Lyndon Arthur; Craig Richards; Willy Hutchinson. How can I not fight all of them? I want to be able to say, “Yeah, I fought him; I fought him”. That’s my main thing, and if that can lead me to a world title as well, happy days.

I’ve always leaned more towards Buatsi [beating Yarde], because I’ve spent so much time around him. I sparred Yarde but it was years ago. Yarde’s got good reflexes; he’s powerful; he’s quick. But I just believe Buatsi might go out there and it’ll be that will to win. But I can see Yarde hurting him. Everyone says this. If it goes the distance, Buatsi. If it doesn’t, Yarde – and I can see why.

I think we’ll get that [fight]. I genuinely believe Yarde’s got [contractual] issues and that’s what’s stopping the fight. It’s a shame for Buatsi as well, because he might struggle to find fights now. If he didn’t fight me, who would he have fought? People are actually interested in him. He’s a great fighter, but he needs to have that opponent; that dance partner. Yarde, not to be disrespectful, always fights these lesser opponents, and you can say he’s more of the star of the division, so he can get away with it, whereas Buatsi isn’t. He needs a name to fight. So I think it’s gonna hurt Buatsi more than it hurts Yarde. We fought in February; I’m out already, and I know Buatsi would love to have been out. It’s Selhurst Park; it’s Croydon; it’s his home turf. He’ll be very p*****, but it is what it is. I wouldn’t put [me fighting Yarde] past happening. After Buatsi I can see myself fighting anyone now – whether they’re my friend or not. Buatsi’s one of the closest guys. The other person’s Denzel Bentley. I keep telling him, “Please don’t move up from super middle”, because he’s like my little brother. “I don’t want to fight you.” But after fighting Buatsi it’s, “Yeah, forget it”. I can fight anyone. Callum Smith – such a lovely guy. So nice. We’ve got the same coach [Buddy McGirt]; we’re in the same gym. I could sit here and say, “We’re never gonna fight”, but it could happen. So I don’t put it past me and Yarde fighting.

How good a fight is Buatsi-Willy Hutchinson?

That’s a good fight. Only because of Hutchinson’s performance [in victory over Richards]. Very good. He deserves to be in the mix now, after beating the likes of Craig. Craig’s a seasoned fighter. He’s been in with top opposition. Willy beating him, quite convincingly, has definitely put his name in the mix. As a rival, I can’t deny that – he deserves to be in there. That’s a good fight. Craig is good fighter, but I could see a sub-par performance happening for some reason. I don’t know what it is. He’s such a good fighter. We came up together in the amateurs. It happens, man, but I’m sure he’ll be back.

Willy Hutchinson performed well. I liked his confidence going into the fight. He’s a character. It’s what boxing needs. He went in there and did the business, man. It was a very good performance. Craig looked to me like he just had one of those days, but as boxers we can’t afford to. We can have the worst training camp, but on the night we’ve gotta get it right to get the right result. It just wasn’t his day, that day, but good fight for Willy. He’s been calling me out, when I had the British title, so who knows? That could be a fight in the future.

Ben Whittaker is seen as Britain’s most promising light heavyweight. How do you view his progress?

They’re just playing the game with him. It is what it is. It’s necessary, because he’s a character; he’s a silver medallist; he deserves it. Once you get that medal, it opens the doors for you. But you’ve still gotta go in there and prove [yourself], because it’s a different sport [from amateur boxing]. They’re taking their time with him. You see other fighters that was in that Olympic cycle with him that are pushing on; already doing 10-rounders; 12-rounders. The guy that he beat [Russia’s Imam Khataev] – that got a bronze medal – he just beat Bolotniks. They’re from the same circle; he’s already fighting people like Bolotniks, so you’d expect Whittaker to already be on that trajectory, but I think they’re taking their time, and I think he’s realised, ‘Let me put the brakes on it’. ‘Cause when he first turned over, “Yeah, Dan Azeez under five fights”, and he’s past five fights now, and he’s realised, “I’ve gotta take my time, because I otherwise I will come a cropper”. I spoke to so many talented Olympians, and they say it’s a different ball game. I remember Tom Stalker – cool guy from Liverpool. He said, “Dan, I was so talented, but the process wasn’t for me – it’s a different ball game”. That’s him admitting it. The top guys in the amateurs have also gotta realise and earn their keep, and I think that’s what he’s trying to do, but he’s taking his time. Frazer [Clarke is] another one. It took him a while before he fought for the British Q&A: ‘Super’ Dan Azeez – Boxing News. Look at Joe Joyce when he first turned over – 10 rounder [against Ian Lewison]. That’s what you call someone who’s really confident. [Vasily] Lomachenko – first fight [against Jose Luis Ramirez]. That’s what you call a real deal from the amateurs. Not to say that Ben Whittaker ain’t gonna go on and prove that he’s the real deal. But he knows his level and where he’s at, but he’s taking his time, and fair play.

Will October be too soon for Beterbiev to recover from an injury as serious as a ruptured meniscus and to then fight Dmitrii Bivol?

I don’t think so. Beterbiev – being out there with him [while sparring]. They’re very meticulous. So they wouldn’t agree to October if they didn’t believe that [he’d be ready]. No chance. They’ll take their time and they’ll wait. If the belts get stripped off of him, so be it, but they’re meticulous, but they’ve probably put in the right timeframe, and believe that by then he’ll be okay. After watching Bivol, I don’t know if he’s going to be able to take the power. Malik [Zinad] put in a decent performance, because I believe he went for it. You talk about Craig and Lyndon – they went the distance with him and they didn’t get stopped, but I don’t believe they really pushed themselves. I might be wrong – this is just my opinion – they seemed like, “Do you know what? I’m in here with a great [fighter] – I’ll see this out”. Malik went in there, “I’m in here with you, I’m gonna try and win”, and when you do that you open yourself up for risk, and to be great you have to take risks, and that’s what he did – I give him full respect for that. I don’t care if he didn’t last the rounds. He went for it; came up short. I’m sure he’ll be back again.

Chris Billam-Smith-Richard Riakporhe – who wins, and why?

Chris Billam-Smith – I’ve sparred him a couple of times. He’s battle-hardened, man. He’s battle-hardened. He’s improved; he’s been in there. He’s been more active. But Richard Riakporhe’s one of the hardest punchers I’ve been in there with, and that was in the amateurs – forget about now. He’s a puncher. He’s got that [Deontay] Wilder kind of power. But I don’t know if the inactivity might be a hindrance to him. But it could be a hindrance to Chris Billam-Smith, because he’s had tough fights – even his last fight, he stopped the guy [Mateusz Masternak]. But they were tough fights, and they wear you down. But Shane McGuigan is meticulous. I’m sure he’ll have a great game plan. I’m looking forward to it. I actually want to be on first, so I can sit down and watch it. I was asking, “Can I be on the undercard – not the TV slot? I want to really sit down and just watch the fight”. I think I am gonna be on the TV slot so I have to wait a bit, but I’m looking forward to it.

I’m going to sound like fence-sitter. I was on their first fight as well; I was fighting Charlie Duffield for the southern area title, so it’s funny I’m on the undercard again. That fight is gonna be like a Yarde-Buatsi – if it doesn’t go the distance I’ll give it to Richard. If it does go the distance, I’m gonna go for Chris. Richard’s gotten better, but he’s more patient; he might not be too busy. Whereas Chris will be on it, but it leaves him open to get caught with stuff. He goes for it. So I don’t know. And I like both of them, so I’m happily gonna tell you I’m a fence-sitter, I don’t care. The best man will win.

What have you been told is next for you, in the event of victory?

I haven’t been told anything, because I categorically always tell Ben [Shalom, my promoter], my managers, “Don’t tell me about what’s next”. This guy is who I’ve got in front of me. He’s a tough opponent as well, so I don’t want to know. If I don’t get over the hurdle, who cares what’s next? Let’s focus on this fight.

I got so much positive feedback after, and that really shocked me. I thought, ‘Yeah, it’s over – Dan, go back on to the small halls and work your way up’, but I’m back on. Sky [Sports] wanted me on; I’ve been really humbled. I didn’t beg to be on the show. I didn’t think I deserved to be – I lost. But they were like, “No, we want to have you back on”. I felt real humbled. When you’re coming up in this sport you don’t know how hard it is. You dream of opportunities to be on these big shows, and I’m literally living the dream, so I can’t complain.

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