An unassuming brick building on the edge of a sports field, Leyton Amateur Boxing Club is a busy place on this brisk February morning. Step inside out of the sun and you’ll discover some of the finest young boxers in Britain being put through their paces by trainer Shane McGuigan, himself a fresh faced 33.
It’s a lively, happy gym. Caroline Dubois, sister of heavyweight contender Daniel, is brutalising McGuigan’s pads. Unbeaten super bantamweight Ellie Scotney prepares to take her place while the highly rated welterweight Hassan Azim stretches his long, lean body and picks up the skipping rope.
Slinking through the doors comes Hassan’s younger brother Adam, rocking Beats headphones and a designer haircut, a 20-year-old sensation whose striking good looks should surely be glowering out of a fashion billboard rather than risking brutal rearrangement in the boxing ring.
This impression is deceptive. There’s risk every time Adam Azim enters a ring but it largely runs one way.
On the Monday of my visit to Leyton ABC, Adam Azim’s record as a professional boxer read seven fights, seven victories, with only his first opponent hearing the final bell and only one other reaching the third round. He’s nicknamed the Assassin for a reason. Across the ring this coming Saturday night will be a Nicaraguan light-welterweight named Santos Reyes, himself unbeaten after 12 fights. Gamblers will get long, long odds on that streak extending to the thirteenth.
“Boxing’s my life,” Adam will later tell me. “There’s never a day when I’m thinking about anything else. I’m thinking about boxing. Just boxing, pure boxing. The whole time.”
It’s been that way since he was five years old; since his father Az stood him in front of a punching bag in their garage in the hope of finding an outlet for his ADHD. (Cricket was tried first; Adam proved a fine player but couldn’t stand still in the field.) Az is here today as well, keeping a watchful eye on his two sons.
“When he was five years old, I knew right then,” says Az of Adam. “Some people thought I was crazy! If you’d seen him on the pads and bags at the age of five, you would say that he’s got it.” Adam had a floor-to-ceiling ball, a tiny ball in the middle of a sting that jerks and spins with every punch. It’s used to develop hand-eye coordination. “He was never missing that ball at the age of five!”
He fought as a kickboxer for a few years before transitioning to boxing proper shortly before his tenth birthday. “I won numerous titles in kickboxing,” says Adam. “I think I had 150 kickboxing bouts. I never used to kick in any of them – I used to just punch.”
Did that not put him at a disadvantage? He grins at the question. “It gave me an advantage. Most of them would be kicking – I used to roll the kick like Mike Tyson and come over the top. I know the ways! I did quite well.”
The Azim brothers were raised in Slough. Growing up, Adam’s ADHD would often land him in trouble. He mentions frequent visits to the local hospital, where the doctors came to know him by name. “He was a very hyperactive person. He had so much energy,” says Hassan of his brother. “I was calm. I was super relaxed and chilled.”
Hassan campaigns at welterweight, a division above Adam. The older brother by two years, he started boxing aged 12 and will also fight on Saturday’s card. There’s no fraternal rivalry, only shared love and support. “Me and Adam are pretty much best friends,” says Hassan. “We grew together, winning national and international titles back in the amateur days, and now we’re heading towards the pro game.”
The brothers had a role model in Amir Khan, a hugely significant figure in the British Asian community and a rare boxer who transcended the sport. “Amir Khan was my inspiration growing up,” says Adam. “The first time I watched him, I was four or five years old,” recalls Adam. “I think he was fighting Michael Gomez.” [Khan stopped Gomez at the Birmingham Arena in 2008.]
When Khan visited Slough as a global superstar, a six-year-old Adam queued up for a photo and a signed glove from his hero. “The roads were packed,” he recalls. “I’ve still got the picture for that. Still got the glove as well.” The pair met again at the press conference for Khan’s swansong fight against Kell Brook. “We’re like family now,” says Adam. “He’s like a big brother to me. We keep contact most of the time. He’s such a lovely guy.”
An hour or so after his arrival at the gym, Adam enters the ring to work Shane McGuigan’s pads. He moves with the lithe grace of a dancer and the single-minded destructiveness of a heat-seeking missile. His right cross cracks onto the pads, his left hook booms – sometimes so loudly the echo bounces off the rafters. After a few seconds, you could distinguish the punches with your eyes closed. Despite their distinctive pitches, there’s one similarity that unites every punch Adam Azim throws. All of them sound like violence. A particularly powerful shot causes McGuigan to grin and my jaw to tingle from across the room.
“When I get into the ring, it’s amazing. That’s where my home is. When I go in the ring, I’m always confident because I train hard. My boxing IQ is incredible but most people haven’t seen it yet because I haven’t gone many rounds.”
There’s a reason for that, concisely summarised by Azim’s trainer. “He’s not got just speed or boxing ability. He’s got power.”
McGuigan calls Adam Azim the most naturally talented boxer he’s ever trained. “I know how special he is. He finds shots that other people can’t find. If you look at Roger Federer, he looks like he’s gliding when he’s playing tennis and that’s the same thing with Adam when he’s in his flow. No-one’s seen him like that yet because we haven’t had the opponents to match him.”
Finding the right opponents has been a problem. “Domestic opponents don’t want to take it,” says McGuigan. “They don’t want to get embarrassed because he punches so hard. You would expect a few of them to step up to the plate and not one of them really has. It’s testament to the stories that have gone out in sparring. Everyone knows how good he is on the circuit. The public will find out in time.”
Adam Azim’s talent may be God given, but he hones it relentlessly. Every week, he records punch combinations and areas for improvement in a notebook. His days are soundtracked by motivational videos. He consumes boxing like you and I consume air.
McGuigan describes someone whose dedication extends far beyond the gym. “In the café when we all go to get some food, he sits there watching boxing. He has an obsessive personality and that’s something that’s made him become a standout. Is he more talented than everyone else? Maybe but maybe not. Maybe it’s just the work ethic.”
Adam and Hassan are the first of their family to box; unlike many precocious talents, the sport doesn’t run in their blood. However, Az tells me that the Azims come from the Janjua Rajput caste with a reputation for breeding warriors that stretches back over centuries.
“Our heritage, our ancestors were strong people. A lot of the armies around the world have an influx of our caste in there because they’re known for being soldiers and fighters. Maybe that’s where it’s come from.”
Whether through talent or work ethic or cultural heritage, Adam Azim has the potential to be very, very special. McGuigan sees him as a legacy fighter, a crossover star. “Adam can do it all. He can press, he can box on the front foot, he’s naturally a counter puncher but he can fight at all ranges. The real elite fighters, the ones that go down in the history books, they can do it all.” He almost sounds like a cheat code… “Exactly,” says McGuigan with a dry chuckle.
McGuigan’s plan for Azim is bold. This year, win a European title and test himself against a former world champion. “They might be a few fights past it but that’s the level and standard I want him to reach by the end of the year.” Then, if all goes well, a world title by next spring. Adam would be 21; Khan won his first aged 22.
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Like Khan, the Azims want to be known for more than their boxing achievements. Both brothers speak earnestly of their desire to be role models for the next generation. “We want to change the community,” says Hassan. “Getting them to join boxing or another sport instead of going on the streets and doing bad stuff. Not just our community: different cultures, different races. We want to help them all learn.”
Adam speaks of his desire to build a chain of boxing gyms in areas most affected by knife crime. “The streets are really dangerous nowadays. You don’t know what people are carrying. The best thing is do something that you’re good at. I want to help the community, I want a lot of people to look up to me. I’ll do a lot of charity work as well.”
Five days after our interview, Adam Azim got his wish for more rounds: despite being floored in the second, Santos Reyes proved a dogged, durable opponent who survived until the final bell. The outcome was never in doubt, Azim winning every round on all three judges’ cards. “I would rate my performance as probably an eight out of ten,” said Azim after the fight. “He was very tough.” Hassan and Caroline Dubois both secured stoppage victories to complete a great night for Team McGuigan.
Greater nights surely lie ahead for Adam Azim. The spotlight will only get brighter, the opponents tougher, the critics louder. Blessed with a loving family and a fantastic team, he should be well equipped to cope with conflict on either side of the ropes. Go well, young warrior – there’s a legacy to forge.