Dan Azeez is back and better than ever. The light heavyweight champion faced a minor setback in the form of a back injury this past fall. An unfortunate event that led to the postponement of his battle against Joshua Buatsi. But the fight is back on, and Azeez is better than ever 

The injury may have come at the wrong time for the ring, but it’s had an overall positive affect on Azeez. He’s done physical therapy, he’s rested. He found a mental coach and started training more than just his body. He bought the whoop and tuned into his sleep. Dan Azeez is a different man as he prepares to fight an old friend.

A misconception in the fight world is that good fighting is about rivalries. I humbly disagree. This fight represents the height of what a martial art can be: two fighters coming together to respectfully battle to see who is the best. The rivalry is bound to the ring, as soon as the bell goes. We’re back to the basics here as Azeez and Buatsi set aside friendship in pursuit of legacy.

I sat down with Azeez ringside in the St Pancras Boxing Gym to catch up on his injury rehabilitation, his early career, and who he hopes to be for his community.

SquareMile: First things first: How is your back?

Dan Azeez: It’s good, it’s good. In boxing man, you’re never not gonna get a niggle or a knock. It’s just an unfortunate injury. But what’s funny is that when I went to go get my scan, they said 70% of people have this injury. They said it hasn’t just come now, it’s just showed its face. I remember when it first happened and I’d have to do all these different movements just to try to stand up, it was awful. I’ve never felt anything like that in my life.

There’s been a bit of non-sense like ‘oh, he’s faked an injury’ and I’m like if only they knew the pain I was in. It happened about a week before the fight and I thought, whatever. I took some heavy pain killers, it got a bit better. My body got used to the pills and it just got worse. I tried to rest. But it just totally went.

We have high pain thresholds as boxers and we’re very stubborn: just get through it. But I’ve never had anything like that. I remember sitting there just thinking: is that me done? I was tearing up, you know? Not now. Not when I’ve built myself up so much, I already started late. I started at 28. Every little detail the physical therapists told me to do, I’ve done.

SM: What has the rehab program looked like?

DA: No boxing for a month. It was all stretching and strength exercises. Little things to get me back together. The little things you take for granted man, you take everything for granted, everything. I started to feel a lot empathy with anyone who struggles with a disability.

SM: How long did it take for the pain to let up?

DA: About mid-December it calmed down.

SM: Do you have any worry now that you’re back into moving?

DA: I’ve been going to this mental guy, doing sessions with him. He tells me: the injury can be very mental. I don’t want to give away my secrets! The gym I train in back home, he’s a member. He sought me out and told me what he did. I’m very old school, I was like what’s all this crap. But you know what, I thought I’d try it out. It can’t harm me.

SM: Will you keep the mental training in your routine moving forward?

DA: Yeah, I will you know. I’ve seen AJ going to this retreat and that. Boxing is 80% mental. If you think you’re the best, feel that you’re the best - you are the best. It’s so crazy. Seriously. Even me, my rise to where I am - I’ve never been the most technical, not the most gifted. It’s my drive and my passion, my confidence in the ring. You know how people sometimes say they have alter egos? I think I do. Because outside the ring I’m like ‘Dan, you’re not all that bad.’ But in the ring, I’m like you can’t even talk to me. It’s only when I’m in there.

SM: What’s the alter-ego’s name?

DA: Super. Outside is Dan, not even Dan - Daniel. He’s just like how the hell did I get here? This is a lot for me. It might sound cheesy and cliche but I swear it’s true. Every opponent I have, I build them up to be a monster. But when I get in there I’m like I am going to: (*muffled swears and sounds and roars*). I’m not even jokin!

SM: I’ve heard you say you watch fights to prep for your own: what are you watching in anticipation of this?

DA: I don’t watch technical fights. I just watch things that give me that feeling of a crowd going crazy. I need that feeling in me.

SM: You’re wearing the whoop.

DA: Oh yeah. It helps me with my sleep! My sleep was horrible, but it’s much better now. It tells me when to go to bed. I’m monitoring everything. This was another thing that I was like, ugh, you know. I’m old school. But it works. It gasses me up sometimes too. I go on and it’s like you’ve done this and this and I’m like yeah!! I’m not usually that kind of person. If my body says I’m tired, I’m tired. But you’ve got to get with the times.

SM: So this alter ego that comes on in the ring: is that feeling the reason you started fighting?

DA: No, I started because I was awful at it. I’m from south east London, where I grew up is very violent. I was brought up amongst that. I could street fight and stuff, but when I first went into the ring was the first time I felt vulnerable. Street fighting and martial arts are two very different things. I felt like: oh god, what if I meet someone on the street that can fight, I’m going to be finished.

It was during a time when Youtube was emerging, and I used to watch all these fight highlights. I watched a lot of David Haye. I went to Uni in Essex and they were doing finals for the national amateur finals, and I remember someone told me to go watch it. I went and AJ was in it with his cousin. They were wicked. I was like, I want to try amateur boxing! That’s when I started competing.

SM: How old were you then?

DA: I was 19. I had trained before, but that’s when I really started competing.

SM: Tell me about the early days in the amateur gym: you said you were shit.

DA: I couldn’t fight at all. But I really wanted to learn.

SM: Did anyone ever see something in you during this time period, or did you see it within yourself?

DA: I didn’t see it in myself. But I think the coaches saw I was eager to learn, eager to compete. I was very consistent, I’d be at every training session. They knew I wasn’t just a normal kid training for fun. I think they knew if I stick with it, I’ll get somewhere. My amateur coach, Gordon Charles, who was a PHD student at the time always believed in me.

SM: How many years are in between your amateur career and going pro: there’s a long space in there.

DA: There’s a very long space. I started amateur boxing at 19, and then I went pro at 28. I got my degree, got my masters, worked in an accountancy firm and everything. I was still doing amateur boxing, I was top ten in the country at some point, won competitions overseas and what not. At some point I was like, you know what, I don’t want to get to an age and think I should have actually done it. I didn’t want the regret. I was doing well. I’d train when I was working. I did both. Why was I doing all of it if I wasn’t going to pursue it?

I remember my manager at the accountancy firm googled me and was like ‘you’re a really good amateur boxer?’ She said to me ‘I like you a lot but you have to promise me you’re not gong to leave us to become a boxer.’ I was like no! No way man! I was there for two years, and then I decided to go and do it for real.

SM: How did you break the news?

DA: I’ve got to be honest. I didn’t tell her I was leaving for boxing, I just said it was time to go. She never knew until she saw me on SkySports!

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SM: When in this journey do you meet Joshua Buatsi?

DA: I met him in the amateurs. He was really high level. I wanted to box like him. He had the technique. He was really class. Somebody I knew around my area knew his trainer, and they asked me to go sparring. Everyone knew him, he was the number one in the country. I’ve been sparring him ever since. That was maybe 2014 or 2015.

SM: What do you think his biggest strength and biggest weakness is as a fighter?

DA: He’s got loads of strengths - too many to name. But he does have that pride. Weakness might be he’s too stubborn.

SM: Do you think thats something that could work against him in the ring?

DA: Yeah, of course, it can make anyone trip. That’s one thin about boxers, we’re all so stubborn. We’re all trying to prove that we’re the stronger guy. That’s the whole essence of boxing: ego. I’m stronger, I’m better, I can dominate you - that’s what it is. But that can also be the thing that causes your downfall.

SM: Do you have any communication rules with Buatsi before this fight? Like no texting, no chatting?

DA: Nah. We both know what time it is. That’s the general rule. We’re getting ready to destroy each other. I don’t need to talk to him, I don’t him to talk to me. God willing, we both end up healthy and go back home to our families. We can’t go in too friendly, friendly. This is the hurt business.

SM: On a happy note: what’s your favourite memory with Joshua?

DA: I remember this one time we were sparring, and he was really getting the better of me. And he just started yelling: ‘Come on Dan! Fucking wake the fuck up!’ If you’ve seen Rocky, there’s a scene between Rocky and Apollo where Apollo starts beating up Rocky and he yells wake up! It was like that. That’s one of my favourite memories.

SM: You and Josh have both worked with Lives not Knives: can you tell me about your work with them?

DA: We both come from areas with a lot of knife crime. So we’re supporting the movement. It’s weird, cause when I was growing up, there was less knife crime more fighting. People would just have it out. I don’t know where this surge of violence is coming from. Idris Elba is trying to get zombie knives banned, which I think is a great thing. In my time, maybe we’d have a pocket knife. These knives are crazy.

These kids need more role models, people they can be in touch with. Now they’re headlining their own shows. If they can do it, we can do it. We need to represent, and relate to people. Teachers say things to you as a kid, but we can’t relate to them. They can relate to us because we were them, and we need more of that.

SM: If everything goes according to plan, how do you see this fight go?

DA: I want it to be one of those fights that people always go back to. This day and age, that doesn’t happen a lot. That’s why I love the old school fighting. My grandchildren will probably go back to watch Hagler vs Hearns. I want that kind of fight. It’s not just boxing, it happens in music too. A song is hot at the time, but it loses its touch. I want a movie for the ages. I want a fight for the ages.

First and foremost, I want my hand raised. I want to be the winner. I want to be that ambassador for people who don’t think they can do stuff. I speak to kids who are 19 who come and ask me if there’s any point in pursuing the career, and I’m like mate, I didn’t start till I was 28. I was horrible when I was 19. I spar this 19 year old, he is so good. I tell him: just for ten years dedicate yourself to this. I try to tell the kids, if you’re consistent, you will get there.

SM: If you could compare what you were fighting for when you started in 2017 vs now?

DA: In 2017, I was fighting to see how far I could go. I was trying to prove to myself that I could do something. I just wanted to put all my marbles in and see what happened. Now I’m fighting for the underdogs. I’m the poster boy. I wasn’t on the great Britain squad, I wasn’t an Olympian. I’m fighting for that lot. I feel the pressure. It’s not a bad pressure, I thrive on it. I don’t want to let them down, or myself. I just can’t.

I’m fighting for the ‘you can do it club’. It sounds cheesy, but seriously. I wish I could show you my first amateur fight. Guess what the result was of my first ever fight? Just guess. Do you think it was a win or a loss?

SM: A loss.

DA: Okay. How do you think I lost? Points, knockout, disqualification?

SM: Points.

DA: My first ever fight was a loss. I lost in the first 30 seconds, knocked out. In front of friends and family. That happened and I was like, nah, I’m in. I’m going to keep going. I’d love to watch it back, but I’m glad its not on youtube.

SM: Last question: what are you fighting for against Joshua?

DA: Earn my shot at the top. Recognition. Known as one of the best. I’m fighting for that.

You can watch Dan Azeez vs Joshua Buatsi live on Sky Sports on Feb 3rd.