Joshua Buatsi: Back in the Game
This feature originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of The Ring magazine.
“Before a fight, I’ll be saying, ‘I’m tough; I’m prepared to go into deep waters’ and this, that and the other. But here I was, now faced with a situation where I was being forced to call upon my promise.”
Digging in deep, Joshua Buatsi reflected on his clash against durable Croatian Marko Calic, which extended his unbeaten professional record to 13-0. Following a successful amateur career and busy start in the pro ranks, the 27-year-old light heavyweight was relieved to beat Calic after a long absence from the ring.
“That was my attitude at that point,” said Buatsi. “I was thinking, ‘OK, now you need to show a side to your game that you’ve never shown or been forced to show before.’”
“All I needed to know was that my opponent was coming to beat me. That was my biggest motivation and driver.”
– Joshua Buatsi
The affable Londoner’s journey started in Accra, Ghana, where he lived until the age of 9 before moving to Britain in 2002. After first donning the gloves at 15, Buatsi soon started to create an impressive trail of amateur silverware and in less than two years gained first place in the 2010 England Youth National Championships in the 85 kg (187 pounds) category. Dropping down to 81 kg (179 pounds) the year after, he repeated his success, which won him a place on the Ghanaian national squad. The 2012 Olympics were now in his sights.
Buatsi reached the finals of the Ghana National Selection Tournament, losing to his more experienced foe, Emmanuel Agyei Anim. The opportunity to represent his birth country was still there for the taking, but Buatsi’s wisdom or perhaps inexperience told him to hold his fire until the next Olympics in 2016. Over the next four years, the South Londoner won gold twice in the English National Championships and bronze in the European Championships, then sealed his amateur swan song with bronze for Great Britain at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The following year, Buatsi graduated with a degree in business management and sports science from St. Mary’s University in London and embarked on his professional boxing career.
Leaving a destructive trail of 12 wins with 10 stoppages over the 26 months since making his debut in July 2017, Buatsi was on course for climbing up the mandatory ladder for world title contention. In 2019 alone, he stopped Liam Conroy in three rounds at the Copper Box Arena in London to be crowned British light heavyweight champion, then a couple of months later fought on the Anthony Joshua-Andy Ruiz Jr. undercard at Madison Square Garden, stopping Marco Antonio Periban in the fourth round for a minor WBA trinket. Three months later he defended the title at the O2 Arena in London against Ryan Ford, stopping his opponent in the seventh session at a vibrant 20,000-seater arena. And then the lockdowns started.
Buatsi discussed his frustrations at not being able to fight in more than 13 months: “It’s been difficult. It’s been very up and down. Within that time, I’d prepared for two fights that didn’t happen. One because I felt ill before the fight and the other because we went into lockdown due to the coronavirus pandemic. Getting ready for fights which don’t materialize is very frustrating, especially after I’d put in a lot of work. However, one thing that did stay constant is that I remained in the gym all the time.
“I remained positive throughout lockdown, though, and I was always grateful for my health. When the date of October 4th was finally locked in for this fight after changing a number of times, I was glad to get that focus again after 400 days out of the ring. I was so glad to be back.”
Buatsi explained the extent to which COVID-19 has impacted him: “On both personal and boxing levels, there wasn’t a great deal of adjustments for me to make, because I do a lot on my own, in the sense that I’m not usually around large crowds of people. Boxing is an individual sport, and that was emphasized a lot more when it came to running, cycling and stuff like that. What [the] coronavirus did do was put more emphasis on the people I was close to already, like family and friends. We had more time to do things together that we normally wouldn’t have the chance to do on a regular basis, making up for lost times and rebuilding and strengthening relationships that sometimes take the hit because of the nature of my job. If I’m honest with you, the pandemic handed me a positive side to my life.”
Buatsi explained his experience in dealing with the difference in dynamics: “The training leading up to it was tricky, because we now had to work within government guidelines, being in a bubble, facemasks, visors, etc. That was different. Although I got the work done, it was hard. Some of the people I was working with didn’t have fights scheduled, so how motivated were they in training or sparring? That was questionable, understandably. For me, I was like, ‘OK, I’m going into a fight,’ which is very normal. But in this situation, I hadn’t boxed in over a year. This is the longest I’ve ever had since I’ve started boxing, even as an amateur, where I haven’t had a fight. … That was a very long time to have off.
“However, going into the fight, I didn’t overthink it. I’m not the type of person who kept thinking the inactivity was going to affect me. All I kept thinking was that I wanted to get into that 12-round fight with Calic.”
Buatsi is polite, endearing and a very good fighter. He has a large fan-following each time he steps through the ropes. How did fighting in an empty arena affect him? “It’s one thing watching the fights on television at home on your sofa, seeing boxers in front of an empty arena, listening to the commentary, then it’s another when you’re actually in the situation in the ring and you have to deal with that new environment.
“I’ll be honest, though. It wasn’t difficult at all. All I needed to know was that my opponent was coming to beat me. That was my biggest motivation and driver. Once I knew that he would be a genuine test and had a good pedigree, I was extremely motivated. It would have been nice to hear the cheers, don’t get me wrong, but I was so fixed on the job at hand.”
Calic’s pedigree certainly shone when the two finally met behind closed doors on October 4, 2020, at the Marshall Arena in Milton Keynes, U.K. With more than 190 amateur fights to his name and bringing an unbeaten professional record of 11-0 to the table, Calic, the visibly bigger fighter with a longer reach, claimed he was going to burst the Buatsi bubble. Buatsi explained the strategy going into the fight: “The game plan was to win every round. Round 1, I wanted to find my range and see which shots I could be more successful with.”
Despite being ahead on the scorecards after two rounds, Buatsi was in a close fight against the rangy, switch-hitting Croatian. Come Round 3, Buatsi found himself in unfamiliar territory after being on the receiving end of a destructive straight right hand to his cheekbone, causing a large swelling directly below his eye. The London favorite recalled the moment of impact: “I had my game plan, but unfortunately, as everyone saw, it went out of the window when my eye blew up. When that happened, I was like, ‘OK, now you’re in a situation where you have to forget game plans, forget saying you’re a tough guy’ and this and that. At that point, you are in the situation and you need to deal with it.
“Round 1 was a ‘feel out’ round. I saw what I was dealing with. Round 2, despite the commentary saying my nose was bleeding, that wasn’t the case and I was in control. Round 3, he had a good round. I hurt him just before he caught me in the eye. I forced him in his corner, landed a good one-two. The jab was just to disguise the right. He then ducked a bit low to regroup from that, and as I went in again, that’s when he landed the right hand, just under my eye.
“Next round, I thought, ‘OK, I gave him Round 3, based on that shot.’ Then I questioned myself again. ‘Your vision is compromised, and you’re in that situation you talked about before. Now you have to deliver and step up. You are more than prepared for this, and do what it takes to win.’ That was my mindset.
“Everyone keeps talking about ring rust, but it was nothing to do with that. The way I reacted was my way of saying, ‘My vision has been compromised, but I’m not hurt.’ It’s not like I’d been buzzed and I was disorientated. Not at all. I wanted to show that my feet were still good, grounded, firm and ready to deliver solid punches. That was my reaction.”
In the fifth session, Buatsi shifted up a couple of gears and caught Calic with a massive looping right hand to the jaw, which buckled his legs. Buatsi recalled, “I knew by Round 5 that somebody was definitely going to go in this fight. I knew by the end of Round 4 that it wasn’t going to be me. I was putting my punches together nicely, but I also started to notice he was getting more tired, and for the next rounds I also spotted that I was getting off my stool a bit earlier than him and each round he was taking a bit longer. I knew he was feeling the pace at that point, whereas I felt fit and was recovering quickly. I was eager to get back out there, at this intensity, because I knew he wouldn’t be able to keep up for much longer.
“In the sixth round, I’d seen how he had absorbed the shots to the head quite well, so I decided to mix up my shots and see what his body was like and started throwing in the hooks. You know what, though, full credit to him. He never showed he was hurt in the ring when I was unloading and I was standing right in front of him. After each shot, he just stood there and didn’t move. However, I could tell he was there for the taking.”
Buatsi sealed the fight in the seventh round in destructive fashion. “I threw a big right hand, the same shot I’d been landing with clean in the previous two rounds. The last big one which landed caused the damage. That’s when his corner held up the towel.
“When the fight was stopped, he said, ‘My jaw is broken,’ and I said, ‘You’re a champion. I don’t know how you stayed in there. I kept landing clean and you never showed it.’ He’s a nice guy. After the fight, I went to his changing room and then we kept in contact on Instagram. He told me he suffered a few fractures to the jaw, but credit to him. He came and brought the best out of me that I needed to be and showed a new side of me to those looking at the fight.”
In recent years, a number of boxers have suffered horrific eye-socket bone injuries – Kell Brook a case in point against Errol Spence Jr. and Gennadiy Golovkin. Buatsi clarified the severity of the injury he sustained in the fight: “It was purely a swelling which came down within about three days and turned into a black eye. I’m grateful for that. I’m not going to lie, though. Based on the compromised vision, that became my toughest fight as a professional.”
Buatsi’s status as the best light heavyweight in Britain was further cemented by the victory over Calic. However, fellow hard-hitting countrymen Callum Johnson and Anthony Yarde are hot on his heels, having both challenged for world honors in recent fights. A clash with either could make for explosive viewing. Buatsi humbly gave his take: “They’re both good fighters. Johnson fought (Artur) Beterbiev and dropped him, and Yarde put on a great performance against (Sergey) Kovalev and just fell short. It was very unfortunate, but Yarde gave a great performance and I commend him and give him a lot of credit for that fight. If I had to fight either of them, I would probably say Yarde, because it’s a fight that seems to be drawing more attention, but the Johnson one would also be good. I don’t really have a big preference, to be honest.”
Now boasting a 13-fight unbeaten record with a high knockout ratio, Buatsi has already had the likes of Dmitry Bivol expressing an interest in locking horns. How prepared is Team Buatsi to mix with the light heavyweight elite? “I can openly say I think we’re a few fights away from there. We’ve spoken about the ‘in-between fights,’ that gray area between this level and their level. We need to cover those fights first, but it’s a level we’re not a million miles from. We are heading in the right direction and need to keep pressing forward positively.”
Buatsi’s positive mindset goes beyond his own personal space. As a 2016 Olympic medalist looking back at when the coronavirus struck and announcements were made early in 2020 that the Tokyo Games would be deferred, Buatsi offered his advice to future Olympians: “When the news hit, I knew this was going to be very, very challenging times for them. I spoke to some of the guys on the team, and it’s very hard for them. I said, ‘Look, it’s a world event that’s happened and we need to embrace that. The show must go on. There’s no point in complaining. Make the best of the situation.’ They’ve dug in deep and got on with it. The important part is staying active and continuing to live the life. Never to lose that focus.
“It’s not just the Olympians, though. Like with the professional game, you have a team of people around you. The trainers particularly are affected and everyone who is part of the team who help each athlete achieve their goals. They need more recognition.”
With an indestructible air of optimism around him, what can we expect from Joshua Buatsi in 2021 and beyond? “There’s a lot more to come. That’s why I’m always so hopeful, because I feel that boxing hasn’t seen everything I can do just yet. You’ll keep seeing different sides to me, and I’m here on this journey to get to the top. Definitely.”
Buatsi faces Daniel Blenda Dos Santos on Saturday. The show will be broadcast by DAZN in the U.S. and Sky Sports in the U.K.
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