Joshua Buatsi wins WBA title eliminator, sets sights on Bivol

Joshua Buatsi took a big step toward a world light heavyweight title shot with a unanimous-decision victory over English rival Dan Azeez on Saturday at Wembley’s OVO Arena in London.

Buatsi earned scores of 116-110, 117-109 and 117-109 in an eliminator for the WBA world light heavyweight title, held by Dmitry Bivol. Buatsi, the 2016 Olympic bronze medalist, also claimed the British and Commonwealth titles from Azeez after showing greater accuracy and ambition.

Azeez was knocked down twice in the 11th round, but he argued both were slips. Regardless, Buatsi was a worthy winner after resisting a spirited finish from Azeez.

“He pushed me every round,” stated Buatsi, who had a 152-72 advantage in power punches, according to CompuBox statistics. “Our pride was on the line. He made me fight every second. He will give everyone a hard fight.”

Buatsi (18-0, 13 KOs), 30, who’s from Ghana and moved to Croydon in south London with his family when he was 9, started the fight as the No. 1 contender with two of the world governing bodies. Saturday’s victory keeps him at the front of the queue among light heavyweight contenders to fight for the world titles.

Buatsi will have to wait for his opportunity, though. Bivol is booked for a June fight against fellow Russian and rival champion Artur Beterbiev, who holds the WBC, IBF and WBO belts, to decide an undisputed champion.

Azeez (20-1, 13 KOs), 34, from Lewisham, went into the fight ranked No. 2 by two world governing bodies and at No. 3 and 4 by the other two. He still has big fights ahead of him despite suffering his first professional defeat.

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“He was just the better man tonight,” Azeez said. “He’s a great athlete.”

Both are from south London and have sparred with each other for over a decade, and they cancelled each other out in the opening round Saturday.

Buatsi, who had American trainer Virgil Hunter in his corner, got into his stride in the second round and landed quality punches, including some right uppercuts.

Azeez, who captured the European title with a last-round stoppage win over Thomas Faure in France last year, looked to spring his attacks from a low, crouching position and dropped a short right hand on to Buatsi toward the end of the second.

After a rather one-paced start, the pair opened up in the final 20 seconds of the third round.

There were more big exchanges in the fourth round, and Buatsi was more fluent with his punches, with the best being a long left hand that snapped back Azeez’s head.

In the fifth, both fighters had success within seconds of each other. Buatsi landed a left hook to the jaw, but Azeez responded with a left hook of his own.

Buatsi finished the fifth strong, and in the sixth, he dictated the pace. Azeez was unable to disrupt Buatsi from his smooth rhythm, and in the eighth, Buatsi’s jab was especially impressive.

But in the ninth, Azeez exerted the pressure he needed to in order to claw back some points. Azeez was having a good round again in the 11th but was given a count when he looked to slip to the canvas. Then on the bell, referee Bob Williams gave Azeez another count when Buatsi landed a right and Azeez was knocked off his feet.

Azeez felt both counts should have been ruled slips. Azeez went for the KO in the final round, but Buatsi was too slick and landed a series of heavy punches with 30 seconds left. Azeez avoided another knockdown, but by the end, he knew the decision was Buatsi’s.

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