Dan Azeez was left fearing for his career when injury derailed his south London derby against old friend Joshua Buatsi last year.
Just days from the opening bell last October, the Lewisham fighter was forced to pull out of the biggest fight of his career with a back problem suffered in his final training session.
He and Croydon boy Buatsi come face-to-face in their rescheduled showdown this Saturday but a decade-long friendship became strained after their original date was shelved.
Tensions emerged when Buatsi appeared to question the legitimacy of Azeez’s injury after some malicious and quite simply disrespectful conspiracy theories were raised.
But the reality of the situation was far more concerning. While the setback has encouraged 34-year-old Azeez to take better care of himself, there were moments when he pondered how serious it could have been.
‘Us boxers, we are bloody stubborn,’ Azeez told Metro.co.uk.
‘We have a high pain threshold and we have that mentality where we think we’ll get through it. My injury, it is quite common for athletes and even regular people. But I have never been in that situation where it was as bad as that.
‘When it first happened, I was scared. Is this the end of my career? I’m not the youngest, I started in this game quite late. I thought my body was breaking down on me.
‘It has made me be a bit for mindful and its encouraged me to do some other things outside of just boxing to look after my body. I am at the top level so I have to treat my body that way.’
He continued: ‘I was very emotional, thinking about other boxers who had injuries and suddenly it was the end of their careers. Life isn’t a fairytale. I was thinking, will this be my story? Working all my way to the top only to be done at this stage? I am very grateful to be back here now, taking each day as it comes and I’m glad this fight could still go on.’
Saturday’s fight serves as a final eliminator for the WBA light-heavyweight title currently held by Dmitry Bivol. Azeez and Buatsi, undefeated in 20 and 17 fights respectively, have fought names from across the globe to reach this stage with all roads leading back to south London.
For years, the two have mixed in the same circles, shared the ring in sparring and maintained a friendship but are now looking to use their knowledge of the other man as a weapon.
With so much at stake it is perhaps only natural for a friendship to buckle slightly.
Asked about Buatsi’s comments on his injury, Azeez said: ‘It did annoy me a bit. Only because I thought, “come on Josh, you know me better than that”. But I don’t want to waste energy on it. In life, you sometimes have people around you telling you stuff in your ear but straight away I thought, this man should and does know me better than that.’
Does the fight now have a different edge? ‘It might look like that, yeah. But my goal and my drive is still then same from when it was first announced. There are always going to be naysayers but it comes with the territory. But nothing changes.’
By his own admission, not many expected Azeez to reach this point. A true throwback fighter, he developed on boxing’s small hall circuit before winning the British, Commonwealth and European titles to position himself on the brink of a world title glory in one of the sport’s most competitive divisions.
By contrast, Buatsi emerged from winning Olympic bronze in 2016 expected to go on and become world champion. He has already fought in some of the biggest venues in the sport and while the process has been frustratingly slow at times, he is one of the country’s elite operators.
Saturday’s fight is personal for Azeez, but not for the to-and-fro between him and his old friend.
‘Of course it is personal,’ he said. ‘This is my life, I have worked hard and I am at a point in my career where a lot people didn’t think I could get to, maybe at times I probably didn’t think I could get to. So it is personal in that sense, not about what Josh said or didn’t say. It’s personal to me and how I’ve climbed the ranks to where I am now.
‘All these Olympians like Josh, when we were fighting as amateurs I couldn’t even lace their boots. Now I’m side-by-side with him. This is what the hard work and dedication has been leading to.’