JOSHUA BUATSI is back where he began. The South Norwood & Victory amateur boxing club is a proper gym. A wide ring fills the centre of the building, heavy bags creak on their chains, weights and an ancient stationary bike are kept unceremoniously clear of the floor. This place is all about boxing.
Buatsi first walked in here as a teenager. The coaches then, Terry Smith and Mark Gillespie, are still around him now. Duane Sinclair would soon become a sparring partner and remains one to this day. The two boxers are in the ring now. They are practising a simple drill, stepping off to the side and throwing a counter right cross. They repeat it again and again, while Terry, a venerable boxing coach, like a kettle coming to the boil, steams with frustration. What they’re doing looks good enough to me, not to Terry though. He interrupts and cries out his instructions with expletive-laden intensity. Buatsi may have left with the last Olympic Games with a bronze medal, to become one of the best prospects in the sport. Terry however is unimpressed.
This though is what Buatsi has come here for. “This is home to me. This is where I train, this is where I started. It’s good to still come here. Work on a few things,” he says afterwards.
His club always believed he would be something special. “Just as he was turning 15 [he appeared in the gym]. I knew straightaway. When he came in and he’d never had any bouts. He had that natural talent. I used to keep saying it to Mark and Terry. Because he was much bigger than the other kids his age, the juniors, I kept going on about him. Watch him, what he’s doing when he’s shadowboxing, whatever. So then Terry got him to spar [with the other juniors]. Then he stopped the spar and told him to come and spar with us. There were some big boys,” Sinclair recalled. “Josh was able to keep up with us, [with] his stamina. His technique was raw. But he wasn’t fazed by taking the shots. Afterwards he would talk to us and say how come you kept landing that shot or what was going on? So he was hungry to learn. I knew.”
Buatsi was always aggressive. He liked to fight. Sinclair knew that the young prospect, for all his talent, would still need to adapt. “He had a particular style. I said you can’t box like that all the time. Because when you go to championships, you’re going to lose. He was winning and stopping kids. I said I’ll give it five fights and bet you lose your fifth fight. And that’s what’s happened. From then we became close because he said this guy knows what he’s talking about,” Sinclair said. “We kind of just learned at the same time. We learned together.”
The two would become fast friends. Soon enough Buatsi would join him as a senior. They were both light-heavyweights but Sinclair ate his way out of having to box Buatsi in the ABAs, the elite national amateur championships. “It was his very first senior ABAs,” Duane recalled. “When Josh and myself was the only ones in South East [division], I went up to cruiser. Terry was like, ‘I knew you too were planning something.’ Because I wouldn’t get on the scales. Then on the day when he got to the ABAs, ‘I knew it,’ he started laughing.
“No way I was going to box Josh. There’s no way.”
They train together diligently to this day. Buatsi is also far ranging as he seeks out sparring. As well as fellow Londoners, he goes to Sheffield, sparring with middleweight Ben Whittaker and 91kgs Cheavon Clarke as they prepare for the Commonwealth Games. He also got in rounds with George Groves during the super-middleweight world champion’s camp ahead of the Chris Eubank Jnr fight.
“I thought have I got a Chris Eubank style because they’ve asked to spar me? I don’t think I fight like him anyways. I was thinking okay, I’m not sure what they’re expecting. But I was just myself,” Buatsi said. “I was happy when they rang because it’s good sparring, it’s George Groves – world champion, he’s a good, clever boxer and he can punch. So it’s not like you’re fighting a weak boxer who can’t punch and you can just walk through him. So it’s really good sparring because it makes you think and think and think… It’s mental training when I spar him. As you saw in the fight, the first few rounds, Eubank was not just running to him and letting his hands go. I sat there watching the fight thinking this is exactly what he does and he’s good at this. Eubank usually would just run up to people and attack them. When you get into that, it’s not a dead space, but when you get into that hitting range he [Groves] will make you think, ‘Right if you go, you’re going to get hit for it.’ So Eubank probably got there and thought actually he’s not there to be hit and Eubank thought if I hit, I’m going to get hit, so he made him a bit gun shy. So it was really interesting to see that happen because I’ve sparred him, I’ve sparred Groves quite a bit and I’ve seen how he operates and it’s really good to get that experience with a world champion.”
“He [Groves] said stuff like this is good because there’s no point sparring old slow people that aren’t competitive, you need young fresh strong guys so they can push you. So that’s one thing I’ve learned from him, when I’m well experienced and I’m having my camps, I need to bring in these young guys who are hungry and strong, instead of getting some plodder just to punch up for sparring. That’s what he was saying,” Buatsi continued. “He’s very smart about what he does so I’m sure him and Shane [McGuigan] would have brought in the right people at the right time to achieve the right goal. No doubt that they probably brought in the right people.”
Buatsi is delivering in his competitive bouts too. In his last contest he outclassed Jordan Joseph, inside two rounds. “It was my fourth fight and it was meant to be a step up. Won seven, lost one, drew one, so it was meant to be a step up and it was just a different style of opponent,” Joshua said. “Most people have said it was my best performance. Whether it was because I stopped him in the second round, or maybe I nullified everything he wanted to do from the get go. Perhaps it was that.”
When he spoke to Boxing News the Londoner was starting the training camp which will culminate in a slot on the Anthony Joshua-Joseph Parker undercard on Saturday (March 31) in Cardiff. He began this camp after a more significant personal trip. He returned to Ghana to see his mother for the first time in three years.
“10 days in Ghana to see my mum, [my first time back] in three years. It shouldn’t have been that long but I went to the Olympics, came back, went to uni, came back, graduated from uni and then my debut was the week before I graduated and then it’s been hectic, it’s been non-stop,” Buatsi said. “I had to qualify as well that same year [2016 for the Rio Olympics]. I was thinking am I going to get a chance to see my mother?” he said. “The highlight was, I took my Olympic medal to Ghana to show her, she looked at it once as I arrived and that was it. She didn’t ask about it. She was just happy I was in Ghana to spend time with her, that my health was okay and everything was alright. She wasn’t like, ‘Let me see the medal, let me see the medal.’ I was like – look my Olympic medal. That’s nice, that’s a good achievement but she was just happy that I was in Ghana.”
“I’ve got used to it but everyone can do with their mum being about,” he continued. “For me negative things I used as motivation. Hopefully the situation will change one day.”
It all fuels his ambition. “To be added to the long list of world champions that have come from Ghana, so there’s a lot of work to be done,” he said. “But I’m 100 percent on it.”
Watch Buatsi and Sinclair in training below:
And they finished the session with an intense skipping circuit: