ON JANUARY 28, when Anthony Yarde was dropped and stopped by the great Artur Beterbiev in London, two other British light-heavyweights watched on from a sofa over 4,000 miles away in Florida. Dan Azeez and Callum Smith, both trained by Buddy McGirt, had headed over to the Hall of Famer’s pad to watch the clash at the very top of their division that sunny evening on the east coast.
There is a chance Smith may face Beterbiev later this year so the Liverpool puncher was naturally keeping a close eye on proceedings. For Azeez, who openly admits he is probably 18 months away from a fight of that magnitude, it was a chance for him to see where he is heading. What’s more, the south Londoner knows Beterbiev well having spent time in camp with him as a sparring partner during 2022. He knows what is required for him to reach the Russian’s level.
For Azeez, that has meant relocating to America for his training camps under McGirt and the aforementioned friendship with Smith. “Callum does his sessions before me but he’s a proper cool guy,” Azeez explains. “I like him.
“We hang out a bit, we watched the Yarde and Beterbiev fight together at Buddy’s. We’re at different stages of our career and have the same trainer so we probably won’t fight – he can’t be in both corners at the same time.
“I didn’t know him before this, but I remember I used to watch him when he was an amateur, I used to think ‘this guy’s sick!’ It’s nice that he’s here, he laughs a lot. Buddy’s crazy so everyone is just mixing and gelling.
“I’m heading into European level and he’s elite, at the top end of the tree. There’s no awkwardness there. We haven’t sparred yet, either.”
His first test at that level comes this weekend in Villette, the vibrant Paris neighbourhood, when he faces European champion Thomas Faure. Despite being the challenger, 33-year-old Azeez arrives in the French capital a favourite. “I know nothing about him,” Azeez admits.
It is put to him that Faure has already been worn down and stopped by a shorter opponent in his career. “But that was 2019,” he counters.
“He could have changed so much since then. Like when I fought Shakan Pitters in September, I’m a totally different fighter from then. I don’t take too much notice of previous fights three or four years ago – I know what I was like then and I’m definitely not the same fighter now.
“They’re all tall and long compared to me – I’m a midget. I’m 5ft 10in just about. Like when I see Callum Smith I think ‘bloody hell, you’re huge’. But then again I think that about everyone compared to me.”
Azeez has famously done all the required hard yards on the domestic front, claiming Southern Area, English and British titles – something no other light-heavyweight in history has managed. He picked up the Commonwealth title last time out, stopping Rocky Fielding in eight rounds, and now he has the European in his sights.
“It’s just so when I get to world level, I’ve taken all the necessary steps,” he adds. “So I should be ready and should feel comfortable being up there. I won’t feel like I need more experience or that I’ve missed anything out – I’ll know I’m ready.
“I’m on a mission, happy to go wherever is necessary. I just want these belts, man, it would be nice to be British, Commonwealth and European champion. I’ve done all the domestic belts, so I want the rest now.”
Azeez believes his switch to America can only help to facilitate that goal. For his last camp he and McGirt spent time in Los Angeles where they were also joined by Dillian Whyte as he prepared for his clash with Jermaine Franklin. This time Smith is around while Sugar Hill Steward and his fighters Lawrence Okolie and Ben Whittaker have also been on the scene in Florida.
“I’ve been with Buddy since the beginning of last year,” he says. “It’s been good.
“Last time Dillian was there so it was good to have him around – he’s another funny guy. There are other fighters like Janibek too – it’s a good bunch of fighters, man.
“It’s nice, it’s hot, it’s quite regimented: training, rest, training, rest. Last time I was in LA, this time I’m in Florida and I’m just in a motel. I’m a bit of a cheapskate – no fancy hotels for me. You can ask Ben Shalom how much it is per night! My day is just motel, gym, motel.
“There’s a nice beach here though where I can chill, that’s a nice calm environment but most of the time I’m so shattered I just want to go back to my bed and relax. I’m up about 6am, have a run on the beach, have a nap, then do my boxing training at 1pm – bag work or pads, then I eat and chill before I come back to the gym at about 8pm for my strength and conditioning. It’s hot out here as well and that takes it out of me.
“It’s good because it feels like a real camp for me, I’m away from family and friends and focused on nothing but training. It’s a different experience. Boxing away from home hardens me and hopefully when I get out there and fight it doesn’t have an effect on me.”
After linking up with McGirt, Whyte spoke at length of his admiration for the trainer suggesting that he is one of the few ‘teachers’ still operating at world level in the sport. However, he raised some eyebrows in the build up to Whyte-Franklin when he revealed that he had never watched either of them in action – not even his own fighter.
But like Whyte, Azeez has bought into McGirt’s methods entirely and believes he will only improve with every fight alongside the New Yorker.
“It has been brilliant being trained by him,” Azeez says. “And it’s great being out here. He’s funny, has loads of stories, lots of experience.
“It has been really, really good. He says he has the patience to deal with my bullshit and my non-driving ass. He says I can’t drive because the seat is on the left side so I struggle a little bit but I’m getting better at it.
“I like it here though. I mean, the food in America is so fatty so that doesn’t really help but I’ve got a good metabolism and I eat quite well.
“I miss some of the British food – your fish and chips and English breakfasts. Obviously I miss my family too but I’m on a mission, man, I just put that to the back of my mind and get on with it.”
The European title is the next box he wants to check and he is unusually honest when it comes to assessing his standing on the world stage. He is not currently inside the top 10 at 175lbs, while his compatriots Smith, Yarde, Joshua Buatsi and Craig Richards all are. Victory in Paris may just nudge him closer to that quartet.
He has often been the forgotten man of his division in this country but, should he finish this year injury free and close to 21-0, there is every chance he could be in line to fight for a version of the world title in 12 months’ time.
“It all depends,” he says. “It depends on how much I’m developing – Buddy says I need a lot of work. It all depends, it’s about getting the right fights at the right time.
“Personally I’m up for whatever but we’ll see how it goes. But by the end of the next 12 months I want to be fringe world level, ready to take whatever opportunity comes up.”
It has been reported that world No.1 Beterbiev and No.2 Dmitry Bivol could reach an agreement to meet in a light-heavyweight super fight before the year is out. Should Beterbiev win he may decide to move up in weight or even retire from the sport, which could present Azeez and the rest of the chasing pack with a chance to stake their claim for top spot.
Azeez said: “When I was out there in Montreal with him during his training camp before he fought Joe Smith he said he just wants to get all the belts. Obviously in that fight he beat Smith and got the WBO, now it’s only one missing against Bivol.
“Once that’s done he will probably go up to cruiserweight or something. Then the belts will scatter and there will be opportunity there too.
“But right now there are loads of domestic fights that can happen as well. I’ll be honest, as much of a beast Beterbiev is, it would be a good showdown between us two, I wouldn’t mind fighting him either. You might think it’s best to stay away from him but when you’re in this sport you take challenges. If I’m up there being considered as one of the best it’s only right you fight the others.
“If Bivol cannot get hit as much as Yarde did then he has a very good chance. But trust me, man, Artur has crazy power. You don’t want to get hit by that too often, you don’t want to get tired against him, or end up on the ropes against him. I rated Yarde’s chin in that fight, there were times when Artur proper let go on him.”
So what was going through his mind as he watched his old sparring partner bludgeon a potential opponent toward an eighth-round defeat.
“As a fan I thought it was a brilliant fight and really enjoyed it,” Azeez says. “So did Callum.
“I thought Yarde did very well and he can hold his head high. I don’t think it came too soon but Beterbiev is a great fighter with a lot of experience. If he keeps chipping away he will get there but he’s fighting the best guy in the division, the monster. When I get to that world title level Yarde should be there too.
“If you look at the top 10 in most of the sanctioning bodies, there are so many British fighters in there. We’ve got a good crop in this country and it’s an exciting time.
“It’s funny how life works out though, one minute you’re seen as domestic rivals, next you’re training together in Florida. I’m not thinking too far ahead – it really is one fight at a time.”