With his knee-high socks and short, velvet trunks, it is clear that Dan Azeez has a deep reverence for a bygone era of boxing. However, his admiration for the legends of the sport is not a case of style over substance, as he combines retro ring attire with an old-school mentality.

Too many modern fighters believe that greatness can be quantified by simple mathematics: the number of victories without defeat, plus Pay-Per-View buys and money earned. This attitude results in boxers searching for the route of least resistance. Every fight must fall on the right side of the risk-to-reward ratio.

Azeez (11-0, 7 KOs) eschews this thinking. For him, its not about how many opponents you have defeated, but who your victories are against. This mindset was developed as a youth on the streets of South East London where his mantra was, “Never back down.” While his fighting now takes places in the ring rather than on the streets, the ethos remains unchanged.

Talk is cheap, but the 31-year-old has already demonstrated a willingness to back up his words with action. Victories over Charlie Duffield (WTKO6) and Lawrence Osueke (W10) in the second half of last year represented a significant step up in class.

Tonight, he faces another test when he defends his English light-heavyweight title against Andre Sterling on an MTK Global show at the Production Park Studios in Wakefield. While Sterling may be a 10/3 underdog with the bookmakers, the odds are somewhat deceiving as no one has ever had an easy night’s work when facing the challenger. 

Azeez is acutely aware of the threat Sterling poses, but it is a challenge he relishes.

“We are in the era of the undefeated,” Azeez told Boxing Social. “The Mayweather era. Everyone wants their ‘0’. Really and truly, in the ‘80s, the best fought the best and, when the best fight the best, someone’s got to lose. That’s just how it is. You can still have a great career if you take a loss. The greatest boxers of all time have got loses, so who the hell does anyone else think they are? Especially coming up at domestic level, who are they to think, ‘I’ll take an easier fight’. It’s a mentality the boxing world has. ‘If he loses, where is he going to go from here?’ It’s such a bad mentality for the sport. In UFC, the best fight the best. Everyone wants to watch them even if they have losses. Someone wins and someone loses, that’s just what happens. I wish boxing was like that.”

For the sport to become what Azeez, and many fans, desperately yearn for it to be, fighters with something to lose must become willing to take risks. Few do. One boxer who Azeez has the utmost respect for is Dillian Whyte. Outside the two world champions, Tyson Fury and Anthony Joshua, ‘The Body Snatcher’ has arguably the most credible résumé of any active heavyweight. Whyte has displayed a willingness to face dangerous opposition, even with his status as mandatory challenger for the WBC title at stake.

Whyte’s gamble ultimately backfired as he was halted by Alexander Povetkin less than two weeks ago. While Whyte could be perceived as a cautionary tale, Azeez sees him as an inspiration.

“I love Dillian Whyte because he fights whoever,” he said emphatically. “He wants to be the best and, in order to be the best, you have to beat the best. If I can’t beat Andre, I can’t be thinking about anything further than British level. I can’t be thinking about European and world level, which is every boxer’s ultimate goal. If I can’t handle the guys at domestic [level], I’m just cheating myself. I like that traditional mentality; if you want to be the best, you have to face the best.”

The old school Azeez plans to take the plaudits again tonight against Sterling.
Photo: MTK Global.

Sterling is more than just the latest step on Azeez’s journey – he is someone that Azeez has known for years. They have trained alongside each other, under different trainers, at The Peacock Gym since Azeez turned professional. They first sparred each other when Azeez was an amateur. They have shared countless rounds of sparring.

Azeez never envisaged that they would one day trade blows without the headguards and wearing small gloves. Despite training in the same gym as Duffield, they never sparred. It remained unsaid, but both believed that one day they would fight each other. With Sterling, it was different. When Azeez was first offered the fight by MTK, he was reticent. It wasn’t out of a sense of fear, but one of loyalty. However, when Azeez was informed that Sterling had accepted, he was willing to put their friendship aside for 10 rounds.

Since the fight announcement, Sterling has been bullish. He has vowed to halt the champion between frames six and eight. All those rounds shared, which ostensibly should remain behind closed doors, are now being discussed publicly, as Sterling has revealed that he believes he has been close to stopping Azeez in the gym.

Whether this is an attempt to create ‘British Beef’ – which now garners more column inches than at any time since the BSE outbreak – or intended to be psychological warfare, Azeez remains unperturbed.

“Deep down, Andre is a cool guy, but sometimes he’s got a way about him where…” Azeez pauses momentarily then laughs: “Agh! You just want to give him a slap. Deep down, he’s cool though. Building up to this fight, he’s been talking a lot! Saying he’s going to do this or that and acting out of character, but it’s the fight game, it comes with the territory. Even with your worst enemy, after you’ve had the fight, you kiss and hug anyway, so I don’t take it to heart. It’s just business. We are going to go in there and try to rip each other’s head off, like he tries to do in sparring against me [laughs]. Hopefully, we both come out healthy and we can shake hands and have a drink afterwards.

“This is where I start believing this is all theatrics because I don’t know what he’s talking about, I really don’t. I’ve sparred him loads of times and he gives as much as he can take, I’ll give him that. I don’t go into sparring looking to knock someone out. It’s development. Who knows, I could be lying, he could be lying, but one thing we both know is we are going to fight! If he has hurt me, let him do it again, it’s as simple as that.”

Azeez has no interest in engaging in a war of words with his rival. In fact, he was quick to praise his opponent. In his last three scheduled 10-round contests, Sterling has found himself on the canvas. Some would highlight his vulnerability, but Azeez focused on Sterling’s durability, as he went the distance in the aforementioned bouts.

If Sterling has opted to generate hype for the contest by attempting to get under Azeez’s skin, the champion would rather market the fight on merit. After somewhat stale bout with Osueke, Azeez believes he has found his perfect foil in Sterling.

“Another reason I want to fight Andre is because boxing is an entertainment sport,” he said. “It’s about entertaining the fans; Andre is a good dancing partner for me. He’ll bring out that grit in me, we’ll go toe-to-toe. I’ll give him that, he’s got heart, he’s got balls and he’s game. He’ll come for me and it’ll make for an entertaining fight for the fans. Who wants to be in a boring fight? Who wants to fight someone they know they will bowl over? Andre is tough. The spars we’ve had, people would pay to watch. That is why I wanted this fight.

“I’ve witnessed him come off the floor. When he fought Ricky Summers, he got dropped heavily in first round and he came back to win. Even when he won the Southern Area [against Kirk Garvey], I was ringside, there was a round where he was maybe a punch away from getting stopped, but he survived the round, came back and won the Southern Area. I know he’s got balls. Let’s make a good entertaining fight.”

Sterling won’t be the only tough man in the contest. Toughness is an attribute that Azeez always knew he possessed, however this year he has required every ounce of it. 

While Covid-19 has affected everyone over the past six months, for most, the biggest hardship they have had to endure is not being able to socialise or being on 80 per cent pay. Those are the lucky ones.

Azeez’s family were not as fortunate. His mother, Kike, contracted the virus in April and her symptoms quickly worsened. Kike spent four weeks in intensive care at University Hospital Lewisham.

Due to infection control measures, Azeez was unable to visit his mother. As her condition deteriorated, Azeez was forced to confront the possibility that he could lose his mother.

Kike had been the matriarch of the family for the entirety of his life. It was her that instilled discipline and manners into her children. It was her that pushed the importance of getting an education. It was her that insisted than Azeez finished his Masters in accounting and finance, so that he would always have something to fall back on if his boxing dream didn’t come to fruition.

She is his best friend.

At one stage, the situation appeared to be hopeless, but Kike refused to stop fighting.

“She’s made a full recovery,” he said. “She’s just come back from the hospital; she had a little check-up. They said that they were well pleased with how quick she’s recovered and how well she’s doing now. I feel good, I feel really blessed and thankful because at the time when everything was going on, gosh…” Azeez inhaled deeply. “I just didn’t know. My head was in a different place. I’ve never been in that kind of situation where someone so close to you is probably going to lose their life. It wasn’t looking good. It was just a horrible, horrible time and I’m just so grateful that she made a recovery and that she’s still here with me.

“She was in ICU for four weeks. You can imagine what it was like. For four whole weeks you don’t know if the doctors are going to say, ‘It’s not working, she can’t breathe without the machine, so we are going to turn it off’. For a whole month you are thinking, ‘Please, don’t give up on her,’ and ‘Come on, mum. Fight this!’ They said, ‘There’s nothing more we can do. If she does get through this, it’s her own body, her own immune system that’s going to get her through it. Right now, it’s not looking good. It’s getting worse and worse’. It was horrid, man. It wasn’t a nice time, but we are here now, and I’m pleased. I know where I get my fighting spirit from, I really do.”

His mother’s battle has galvanised Azeez’s resolve. He knows that anything is possible. He has experienced a level of emotional anguish that he did not know existed. No physical pain can compare. As such, he fears no man.

The ethos he had as a youth throwing punches in the streets, the mindset his mother had during her time in intensive care, is the attitude Azeez brings to the ring every time he fights – never back down.

“There’s nothing I can go through in the ring that is going to put me through that much trauma. It’s toughened me up,” he said. “I thought I was tough before, well after this experience I feel I have a new mental toughness I have acquired. If my mum can beat this deadly virus that nearly took her life, I train every day, I eat well, I’m physically gifted, I’m well-built, I can’t see how another human can get in my way if I want to do something.”

Main image: Dan Azeez, MTK Global.