Joshua Buatsi beats Dan Azeez in ferocious 12-round contest at Wembley Arena
Joshua Buatsi overcame a determined Dan Azeez as the two Londoners waged a 12-round war at Wembley Arena.
Buatsi dropped Azeez twice in the 11th round, but Azeez blamed the slippery canvas for losing his footing.
A short right from Buatsi landed and Azeez's right foot slipped out from under him. He hit the deck and the referee took up the count.
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A wide right slammed Azeez over at the end of the round and again Azeez pointed, frustrated at the canvas.
Azeez tore forward in the last round, mounting a tremendous assault. But Buatsi waded into him, hammering Azeez into the ropes with wide-armed hooks.
Both finished proudly on their feet and embraced after the final bell.
A unanimous decision and victory in this final eliminator for the WBA light-heavyweight title went to Buatsi, who also won Azeez's British title. The judges scored 116-110 and 117-109 twice, all for Buatsi.
Azeez came in as the reigning British light-heavyweight champion, a title Buatsi used to hold. But this fight's implications reached far beyond that. An eliminator for the WBA world title, both men needed victory to take their careers where they were determined to go.
There was also the matter of a local rivalry, both being Londoners. Buatsi is from Croydon and Azeez from nearby Lewisham and supporters of both men filled Wembley Arena with roars of support.
Before their names had even been announced formally, they stood in the centre of the ring, eyeballing the other with no referee, announcer or coach between them.
Despite their past, as friends and former sparring partners, this was serious and that was exactly the manner in which they fought.
They didn't take risks in the first round but the shots they did throw were firm and they hurt. It was Buatsi who struck first, a couple of blows thudding in causing Azeez to blink and for a moment hesitate. He had felt that power.
As the bell rang to end the first round, the two locked eyes again. They backed away but neither wanted to break that stare. Spite was creeping into their contest too.
Soon they would be locked into a ferocious assault. Azeez looped his back hand over. It caught Buatsi with force. Azeez again snuck his right hook through Buatsi's defence.
He thought he saw another opening for his right, but just as he shaped throw it, Buatsi fired in a countering cross to catch his opponent out. He finished the round shouldering Azeez out of clinch and Azeez bared his teeth in a fierce grin.
Azeez ramped up his work in the third round, getting into more of a rhythm. They worked in exchanges, a hard Buatsi left hook snagging Azeez's chin. They traded in flurries and the crowd in the arena continued to warm to the action.
Azeez rammed hard rights into Buatsi and the Croydon man fired back ferociously, holding his ground and blasting hooks at his opponent.
Buatsi put his stamp on the fourth round. A back hand and a left hit Azeez's body with breathtaking force. Buatsi went on to slam heavy punches repeatedly into Azeez.
They opened up on one another in the fifth round. Buatsi worked his left hook with cruel power. That left hook forced Azeez off. But the Lewisham man caught him with stern power shots. But Buatsi came after him with a wicked smile on his face.
He finished a combination with a lead hook and then a telling heavy right fired into Azeez flush.
In the seventh round Buatsi swept a right hook then a left hook into the head. Azeez managed to land his uppercut, a jab and a cross, but Buatsi shook his chin with a rocking right uppercut.
At the end of the eighth round the weight of punch saw Azeez bob down for a moment. He fired back though and that prompted a furious response from Buatsi. He swung for Azeez, too wildly, missing the target but beckoned Azeez back in.
Azeez dredged up another huge effort in the ninth round and both men were soaked in sweat as they came out for the next stanza. They landed tremendous punches but both were tough men. They both absorbed the punishment.
A chopping right in the 11th round saw Azeez's leg shoot out from under him and he hit the deck. He rose, visibly irritated.
In the closing seconds of the round, a heavy right bowled Azeez over a second time. He stamped on the canvas when he rose.
Azeez had no choice but to go after Buatsi in the final round. But Buatsi landed his own hard hits to ram home his advantage and make sure of a clear decision win.
"Dan pushed me every round," Buatsi said straight after the fight.
"He is a champion. I got the No 1 slot but I couldn't have done it without Dan. It was a pleasure sharing the ring with him. He made me fight every second."
Azeez was left to reflect on the disappointment of defeat, but was pleased to put on a show for a packed arena.
"I guess he was just the better man tonight," he told Sky Sports.
"He came and performed. He is a great athlete in and out of the ring and I respect him a lot.
"He has helped me in the past and it was just business today. I was glad we put on a decent show for the fans."
Sky Sports expert George Groves agreed the fight lived up to expectations.
"It was a brilliant fight," he said. "The momentum shifts - one way, then the other. I thought Buatsi was going to detonate and then Azeez came back.
"The canvas was a bit slippy and poor Azeez slipped up.
"Buatsi is elite. We have been waiting for him to step up to the very top and win a world title. But Azeez showed that he belongs at this level."