Buatsi measured in wide UD win vs. Stepien, but leaves you wanting more

Light-heavyweight world contender Joshua Buatsi ended a 50-week layoff as he cruised to a decision victory over ten rounds against Poland’s Pawel Stepien, ending the 32-year-old’s unbeaten streak in Birmingham overnight. Given the fanfare surrounding his exclusive BOXXER deal, many were left short-changed.

Buatsi’s back, as he beats third unbeaten opponent

Buatsi with team members and promoter Ben Shalom (far right) after a UD10 victory

98-92, 97-94, 100-90: Joshua Buatsi bt. Pawel Stepien via UD, moves to 17-0

  • European champion Dan Azeez says Buatsi was clearly ‘boxing to orders and executing a gameplan’, maybe trying things out on his return while Lawrence Okolie felt it was a good performance given the circumstances
  • Cruiserweight world contender Richard Riakporhe: “Sometimes it’s frustrating because he switches off during the round, I’ve been there before… ring rust is a real thing, he’ll ease into it,” as critics persist
  • “I wish I knocked him out, haven’t boxed for a year… nice to get the rounds in. There was ring rust but that wasn’t in my mind, credit to him – did well, good fighter – a bit awkward, skillful, not sure what it looked like on the outside. 5 out of 10, average but if I lost… the whole dynamic would be different,” Buatsi reflects in the Sky analysis booth afterwards

Glorified spar. One-paced. Underwhelming. Another main event borefest.

Those are just some of the words which quickly filtered out on social media to describe Joshua Buatsi’s anticlimactic BOXXER debut in Birmingham.

After all, he was headlining a card against an unbeaten but relatively unknown contender who frequently used his ringcraft to avoid danger whenever the threat heightened beyond control. People expected another highlight reel finish.

What came instead, over 30 minutes, resembled a high-level boxer inevitably showing ring rust and equally boxing to a gameplan with head trainer Virgil Hunter urging patient attacks and was heard telling him ‘we’ll go for it in the tenth.’

That’s the key difference between him and fellow new Sky signing WBO cruiserweight champion Lawrence Okolie, who found himself in a similar situation after a long layoff on March 25, easing past David Light in a world title defence.

Okolie absorbed the criticism and thrust himself into another defence just nine weeks on, when he defends his belt against friend and former stablemate Chris Billam-Smith in enemy territory on May 27 at Bournemouth’s Vitality Stadium.

Buatsi doesn’t have the same luxury as his agemate, and while establishing more activity is important at this career juncture, so is choosing the right challenges.

Unified light-welterweight world champion Natasha Jonas said Buatsi definitely could’ve picked an easier fight to come back to, as the first bell rang.

Yet by the end, both her and fellow boxer-turned-commentator Matthew Macklin were puzzled by what they had been watching. Buatsi winning every round but they felt he was boxing within himself, lacking the spite to produce a real statement.

These situations against unheralded competition when you’re the attraction are a catch-22. Try too hard for a memorable moment and you’ll end up with a Daniel Dubois-shaped dilemma, after a frantic first-round vs. Kevin Lerena last December.

Offer too little and people – fans, media, general onlookers – become guilty of overanalysing little things in an attempt to diagnose what’s wrong with you. Buatsi has regressed under Hunter, maybe he’s just not good enough, and all the trimmings.

The truth lies somewhere in-between.

He still has an uncomfortable tendency to let opponents tee off on him, both at short and mid-range, because he’s confident they don’t have the punch power to hurt him.

Buatsi gave Stepien scope to land his attacks well enough, but was firmly second best

That’s a habit which doesn’t age well at world level. Seizing the opportunity when you’ve stung opposition too, is something he’s failed to do in consecutive fights.

There were several moments against Craig Richards where he could’ve intensified his attacks, cornered him and got the finish through attrition or picking his power punches but instead, took a break and gave Spider increased confidence.

What I said, this time last year

Whether spiteful uppercuts, crispy counters, looping hooks or short, sharp shots Richards didn’t see coming, Buatsi asserted his authority to bank the early rounds.

Some online were unimpressed: if he’s going to challenge the best, he can’t afford to coast or take breaks in rounds. Buatsi’s fight week admission to DAZN’s Chris Mannix that he’s not where he wants to be yet, as far as mastering defensive nous, was telling and showed in parts here.

He didn’t get the exclamation mark this display deserved late on, but the pre-fight graphic showing their total rounds boxed (111-65 Richards) emphasised the value of logging rounds, rather than thirsting for KO finishes. They will only serve to benefit him when navigating deep waters in world championship fights.

He got off to a solid start, jabbing well and targeting the Pole’s body as their tempo steadily increased and both looked to land more ferocious punches later.

Buatsi’s jab continued to snap the 32-year-old’s head back, before they landed combination punches up against the ropes. Stepien landed a sneaky left hand, and continued to connect as he walked forward intently in the third.

Body punching was key in rounds three and four for the Olympic bronze medallist, who started chaining his punches better while flickering the tempo of his attacks.

If you couldn’t tell who had more force on their strikes, you could now by their contrasting reactions when hit. Even still, the visitor was clever to evade often.

Stepien grew in confidence and opened up more in the fifth, leaving him susceptible to more counter power punching whenever he threw up close. He caught one clean in the pocket and did well to stay upright, as both experienced periods of success.

A stiff left hand pushed Stepien back momentarily in the sixth, but he regrouped quickly and refused to relinquish centre ring.

Good lateral movement saw Stepien circle around the ring in round seven, as Buatsi tried to bait him into overextending against the ropes but without sustained success.

R8 began sluggishly, as Stepien landed a six-punch flurry and threw plenty more – often blocked by the favourite – whose body work returned.

By the ninth, his adversary was feeling it downstairs as Buatsi unloaded an unanswered punch combination and walked forward intently. The commentators were unhappy he lacked urgency, but it was a measured albeit unsexy display.

As he said himself, it would’ve been a completely different story had he overlooked this challenge and lost. Buatsi will stay in the UK for a fortnight before returning to train in the US and stressed a desire to secure a big fight next. We’ll wait and see.

Picture source: Lawrence Lustig / BOXXER