Glass talks to British Ghanaian boxing sensation Joshua Buatsi


This, that and all of the in-between – Glass talks to British Ghanaian boxing sensation Joshua Buatsi about his reputation in and out of the ring, his early years in Accra, and how Croydon is the capital of London

“People think this and that, ‘He goes to church, he’s got a degree …’ and they might try to get away with more than they should. Yeah, I go to church but I’m from Croydon, I’m a young black boy from South London, I’ve been through things, I’ve done certain things. I’m here trying to get better, but don’t think that just because I’m polite you can take the mick out of me.”

All things considered, it’s a little bizarre that 27-year-old Joshua Buatsi should have to remind people that he’s not a soft touch. He’s an Olympic bronze medallist and the reigning British light heavyweight Champion with a record of 12 wins from 12 professional bouts, with 10 of those wins coming by way of knockout. And yet his reputation is one of charity and modesty. Disastrous. Luckily there’s a third noun that follows him around like an evil twin, and goes some way to salvaging his professional reputation: “spite”. The word is never far from commentators’ lips while calling a Buatsi fight, and it’s about as good a compliment as you can give a boxer. Every punch is barbed and nothing is wasted; he’s measured, clean but never not dangerous.

He speech is similar. There are no “umm”s, “err”s, or “you know”s, and over the course of our 45-minute interview you can count the “like”s on one hand. “When I fight it’s always a good opportunity for me to say, ‘Yes, I believe in God. Yes I believe he’s blessed me with the talent he’s given me, but listen, there is a spitefulness to what I do in the ring’. Outside the ring I’m cool, I’m calm, [I’ve] no issues with anyone – very laidback. But when you’re in there it’s a reminder to people, I’m trying to live a better life so don’t think Buatsi’s always a cool guy, nah.” Eventually his face crumples and he grins, not a spiteful grin but a submission to default, to a face that’s involuntarily kind.

Joshua Buatsi. Pic Jamie McPhilimey. 08.03.19.Joshua Buatsi. Photograph: Jamie McPhilimey

Buatsi came to England in 2002, nine years after he was born in Accra, Ghana, and upon landing was greeted with snow and cold, two things he’d never experienced. He represented Great Britain in the Rio Olympics three years ago, but dons both the Union Jack and the Black star of Ghana on his trunks as a professional. He’s very much an example of the nuances of modern dual-nationality. “I’m going to Ghana in December to see my mum. She moved back there when I was 18 to care for my nan before she passed, and she just ended up staying there. [But] she taught me a lot before she left – how to look after yourself, how to cook, do your washing.”

When Buatsi talks about his family and Accra you can’t help but feel that while Team GB provided the platform for him refine his skills, his heritage instilled in him certain things that can’t be taught. Since Accra’s hall-of-famer Azumah “The Professor” Nelson made history in 1984 by winning the world featherweight championship, the Ghanaian capital has produced a world champion in every decade. Except for the current one.

“There’s an area [in Accra] called Bukom,” Buatsi sets off in storyteller mode, “supposedly it’s the size of four football pitches, a small village, and they’ve had loads of world champions. All the world champions from Ghana are from Bukom. It’s mad how an area that small has produced world champions.” He stretches out the final two words, making Bukom seem smaller still. “I don’t know what it is. When I was there a few years ago I saw how young kids are when they get into it … how when they fight the whole community comes together. In Ghana, you buy water in plastic bags for, like, 5p. When I went to Bukom, I realised that people would drink the water then chew the plastic and use it as a gum shield. They put a bowl out for change and share it out at the end of the show. They start them young there. It’s crazy – a hard way of living. But when you have nothing, you’re hungry.”

Buatsi wouldn’t start boxing himself until he was 15 – practically an old fogey compared to the eight-year-old boxers of Bukom – when a friend dropped off some gear at his Croydon estate during the summer holidays. In his own words, he was immediately “consumed” by the sport, and set about polishing his already established proficiency for self-defence.

With his different clothes, a different accent and life experience, kids at school made the mistake of taking the mick out of Buatsi. He remembers well how the perception of young African men in England was different in the 2000s, when it was often one thing to be black and another entirely to be African. Recent cultural shifts may have brought about some changes in social attitudes, but the environment of his adolescence remains fresh in his mind.

“Big time [I remember it]. Big, big time. The Caribbean kids were, like, the cool kids, because Bashment was massive at the time, and a lot of the artists we listened to were from that part of the world. Afrobeats wasn’t really a thing back then. Nowadays every artist wants to have an Afrobeats song out … maybe that’s helped [the general perception].” UK artists J Hus and MoStack (among others) have drawn so many eyes and ears to Afroswing over the past five years that mainstream superstars have been queuing up to get in on a sound that has managed to chart, while also having a significant social impact.

Joshua Buatsi. Pic Jamie McPhilimey.     08.03.19.Joshua Buatsi. Photograph: Jamie McPhilimey

Drake and Ed Sheeran have notably dabbled – to varying degrees of success. More recently Nigerian Afrobeats artist Burna Boy has appeared on countless 2019 summer hits, and just sold out Wembley Arena off the back of his latest album, African Giant. In schools, the same kids that may well have bullied their African class mates in the noughties for the food they eat and the way they talk are now Googling what Jollof Rice is and how they can get hold of it.

“In my youth, and this is making me feel old now … when I first came to England I was bullied for my African accent. Fast-forward to today and the amount of artists that use an African accent is mad. If Burna Boy starts talking are you really going to laugh at him? No, you’ll just say ‘OK that’s Burna Boy that’s how he talks’. And we went through hell for that when we were kids, man … But I’ve always been proud. I came here when I was nine, I lived in Ghana for nine years, so I knew that was where I was from, whether I liked it or not. I know who my people are.”

Just as music has accelerated the UK’s gradual progress in regards to racial equality and appreciation, sport and the arts are helping improve the reputation of Buatsi’s adopted home: Croydon. This summer alone Stormzy headlined Glastonbury in a custom vest designed by arguably Britain’s best-known street artist, Banksy; while Aaron Wan-Bissaka became the most expensive right-back in world football history when he moved to Manchester United from south London club, Crystal Palace. Both are Croydon-born and bred.

Joshua Buatsi. Photograph: Jamie McPhilimeyJoshua Buatsi. Photograph: Jamie McPhilimey

Even Mary Poppins is technically a Croydonite in 2019, with south Londoner Emily Blunt splitting her time between Hollywood and her CR0 postcode apartment (though she’s omitted from Buatsi’s list of Croydon contemporaries, sorry Emily.)

“Wan-Bissaka, Stormzy, [musician] Dave are from Streatham which is just down the road, [footballer] Wilf Zaha … there’s a lot of us who are doing well. I spoke to a mate of mine who just came over from Russia. When we first met I said I was from Croydon, and he goes: ‘Croydon?!’ He’s only ever heard bad things.” He tilts his head. “There are some bad things but it’s improving. For me Croydon is the capital of London, the biggest borough in London.” I wait for him to laugh, obviously biased as a life-long north Londoner, but he’s stony faced. “I’d really like to fly that flag to show that good, successful people can come from an area like Croydon.” The more he talks, the more plausible the idea of Croydon being ‘the capital’s capital’ becomes. “I don’t even want to say ‘an area like Croydon’ because every area has good and bad, but with Croydon the bad gets highlighted so much more. Big things are happening here, it’s on the rise.”

This time last year Buatsi was setting up Nike Training Camp Croydon, a free, 16-week course teaching local youth about physiology, nutrition, coaching and business, with the goal of becoming a qualified personal trainer. To mark the programme’s inception and celebrate his charitable contributions and sporting achievements, Nike presented a three-storey mural of Buatsi opposite the South Norwood amateur boxing club where he cut his teeth as a teen. It was painted over earlier this year. Buatsi also works as an ambassador for the Powerday Foundation, which funds sports development opportunities and bursaries for young Londoners, specifically those from the capital’s hardest-to-reach areas and estates.

Sensing he’d be too embarrassed to talk too much about his community work I decide not to pry into this aspect of his life. Instead I ask what he’s been most proud of over the course of his career, in the hope that he’ll stumble onto some of his charitable stuff of his own accord. His answer was strangely revealing.

Joshua Buatsi. Photograph: Jamie McPhilimeyJoshua Buatsi. Photograph: Jamie McPhilimey

“The thing I’m most proud of … I don’t know if I’m allowed to say it, it sounds a bit dodgy …” His management team turn slightly pale at this point and look across the table at one another. I’m puzzled. Buatsi exhales, “Sorting out holidays for my mum and my sister.” Now I’m even more confused. “Because people are [going] to be like, ‘ah, he’s just trying to win Brownie points …’ Ha. So yeah, that kind of thing is good, and obviously winning the Olympic medal.” I can get where he’s coming from, sort of. In fact, I wouldn’t be overly surprised if Buatsi had secretly painted over the South Norwood mural himself in the middle of the night.

“People take kindness for a weakness, 100 per cent,” he protests. We’re laughing at the idea that buying plane tickets for your mum and sister could ever be “dodgy”, but on some level I feel badly that I’ve rumbled Buatsi. As much as he doesn’t want to publicise his charity and modesty – outside the ring at least, he doesn’t have a spiteful bone in his body. He’s also a black British athlete operating in a world where the likes of Raheem Sterling have been relentlessly lampooned for having the temerity to buy nice things for their family, so who can blame him for wanting to keep such things private.

Buatsi had been due to fight in early November in a world title eliminator against Australian veteran Blake Caparello, with the Brit the heavy favourite. However, Buatsi was plagued by illness throughout his training camp and was forced to pull out late on. It would have been his third fight at world level, and would have taken him to the cusp of a world title bout, mere months after officially becoming British light heavyweight king in March 2019, at the legendary Copper Box arena in Hackney, east London. It was a typically ominous performance that night, with Buatsi showcasing that rare air of assurance, instilling a feeling in those watching that a knock out was inevitable from the first bell.

He’s one of those boxers that lets out a hiss through his gum-shield every time he throws a punch, giving the illusion that his shots are literally whistling through the air. At the end of the first round his opponent, Liam Conroy, gives Buatsi a little shove against the ropes, after the bell – you might say he was taking the mick. At this moment that ominous feeling of an inevitable KO goes into overdrive. In the second round he starts to let his hands go, catching Conroy before he takes in one return himself, and proceeds to beat his fists against his chest and shake his head: “let’s go”. The following round Buatsi puts Conroy down with a left hook to the body. It’s a precise, spiteful shot. He gets up at the eight count, but is knocked down again by a short right-hand moments later. Conroy gets to his knees, looks to his corner and staggers to his feet before the referee decides he’s seen enough and calls a stop to the contest.

It’s a frighteningly business-like demolition job. When he’s awarded the British Light Heavyweight belt he quickly passes it on to another man that’s just climbed into the ring. “That’s my dad. He brought me here when I was a child – he brought me to the land of opportunity and I’m humbled to win this belt.”

That chapter of his career was very much over, until, recently, when Conroy posted online about what happened next, “Just want to put out a thank you to this man here. I challenged Joshua Buatsi for the British Title this year. He saw my post about needing to get sponsorship to help me pay for my medicals, and he was the first person to reply. He offered to cover the fees, enabling me to get back into boxing. He never asked for anything in return. This is a great act of kindness from someone who was in the opposite corner to me not too long ago.” Alongside the caption is a photo of the pair post-fight, arm in arm.

Don’t bother trying to find a news story reporting on this, as like the South Norwood mural there’s no trace of it, not online or in the papers. There was no coordinated publicity grab, no self-aggrandising social media response and, hopefully, no further suspicion that Buatsi’s a soft touch. Don’t try and take the mick, and don’t ever think Buatsi’s always a cool guy. Charitable, modest, but when it counts, brilliantly spiteful.

by Charlie Navin-Holder