British-Ghanaian boxer Joshua Buatsi is an anomaly in the world of boxing.
“They speak about me outside the ring in terms of ‘he’s a nice guy, he’s polite,’” he told Al Jazeera in an interview for the latest episode of Generation Sport.
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“It’s just when I get in the ring, it’s no time to be nice, my coach always says to me, ‘nice guys finish last.’”
The 30-year-old WBA international light-heavyweight champion is currently unbeaten after 17 fights and faces his next battle against Dan Azeez on October 21. But his character outside the ring holds much less of the bravado that has come to be expected from the sport of boxing.
Alongside his boxing career, he has also set up the Joshua Buatsi Foundation, which primarily functions in Ghana, focusing on developing safe spaces for boxers to train, as well as working with underprivileged children and orphans who require care.
“I understand that they’ve got the vim and the energy and the passion and they want to work hard and fight hard,” he said. “But I say to them … we’re training, wear a gumshield, wear a headguard, if you’re sparring each other, wear bigger gloves, don’t wear tiny gloves and kill each other.”
He's not just a champion in the ring but is also making a difference in helping the communities that raised him.
— Generation Change (@AJEGenChange) October 9, 2023
He has also quietly given financial support to a fellow fighter after defeating him in a fight, to make sure that he could continue his professional boxing career.
In the world of boxing and promoting, there can be pressure to assume an aggressive persona that will draw in fans and spectators, but Buatsi is resistant to that.
“I’ve always said that this sport won’t ever change me in that way,” he said. “I’ve got other pressures and that’s not one of them”.
The pressures he does feel are on a more existential level.
“So, you did well in your career,” he said, “what did you do with it? Were you the only beneficiary of it? Am I just going to say to you, ‘I’ve got 10 cars at my house’? That’s not success, that’s nothing to talk about, because I do think that at the end of it all, I will be asked, what did I do with what I had?”
Like many boxers before him, Buatsi is a man of faith. A practising Christian, he frequently references how his faith and relationship with God have guided him through his life, and how the two intersect.
“I believe we have to help people,” he told Al Jazeera. “And I can’t be the only person benefiting from all the good that happens to me.”
He admits that boxing has opened doors for him to change his life.
“It brings you before people that are influential, it gives you opportunities, you’re recognised for what you do and people want to be with you, work with you and help you,” he said, reflecting on the risks and rewards that come from stepping into the ring.
“The conclusion here is, just ask God to protect you and always be thankful that you come out safely because there’s only one punch, we’re only one second away from disaster.”
‘I’m more careful in the US’
Buatsi first started boxing when he was a teenager growing up in the London borough of Croydon which has in recent years become synonymous with high levels of youth violence, but has also produced a lot of talent in the world of sport and music.
“At that age, you have no responsibilities, you have a lot of time at hand,” he said.
Instead of finding himself in trouble, his time was filled with the gym, training, and competing in fights and competitions.
“It took away the spare time that I had, it gave me the discipline that I needed, the structure that I needed.”
While he has already achieved a lot in his career as a boxer, Buatsi is vocal about the importance of education to him, and why it was important for him to finish his degree in business management and sport science before properly embarking on a career as a boxer.
“For me, uni was really to prove to my parents that I can do well in boxing and education, and to show other people that boxers are not dumb and to let these boxers know that being educated is important because when you get to the professional stage now, that’s when it’s a real business and that’s when you have to be smart.”
In 2020, Buatsi took the knee before fighting, a gesture that athletes across a range of sports did in order to show solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and to pay respects in particular to the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police in the United States.
However, he feels like these gestures were largely ignored.
“It made no impact, zero impact,” he says. “I felt like I was gonna do it anyway, just to pay respect and bring attention to an incident like that. But did it make an impact? No, it didn’t.”
The story of George Floyd and and other black men and women who have died at the hands of the police in the US has been something that Buatsi has felt touch his life as he has spent a lot of time at training camps on the West Coast of the US.
“How I live in the States is different to how I live in England”, he said.
“When I look at some of the stuff that you see happening in America online, when I’m in the States I’m like okay, I’ve got to be a bit more careful, I don’t want to end up in a situation and become a video for some incident that happened on the internet.”
Generation Sport with Joshua Buatsi, presented by Iman Amrani, was first broadcast by Al Jazeera English on October 8, 2023.