The light-heavyweight stopped the Latvian to enhance his credentials as a future world champion
The long road to a world title shrunk for Joshua Buatsi late on Saturday night when he knocked out Ricards Bolotniks in the final seconds of round eleven.
It was the win Buatsi needed against the type of man – rugged, ranked and determined – that has so far been missing in a career he launched at the Rio Olympics in the summer of 2016. Buatsi is now fifteen and zero, with thirteen finishing early, but this win was the only one that matters.
Back in Rio, Buatsi beat two seeded boxers and won a bronze at light-heavyweight to also secure the crucial third medal to keep the funding for the boxing intact; Buatsi turned professional the following July, beat the usual suspects, picked up the British title and then, admittedly with Covid as a backdrop, seemed to drift slightly and lost a bit of momentum.
When Bolotniks went down heavily for the full count in round eleven, it looked like a serious statement of intent to both his domestic rivals and the three men holding versions of the world title at light-heavyweight. The fight was billed as an eliminator for the WBA title, but that organisation has confusing rules and regulations on what exactly an ‘eliminator’ means. The truth is simple: If Eddie Hearn can find the money to get the WBA champion, Dmitry Bivol, back to London for a sell-out at the O2, then a title fight for Buatsi will happen.
In May, Bivol narrowly retained his WBA title over twelve rounds against Craig Richards, the British champion, and a fight between Richards and Buatsi, assuming the price is right, would also be a big attraction at the same venue down by the Thames. Richards, correctly in many ways, wants another crack at Bivol and would have no fear in facing Buatsi. In the Bivol fight, one judge made Richards lose by one round, another by two – that’s a close fight at any level.
However, it is not even certain that Buatsi or Richards is the best light-heavyweight in Britain right now; Lyndon Arthur, Anthony Yarde and Callum Johnson all combine to make it arguably the best division in British boxing. Sadly, promotional allegiances will stop some good fights from happening at the weight.
On Saturday night, under a trembling sky of light clouds set against a backdrop of a fading, deep-red sunset in a sloping Essex field, Buatsi went about his work in style; Bolotniks had gained a decent lump of weight from the Friday weigh-in, but bulk would never be enough against the new-look Buatsi.
It was the second fight with Virgil Hunter in his corner and the calm and smart influence of the American’s sound boxing wisdom was obvious; Buatsi is starting to move and think like a real fighter, smooth, quick to react and clever in hard moments. Bolotniks was in every round, even if he lost every round, but his face was changing shape and his desire was being slowly beaten out of him.
In round six he was dropped heavily by a left hook and Buatsi tried too hard to finish it, which might just be the only criticism of his performance. He took a round off to recover, but still won it. It showed an understanding of how hard fights unfold and Hunter is a huge advocate of taking rounds off, assessing the situation and going again. It is simple, quality fight management, an element so often lacking in even the most promising fighters. And their trainers.
At the end of round ten, Ben Whittaker, part of the GB boxing system that Buatsi helped fund, turned to me during our stint commentating for BBC Five Live and said: “His corner should stop this – then he could live to fight another day.” Ben was right, the corner missed a chance at mercy and instead a bloodied and weary, but defiant Bolotniks, stumbled out to get knocked out. At the very end, Buatsi congratulated Whittaker, his old sparring partner, on his stunning silver medal from Tokyo. Buatsi is a decent guy, a real candidate to become a cross-over star. Whittaker, meanwhile, will probably turn professional soon, but he also has his mind set on becoming the mayor of Wolverhampton. By the way, I’m not sure he’s joking.
The final right sent Bolotniks down heavily in his own corner, he rolled from the bottom rope to the canvas and that was how it finished. Buatsi dropped to his knees and controlled his celebrations until Bolotniks was up, patched-up and attempting a smile. Buatsi then took the microphone to lead a round of applause for the Latvian – the crowd liked that, he deserved it.
“I’m getting there, I’m getting there,” Buatsi said and he certainly is. In the outdoor ring, pitched in the shadow of Hearn’s childhood home, Buatsi gave a nasty taster of just what he is capable of. He might take to a pulpit on a Sunday at a church near his home in South London, he might be respectful, decent and honest, but under the lights he changes. He was mean in Rio and none of that nastiness has gone. I like that, I like that a lot.