Nestled beside the train tracks near Selhurst station in South London, about 500 yards from the home of Crystal Palace Football Club is the South Norwood and Victory Amateur Boxing Club. This one small gym was the starting point for two of Britain’s best light-heavyweights. They clash on Saturday night at the O2 Arena in London.
Joshua Buatsi made his name at South Norwood and Victory ABC before going on to the Great Britain squad and going to the Rio Olympics, where he won a bronze medal. By the time he joined the club, though, Craig Richards had already moved on to the famous Lynn club.
So, there are no old stories of fierce sparring sessions, or gym rivalry. They met once in the South-East London ABA Championships at a small working men’s club, but Buatsi, who was already being targeted for international honours, says he does not even remember it.
“He was the GB boy at the time and I was coming through,” Richards said. “I was at South Norwood when I was a junior for a year and a bit. I never really took boxing that seriously and so I left. He then started boxing, just as I left. He pressed on and continued with his amateur career. I then came back to boxing at 21.
“When we boxed it was my first three-threes. I was 10 novice fights in, went elite and drew the GB No 1, who happened to be Buatsi. I learnt from that. It’s a completely different ball game now. The playground is gone, we’ve got 12 rounds now.
“What he has achieved doesn’t motivate me. My journey has just given me experience in and out of the ring, toughened me up. I’ve caused upsets multiple times and I’ve ground out my way to here. So, it put me in good stead for nights like this.
““There’s respect between us. We’ve crossed paths multiple times in the gym, we see each other at shows. But now we’re here and we both understand each other’s abilities.”
This bout was first suggested when Richard was British champion, although the suggestion was that Buatsi was already beyond that level. Richards’s victory over Shakan Pitters to claim the title was seen in many circles as a shock. But Richards’s standing went up considerably when he was handpicked as a challenger for Dmitry Bivol’s WBA title last May and ran him quite close.
The result is in a different stratosphere now after Bivol’s defeat of Canelo Alvarez. Indeed, when this fight was announced, there was talk of the winner facing Canelo later this year – now Bivol is again the target.
“I came up short on the scorecards and that was with me not even going through all the gears,” Richards said. “It showed I belong at that level. I’ve improved a lot since then. If I was at that level, then a year later I should be able to collect these straps now. It’s scary how good I could be in the future.
“I didn’t come this far just to come this far. I want a crack at it again to become world champion. That’s always been the aspiration. I’ve picked up the other straps along the way, but I didn’t come into this game to become just the International or British champion, I came into the game to be a world champion. That’s why I work so hard every day, to become world champion.”
Buatsi has come a long way too and now trains near San Francisco Bay under the guidance of Virgil Hunter. And for Buatsi there is no talking about plans for the future while he has Richards standing in his way.
“People are waiting to get title shots,” Buatsi said. “It’s good, I’ve taken up the challenge, Spider has taken up the challenge and the public are in for a good fight.
“We both have good rankings and could have waited or have taken different routes, but this is how it’s going to be.
“This is like two London teams playing each other and you’re going to get a great run for your money.”
But while Buatsi is the bookies’ favourite and the bigger name, he says he does not let any pressure get to him.
“My reputation’s on the line. It’s an important fight,” he said. “But the pressure I put on myself surpasses what outsiders put on me.
“Whatever you want to do, I always say there’s always a price to pay to achieve something. It’s been a very, very demanding camp but that’s the price to pay. My preparation has been as good as it can be and that’s the most important thing.”
Ron Lewis is a senior writer for BoxingScene. He was Boxing Correspondent for The Times, where he worked from 2001-2019 - covering four Olympic Games and numerous world title fights across the globe. He has written about boxing for a wide variety of publications worldwide since the 1980s.