Dan Azeez believed he’d “let people down” when in February he lost to Joshua Buatsi.

The 34-year-old in February recorded his first defeat as a professional over 12 competitive rounds, and while having to absorb the disappointment that followed, he also watched while the expectation grew that Buatsi would be rewarded with a high-profile fight against Anthony Yarde.

Azeez returns on Saturday, against Croatia’s Hrvoje Sep, 38, at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park, where Buatsi-Yarde had previously been on course to be staged. Yarde’s contractual wrangle with his long-term promoter Frank Warren has contributed to Chris Billam-Smith-Richard Riakporhe instead being the main event, and Azeez returning to fight in not only his home territory of south London but that of Buatsi, whose victory over him is forcing him to rebuild.

“It did hurt,” he reflected on that defeat, “because I don’t feel I let myself down, but I feel like I let others down at the time. After having time off and speaking to numerous people… I know a lot of people are underdogs in life and I wanted to do it for them, and show that, ‘It doesn’t matter if the odds are stacked against you you can do it’, and I fell into the trap of, ‘I’m the underdog’, and it showed on the night the reason why I was the underdog. 

“I always root for the underdog – all the time – and I just felt like I let the underdogs down. But speaking to loads of people, ‘No, you didn’t let us down – you just inspired us more’, and so forth. 

“When I first turned pro, I remember going up to Team GB [in Sheffield], where the elite amateur boxers train, and I was sparring. Funnily enough I sparred Ben Whittaker that day. I remember ‘AJ’ [Anthony Joshua] was there as well, and he was going through everyone at that time – it was early in his career. I was just looking at him, ‘Everything’s so easy for him’, and I remember him saying to me, ‘The higher you go, the harder it gets;. In my head I was thinking to myself, ‘What’s he on about? He’s blasting through everyone; look at him’. But it’s true, the higher the level you go, the harder it becomes. I was undefeated so I was in cruise. ‘I’ll keep doing what I’m doing’. But there’s another level and you have to search for that, and that becomes difficult when you can’t find it. ‘Let’s find that level I’ve got to get to.’ Every step I’ve taken; every belt I’ve had, I’ve always been like that. Now I’m at world level and I’ve gotta really search and take the gear up.”

After the defeat by Buatsi, Azeez, unusually in the context of the modern era, attended the post-fight press conference as the loser and sat alongside his friend-come-rival.

“You’ve gotta be gracious in defeat; humble in victory,” he responded when asked how painful that felt. “So the way I was happy when I was winning and it was going my way, I have to be humble. I always go back to character – I have to be a man. I lost to the better man on the night – how can I throw my toys out of the pram? No. You sit there. You face your opponent who beat you man to man; you congratulate him. I just thought, ‘I’ll go back to the drawing board; I’ll be back’. You’ve got people who watch you and look up to you – you’re a role model for people. What’s that – not going to the press conference? It wasn’t difficult. It was just one of the things you’ve got to do. 

“I haven’t been told anything [about what's next], because I categorically always tell Ben [Shalom, my promoter], my managers, ‘Don’t tell me about what’s next’. This guy is who I’ve got in front of me. He’s a tough opponent as well, so I don’t want to know. If I don’t get over the hurdle, who cares what’s next? Let’s focus on this fight.

“I got so much positive feedback after, and that really shocked me. I thought, ‘Yeah, it’s over – Dan, go back on to the small halls and work your way up’, but I’m back on. Sky [Sports] wanted me on; I’ve been really humbled. I didn’t beg to be on the show. I didn’t think I deserved to be – I lost. But they were like, ‘No, we want to have you back on’. I felt real humbled. When you’re coming up in this sport you don’t know how hard it is. You dream of opportunities to be on these big shows, and I’m literally living the dream, so I can’t complain.”