Joshua Buatsi overcame a sternest challenge of his career, as he battled to a unanimous points decision over Craig Richards in a hugely competitive 12-rounder at the O2 Arena, London, to move closer to a world title shot.
The contest was also sanctioned as a WBA eliminator.
It was a wonderful contest, both showing huge skill on defence as well as offence, as well as grit and stamina as they overcame difficult moments.
About 18 months ago, when this fight was talked about, it was slightly dismissed by promoter Eddie Hearn, who had hopes that Buatsi – a 2016 Olympic bronze medal-winner – was already beyond this level. Then Richards put in a stellar performance in an unsuccessful challenge for Dmitry Bivol’s WBA light-heavyweight title, then Buatsi’s options dried up as the division’s world champions took other options.
That Bivol has beaten Saul “Canelo” Alvarez since this fight was made, suddenly upgraded Richards’s effort against the Russian as top rate.
But Buatsi was still heavily favoured and he took the fight to Richards in the first half of the fight, but after failing to get rid of him, Buatsi seemed to tire in the second half.
There was little feeling out early on, as Buatsi came right after Richards, who tried to meet him with a straight right. But the taller Richards was having some success, as Buatsi looked for a way in low or tried to loop over a big right.
But Buatsi finished the round well, landing a left-right that sent Richards swaying back into the ropes and then another clubbing right as Richards tried to duck out of trouble on the ropes.
Buatsi threw a huge right that grazed Richards’s jaw to start the second round and then a solid jab. As Buatsi stood back, though, Richards landed an uppercut, but Buatsi fired right back, working away with hooks up close as Richards tried to hold.
In the third round, Buatsi switched his attack to the body and was having success, although he was caught by a left hook and then by Richards’s right at the end of the round.
Midway through the fourth round, Buatsi turned a left jab into a hook that had Richards trying to hold on as Buatsi fired away, but while Richards landed another good left hook, Buatsi opened up at the end of the round, dragging Richards into a shoot-out as Buatsi got through with three hard right hooks.
Buatsi started the fifth well, too, landing two rights as he drove Richards back across the ring. Then Buatsi trapped him on the ropes and opened up, landing some hard looping shots before Richards managed to find his way to safety and Buatsi backed off.
At the start of the sixth round, Buatsi landed three hard rights hooks and an uppercut, but he could not sustain the attack and Richards landed a decent combination as he gained some confidence.
The seventh round was slower, as both stuck behind the jab, but Buatsi’s work looked the more solid.
Richards began the eighth round well, but Buatsi opened up to head and body, forcing Richards to cover up. But as Richards had success jabbing in the move, the action stirred into a dramatic end to the round.
Suddenly Richards landed a right uppercut that had Buatsi tottering forward looking to hold on. But while Buatsi’s legs seemed unsteady. He came back firing landing a big right. Richard hit back with a right and a left and as they both went for it, Buatsi landed a huge right that wobbled Richards.
The ninth was quieter, but Richards was the busier. But Buatsi stepped things up again in the tenth, as he had Richards in trouble with a sharp onslaught, only to be stopped in his tracks after his gumshield fell out.
The pace was slow again in the eleventh, but both were looking for big shots. Buatsi seemed to hurt Richards with a right, but then Richards landed back with a good chopping hook.
The final round was an attritional one, but Buatsi dominated it, outworking his opponent as Richards looked for a huge punch to turn things around.
All three judges went for Buatsi, Jan Christiansen by 116-112, Bob Williams and Gustavo Padilla by 115-113, extending Buatsi’s unbeaten record to 16 fights.
“I thought I done enough, I finished strong but credit to Josh, he’s a hell of a fighter,” Richards said.
But Buatsi looked a good winner, even if Richard had proved tougher than he expected.
“He gave me 12 hard rounds, maximum respect to him,” Buatsi said. “We want the world title next. We’ve made it very clear.”
But the situation with a world title is no further forward, with Artur Beterviev due to face Joe Smith Jr for the WBC, WBO and IBF titles next month and Anthony Yarde on deck for the winner.
Hearn suggested Bivol, but that will depend on whether Alvarez wants a rematch, while if the Ukraine war is not over, Bivol could struggle to compete in the UK.
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.