Marvelous inspiration: Why Dan Azeez models his game after Marvin Hagler

Dan Azeez, above, faces Joshua Buatsi for a chance to get a title shot a light heavyweight. John Walton/PA Images via Getty Images

Dan Azeez hopes his breakthrough moment will come at the same London venue where his hero, Marvin Hagler, first became world champion.

Azeez not only models himself on Hagler in the way he looks in the ring, but also draws inspiration from the boxing legend's arduous journey to a world title shot ahead of his own clash against light heavyweight contender Joshua Buatsi at Wembley Arena Saturday night in London, England (Peacock, 2 p.m. ET).

Azeez sees similarities in his early career to that of Hagler's, the middleweight world champion in the 1980s from Brockton, Massachusetts, and even wears socks and shorts similar to the ones Hagler wore.

Hagler, who died in 2021, fought the likes of Thomas Hearns, Roberto Duran and "Sugar" Ray Leonard in a brilliant reign of 12 title defenses, but it took him six years to earn a title shot and then another year until he finally became champion when he beat Alan Minter at Wembley Arena in 1980.

Azeez, who believes he had a harder route than Buatsi to get to the top, like Hagler had to go through in the 1970s, will pay off.

"I like Marvin Hagler's story, I can relate to it, he came up the hard way like I have had to," Azeez told ESPN. "Hagler had to have a lot of fights [49] before he got a world title fight, he wasn't a big amateur and never fought at an Olympics. He had to graft to get where he wanted to be."

Azeez had to do it the hard way, too, and won every belt from Southern Area, to English title to British title to Commonwealth and European titles.

"I've had to work my way up -- nothing has been given to me, I've always had to prove myself," Azeez said. "I've got the drive, the passion, and have grafted to get where I am.

Both Azeez (20-0, 13 KOs), 34, and Buatsi (17-0, 13 KOs), 30, are from the same corner of south London, but their careers have been very different ahead of their title eliminator bout to earn a shot at WBA world champion Dmitry Bivol.

While Buatsi had a distinguished amateur career, winning an Olympic bronze medal in 2016, and has enjoyed the backing of a major broadcaster (Sky TV) and promoter (he was with Mathcroom before moving to BOXXER last year) throughout his professional career, Azeez has risen from mediocrity and obscurity to be ranked No. 2 by two world governing bodies and at No. 3 and 4 by the other two.

"[Buatsi is] an Olympian, so he earned the right to get all the attention and deals but it's my job now to rip that up and be an example that if you keep grafting and stay motivated, you can succeed," Azeez said.

IT WAS WHILE Azeez was studying in 2011 for his degree at Essex University in England, that he was inspired to seriously take up boxing. He saw Anthony Joshua -- a future Olympic gold medallist and world heavyweight champion -- box as an amateur.

Azeez was not dissuaded by a swift knockout defeat in his first amateur bout, and after 60 amateur bouts, he turned professional in 2017 -- without much attention. Azeez had to supplement his boxing income by setting up his own moving company. It was a struggle. He was boxing on small hall shows at leisure centers and away from the television cameras, but for Azeez all these fights contributed to his development.

"I've had to really work and graft through every stage of my career, it's toughened me up," Azeez told ESPN. "Every stage has built me to this point. My first amateur bout got stopped in the first 20 seconds and if it was anyone else they would have said forget about this, try a different sport. But it was something in me that said this can't be it, and I didn't want to be a quitter. I lost my second bout, too, to Lawrence Okolie [who went on to win the WBO cruiserweight title as a professional]. When I got to the top ten nationally I thought why not turn professional? I didn't want any regrets."

After getting a university degree in accounting and finance, Azeez then decided he wanted to focus on something other than spreadsheets.

"I got my degree and masters and then started working for an accountancy firm and that's when I thought why don't I give it a go as a professional," Azeez said.

So Azeez put his accountancy job on hold and started off his boxing career at the lowest levels. He fought at small hall shows and had to pay for his opponent, pay his trainer, pay his promoter and sell his own tickets.

"It was hard," Azeez said. "I started my own removal company to make ends meet. I would lift stuff and move people out of their homes and then do two or three hours training in the evening. I did that for two years. I look back now and think 'how did I do that'? I was carrying fridges up stairs during the day, then going to the gym. It was hard but I had the drive and motivation to do it."

Azeez, from Lewisham, and Buatsi, who has lived in Croydon since his family moved from Ghana when he was 9-years-old, have known each other for 10 years. Buatsi, who has fought twice in 29 months, is the No. 1 challenger for two of the world titles and the favorite to win on Saturday.

"I met [Buatsi] around 2014, and we have sparred since," Azeez told ESPN. "We even sparred last year before my European title fight in March. We know each other well, but it was too tasty an opportunity to turn down.

"Every time we go in there [the ring to spar] we have a good scrap and I can't envision it being a chess match on the night. If I'm honest, I don't know what to expect."

Saturday's winner is expected to face either champion Dmitry Bivol or Artur Beterbiev, who are lined up to fight each other this summer for the undisputed light heavyweight championship.

Azeez, who has recovered from a back injury which caused this fight to be delayed, fought in Italy and France last year. He'll be back in his home city this weekend and added experienced American trainer Buddy McGirt to his corner.

"I've been training with Buddy in Liverpool for this fight because he was training Callum Smith there for his fight with Beterbiev [in January], and he came down to London sometimes," Azeez said.

"Last year I was with Buddy for half the year in Florida training and I went out to spar with Beterbiev for a month in Canada too," Azeez said. "That was a good measuring stick as to what it is like at the top. I don't want an easy route to get there, but if I win this one I will be at the top."