So, we’re here now. The wait is over, a jam-packed Saturday schedule with three UK boxing shows featuring world title fights, but only one in a stadium. Chris Billam-Smith on home soil at Bournemouth’s Vitality in-front of 15,000, looking to dethrone unbeaten WBO cruiserweight champion and former stablemate Lawrence Okolie, achieving a dream many wouldn’t have thought possible.
The world title fight we never knew we needed
To truly capture a boxer’s attention – a week before the biggest fight of their career – you have to break the monotony by asking them something they weren’t expecting.
Dig deep enough into the archives and bam, you find a line to lead with. Chris’ father Alan was unhappy seeing his son boxing professionally given its various dangers and notoriety for being an age-old barbaric sport. So, is there an exit plan in mind?
“The key to this game is, get your achievements – win a world title for me – make enough money, it’s prizefighting at the end of the day. It’s hard to go straight back into a 9-5 job when you’ve had this career.
I’d like to be done by the time I’m 35, don’t want to be boxing at 36, it’s just an age I’ve put on it. You don’t want to take too much punishment, keep your faculties intact and enough money in the bank to start something else.”
As he says this, my mind immediately thinks about his former stablemate and friend George Groves. The former world super-middleweight champion retired aged 30 citing a desire to avoid being aged out of the game, or forced into that by injuries.
My other recent boxing coverage to read:
Cameron composed to retain undisputed titles in MD10 win, Taylor human
Haney retains undisputed 135lb titles with narrow UD win vs. Lomachenko
Buatsi measured in wide UD win vs. Stepien, but leaves you wanting more
Unfortunately, those two factors are a painful eventuality that hinders many across all levels lacking the foresight to transition into another career or passion. Not here.
“I always enjoyed coaching, used to do some work with a few pros while I was an amateur, lads fighting for Southern area titles. That was really enjoyable, I love it and the knowledge I have now learning from Shane [McGuigan, head trainer] and Josh Pritchard [assistant coach]… but it’s a lot of hours!
It’s difficult to do with a young family, but I’ll be involved in boxing somehow, starting my podcast back up – the perfect athlete – delving into athletes and the different ways they improve, enjoyed media gigs for Sky, bit of punditry, I’d love to work there and got a good eye for the game so a lot to give.”
Richard Riakporhe rematch remains a future possibility
Speaking of punditry, that gives a seamless segue into my next topic and it relates to a rival boxer whose most recent fight he commentated on back in late January.
Richard Riakporhe, eight months older than Billam-Smith, inflicted his first pro defeat via split decision over ten rounds on the Dillian Whyte vs. Oscar Rivas undercard back in July 2019. Talk of a rematch has intensified over the last year.
He spoke late last month about how they were twice in negotiations to make it, once in January and again for this date – Richard wanted it on neutral grounds.
However, it hasn’t yet materialised. Riakporhe improved to 16-0 with his fourth straight stoppage win, a R4 TKO vs. former WBO world cruiserweight champion Krzysztof Glowacki on the Eubank-Smith undercard as his former foe sat ringside.
“Yeah, it was good. You could see Richard watched Okolie’s fight with Glowacki and took a few notes – stepping off to his right, making him fall short with the left hand so I really enjoyed [covering that on TV broadcast in-person], yeah.
There’s a lot of talk between him and Lawrence because of the beef they’ve produced but unfortunately for them, that won’t be happening because there’s a man in the way… that’s me.”
Riakporhe recently signed a new multi-fight extension to remain on Sky Sports and BOXXER’s stable, with promoter Ben Shalom telling me last month that his next bout is tentatively expected for an unspecified August date, and will be for a world title.
WBA champion Arsen Goulamirian is believed to be the target, though the 33-year-old contender (#2 WBO and IBF, #3 #5 WBC) said plenty about both his compatriots during a media day at Loughborough University – his training base – last month.
Among them was a belief Okolie’s newfound partnership with SugarHill Steward isn’t a great one if the David Light display is anything to go by, and feeding off the crowd’s energy will work in Chris’ favour as far as home advantage is concerned.
“If anyone knows how to deal with Okolie, it’s Shane – been with him for three years and seen all his flaws, had conversations, imagine what they’ve said.
Some people are really trusting in a coach, they’ll tell everything they suffer from, their weaknesses…”
A hard fortnight’s training to finish camp
It’s never easy to strike the right balance between training and proper recuperation in the latter stages of a fight camp, but Chris appears to have done just that.
His last two weeks consisted of a series of 10 and 12-round sparring sessions, as well as some eight-round bag punching and running distances at varying intensities.
Sprints, whether on flat ground or hills, is inevitable. How about a 9km run for good measure? That’s why there is shared confidence from his team, that he will elevate his level if things get dicey as the crowd throw punches vicariously through him.
“Yeah, it’s about managing the body but not overdoing it. I know it’s a cliche to say but I am by far the fittest I’ve ever been, feeling a lot stronger having changed my strength training and am in a really good place.
I got a lot of fast heavyweights with long arms for sparring, which is fun work but hard to shrug 120kg guys off when they’re leaning on you, a real mixture of guys which is good fun.”
Speaking dreams into existence
Last but not least having kept up-to-date with Bournemouth’s special pre-fight coverage, I show Chris a picture and ask him to describe it. His face lights up.
“That’s me and my mate, getting promoted for the first time in 2015 – we were at my mate’s house around the corner, watched the game on TV because we couldn’t get a ticket, said if we win and get promoted, we’d run around there.
He had some fancy dress costumes, we ended up on TV, some good memories at the stadium.”
As the story goes, a picture of that moment above got shared on Facebook the following year and fellow local boxer Lee Cutler playfully called him a tit in response.
Chris’ witty reply? Don’t get jealous Lee, you’ll be boxing on that pitch one day on my undercard. Sure enough… Light-middleweight Cutler will look to end Stanley Stannard’s 10-0 unbeaten streak tonight, live on the undercard.
Given he hadn’t even turned pro at the time and wasn’t fancied to reach the top, it just highlights how much of a dream and vision it was for him at the time. Now he gets to experience that, calling it the pinnacle of his career. It’s hard to disagree.
“Either I had just lost, or was about to go into the ABA quarter-finals [and lose]. You’ve got to have a vision, a dream, and work towards it because if you don’t, it’s hard to strive for something.”
He’s a lifelong Bournemouth fan, with the receipts to prove it. His team avoided Premier League relegation with a fortnight to spare, and end their season away at Everton on Sunday afternoon. Will it be a double delight for club and local hero?
Full card, is as follows
Running order TBC
WBO world cruiserweight championship: Lawrence Okolie (c) vs. Chris Billam-Smith
Light-middleweight: Sam Eggington vs. Joe Pigford
Cruiserweight: Isaac Chamberlain vs. Daniel Bocianski
8/10 rds – English light-middleweight title eliminator: Lee Cutler vs. Stanley Stannard
6/8 x 2 minute rds – Women’s featherweight: Karriss Artingstall vs. Jade Taylor
Welterweight: Michael McKinson vs. Lebin Morales
Heavyweight: Tommy Welch vs. Amine Boucetta
Light-heavyweight: Lewis Edmondson vs. Petar Nosic
Lightweight: Mace Ruegg vs. Dean Dodge
Super-featherweight: Alireza Ghadiri vs. Jonatas Rodrigo Gomes de Oliveira
Manchester: Mauricio Lara vs. Leigh Wood 2 for the WBA world featherweight title
Lara was stripped of the title after the BBofC deemed it unsafe for him to weigh 126lbs, Wood remains eligible and can regain gold if victorious
Belfast: Luis Alberto Lopez (c) vs. Michael Conlan for IBF world featherweight belt
Two wins in four months to finish 2022 on a high after the Wood war, Conlan is back with another world title shot and this one? On home soil
Picture source: BOXXER/Lawrence Lustig
All quotes procured by me unless hyperlinked otherwise