“Sitting here next year as world champion, having won the world title at Dean Court, would be the ultimate dream.”
The words of Chris Billam-Smith, speaking to me for this publication in December of last year. A mere five months later on 27th May, ‘The Gentleman’ will have a chance to make that dream come true. WBO cruiserweight champion Lawrence Okolie takes the admirable step of meeting Billam-Smith on his home patch at the Vitality Stadium, home of the challenger’s beloved AFC Bournemouth.
It’s a fight to savour, the sort of challenge we advocated for when it came to Okolie’s next defence. Taking on Billam-Smith, who has lost just once and looked pretty good doing it against Richard Riakporhe in 2019, ia brave in itself. Going into away territory, in front of thousands of fans who will want him to lose, is extremely admirable for a reigning champion. It’s the sort of decision that is questioned if you lose, but can help make a legacy if you win.
Okolie needed a legacy play at this stage in his career. A world champion since 2020, his record is yet to feature a standout name, His unanimous decision point over David Light last month did little to change this assessment. It was a rather one-sided, if unspectacular, victory that will not live long in the memory. Perhaps conscious that fans are losing patience with him, Okolie should be applauded for delivering a fight of such box office appeal.
For Billam-Smith, this fight is the result of an excellent rebuilding period after the Riakporhe defeat. He pushed ‘The Midnight Train’ to the limit in losing via split decision and has gone 8-0 since in just three years. ‘The Gentleman’ has won the full set of domestic honours in that time too, claiming the British, Commonwealth and European belts. While it is a road less travelled these days, this route used to be the standard way in which a British-based fighter would work their way up to world title level. There is something pleasingly traditional about Billam-Smith’s rise.
Will it be enough to net him the win? Or will the champion make it four successful defences of his WBO title? Whatever the outcome, the two will be familiar with each other’s game. The two trained together under Billam-Smith’s trainer Shane McGuigan. Okolie has since moved on to work with Tyson Fury’s coach Sugarhill Steward. But will those sparring sessions on the way up have an impact now the two men are fighting at the pinnacle of boxing?
Beside Okolie’s belt, there is very little to split these two on paper. Krzysztof Głowacki, who ‘The Sauce’ knocked out to clinch the title, is probably the best name on either man’s record. In terms of shared opponents, both Okolie and Billam-Smith can boast unanimous decision wins over the very capable Isaac Chamberlain. You could slip a cigarette paper between these two really, if smoking wasn’t widely banned, terrible for your health and prohibitively expensive.
This closeness in their records thus far, the sense there’s more to come from both after promising careers up to now, their shared history, the WBO title and the stadium setting. Very often you will hear talk of a fight having all the ingredients, but this one feels particularly appetising. With the likes of Riakporhe waiting in the wings to cook up a delectable scrap with the winner, it really is a great time to follow the cruiserweight division in this country.
*18+ | BeGambleAware