EXCLUSIVE: Billam-Smith claims criticism of Okolie IS fair

EXCLUSIVE: ‘Fans want entertaining fights – and they haven’t been entertaining’: Chris Billam-Smith claims criticism of Lawrence Okolie’s style IS fair as he gears up for ‘dream’ world title clash this weekend

  • Chris Billam-Smith is set to face WBO cruiserweight champion Lawrence Okolie
  • The Bournemouth fan will bid for world honours at his beloved team’s stadium
  • But standing in his way is Okolie, one of the cruiserweight division’s top fighters

As he closes in on a date of destiny at the home of his beloved AFC Bournemouth, Chris Billam-Smith is determined not to let the opportunity of a lifetime pass him by. 

‘It’s the dream,’ he tells Mail Sport ahead of his bid to become world cruiserweight champion this weekend. ‘It’s always been the dream to win a world title at the Vitality.

‘Just to box there would have been nice, but the fact we get the opportunity now to win a world title there, I’ll be grabbing it with both hands.

‘It definitely feels like everything’s fallen into place perfectly, including the opponent.’

There is a sense of destiny for Billam-Smith (17-1-0) as he gears up for his first world-title shot, and not simply because it is taking place at Bournemouth’s stadium. More still, standing in the way of his lifelong dream on the south coast is undefeated WBO champion Lawrence Okolie, one of the division’s leading fighters and his former stablemate.

Chris Billam-Smith is gearing up for a date with destiny at the Vitality Stadium this weekend

The Gentleman takes on former stablemate Lawrence Okolie for the WBO cruiserweight title

Okolie, considered the division’s No 1 fighter, was his team-mate as recently as early this year

The pair endured countless sparring sessions while plying their trade in the very same gym

As recently as last August, Okolie and Billam-Smith trained in the same gym under the tutelage of esteemed British coach Shane McGuigan. It was McGuigan who guided Okolie to his first world crown in 2021 as well as two of the three defences which have followed.

That was until the Hackney fighter gave up his UK residency and moved to Dubai at the back end of last year, forcing him to part company with his trainer of four years on amicable terms. 

‘That was always going to be quite a big obstacle for us to overcome,’ McGuigan conceded in an interview with Boxing Social. 

And just a few months on, he is now plotting Okolie’s downfall in the opposite corner.

Yet throughout their lengthy time together in the gym, where they enjoyed countless sparring sessions, Billam-Smith never anticipated a future fight ever coming to fruition. 

‘When he’s in the gym you don’t expect people to leave and how good of a coach Shane is you don’t expect people to leave him. So eventhough people have I didn’t think Lawrence would leave,’ he admits.

‘He’s obviously left now, then we had conversations and it all made sense. I thought he maybe would have moved up to heavyweight by the time this opportunity came around, so I didn’t really think about it. 

‘But yeah, he’s still around at this weight and I needed a world-title challenge, he’s got a belt… it just makes perfect sense.’

Having spent his entire professional career with McGuigan, Billam-Smith watched on as Okolie rocked up in the gym as British champion in 2019 and left four years later as one of the world’s top operators at 200lbs. In the meantime, he continued to plug away at domestic level before capturing the European title in 2021 and defending it on three occasions. Now it’s time to rule the world.

Okolie made the decision to part company with trainer Shane McGuigan (pictured with both) at the back end of last year

Now the former stablemates are set to collide this weekend with a world title up for grabs

Putting fulfilling a dream at the Vitality aside, will getting the better of Okolie, and sweeping up the bragging rights that come with it, make victory even sweeter? There is no bad blood between the pair, yet Billam-Smith admits as such.

‘Yeah, I think so,’ he says. ‘It’s human nature. When you’re in a sport like this you’re a competitive person, so every session that we did on circuits and stuff like that – obviously with spars you’re not trying to take the mick out of each other as you’re stablemates, so it’s different – but every other session was competitive and it’s just natural to feel like that.’

Okolie heads into this battle on the beach a huge favourite to retain his title and, perhaps, then move up to heavyweight in search of more lucrative opportunities.

Over six years as a professional, the 30-year-old is yet to experience anything other than success, however that is not to say he is without his fair share of critics.

While rattling through victory after victory, Okolie’s awkward fighting style often creates an eye-sore in the ring. Fans have grown frustrated with his tendency to clinch and hold, with his latest win over David Light in March another uneventful affair. 

After racking up eight straight wins, including a brutal knockout of Armend Xhoxhaj last time out, and improving rapidly in recent outings, Billam-Smith is arguably the man in better form.

‘I expect him to try and make it awkward, but it’s down to me to not let it be awkward. It will be awkward at times, but I think the key is to fight my fight,’ Billam-Smith says.

Okolie (left) has drawn criticism from fans in recent years for his awkward style of fighting

He expects the champion (pictured) to make it another awkward evening when they lock horns

After progressing rapidly in recent fights and claiming some big knockouts, Billam-Smith (left) is arguably in better form

‘It will be physical because Lawrence is always physical in his fights, but I’m the most physically strong I’ve ever been and the fittest I’ve ever been. It’s a bit of a cliché, but this is next level, especially from the last time Lawrence shared a ring with me.’

So what about the criticism of his old gym buddy? Billam-Smith believes fans are well within their rights to express frustration.

‘I think at the end of the day, fans want to see entertaining fights,’ he insists. ‘And they haven’t been entertaining. But at the same time he’s winning, so you can’t knock him.

‘I know people knocked Mayweather at times towards the end of his career, but he was very exciting as a lightweight and as he went through the weights, he wasn’t necessarily exciting but he wasn’t boring in the sense of holding. He was still jabbing and moving but there was still a huge amount of skill to it.

‘And there is skill to what Lawrence does, but a lot of the time it’s holding. It’s not punching, it’s not making people miss. It’s literally just holding. 

‘So I think the criticism’s fair. But like I said, he’s never looked close to getting beat, so you’ve got to give him credit for that.’

Nevertheless, coaxing Okolie into a firefight is not the priority for Billam-Smith on Saturday night. Having his hand raised and the WBO belt strapped around his waist is all that counts. 

There is no disputing he is set for the most perilous challenge of his career to date when he steps out in front of the Bournemouth crowd. They will be backing him to the hilt, but not being overawed by the occasion is imperative. 

All that matters for the Bournemouth man this weekend is having his hand raised at the Vitality

He is visualising the job at hand as he prepares for the toughest test of his career to date

‘I’m absolutely visualising it, but at the same time I’m not visualising the celebration or anything. Just visualising the task at hand and going through that every day, knowing what I’ve got to do in there and just focusing on that, focusing on the process,’ he reveals.

‘Control the controllables and then the rest of it will take care of itself.’ 

And what about if he does the job? An even tougher task may await on the Sunday… 

‘I’ve actually got a wedding to go to in Marbella the next day,’ Billam-Smith explains. ‘I’ve got a flight at 10 past 12 on the Sunday, so maybe I can celebrate with my family and some close friends after maybe, but it won’t be a wild night. I’ve got to get a one-year-old on a plane, so I’ve basically got my hands full.

‘I think that’ll be harder than the fight!’

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