FOR all the chat and debate about ‘new media’, and there’s been plenty in recent weeks, it’s impossible deny how effective it can be when executed correctly. Barely six weeks ago, on the Sky Sports Boxing podcast, Lawrence Okolie, fresh from a mediocre showing against the unheralded David Light, spoke earnestly about his performance, and, in the next breath, declared he was ready to fill the space opposite Chris Billam-Smith on the Bournemouth bill scheduled for May 27.
Everything moved quickly after that. It was confirmed within days that Okolie, ranked number two contender at cruiserweight and WBO belt-holder, would be defending his title against Billam-Smith, ranked number six and Lawrence’s former gym-mate. Wouldn’t it be nice if it was always that easy? The fact that both are part of the Boxxer promotional stable is of course the reason why there were no hiccups, coughs or splutters during negotiations and a taster, perhaps, of what life might be like if everyone just left their egos at the door, got along, and worked in harmony to take themselves and the sport forward. It’s ironic, then, that this contest – arguably the most enticing of all currently on the British boxing calendar – will have to scrap for attention with two other ‘world title’ fights being staged by rival promoters, on rival networks, on exactly the same night. Okay, there’s been promises of staggering main event times to compensate for the logjam but that’s not a solution, it’s merely highlighting the problem.
But let’s not dwell on that. Hackney’s Okolie, 19-0 (14) and 30 years old, has struggled for several reasons to build upon winning his sanctioning body belt. No question, part of that is down to the over-dilution of titles to the extent that the term ‘world champion’ long ago lost all meaning, at least to the outside world, most of which largely gave up on attempting to make sense of the championship structure – or lack of – many years ago.
However, and with respect to Okolie, it’s also true that, even in today’s convoluted landscape, the right fighters – those with the perfect mix of charisma, contacts, talent and fame – can take their titles and run with them. The boxer makes the belt and all that. Though talented and hard to beat, he’s never been one to spend too long on social media nor stick his head in the backsides of the most influential. It hasn’t helped, either, that it’s always a toss-up about who goes to sleep first – his opponent or his audience. Though unquestionably the possessor of skull-bending power, he’s better known for winning ugly over the full distance.
But in Billam-Smith, 17-1 (12), he takes on a boxer who could be on the brink of becoming a crossover star if he triumphs inside his beloved Vitality Stadium. And not because he’s a sycophant or plays the fame game with every breath he takes. No, Billam-Smith is the archetypal British hero, the everyman who’s honest, humble, holds his roots dear and thus has cultivated a huge following in his hometown alone. Perhaps most crucially of all, he’s never in a dull fight.
An aggressive boxer-puncher who has found his man-strength in recent years, Billam-Smith is brave and exciting in a way that his opponent rarely appears. For those paying closer attention, however, Okolie is every bit as honest, and determined, as his opponent. The fact that he’s happy to head to Bournemouth, knowingly play the B-side and villain even though he’s the one bringing the silverware, speaks of an understanding of his image and a willingness to get the most from it. That in turn should highlight the confidence he has in himself, even if it isn’t always clear when he’s going about his business in the ring.
What so few fail to mention when it comes to Okolie is that he’s never once looked like losing a fight. And it’s that deceptive effectiveness at controlling the pace and distance of 12-round contests that might be even harder for Billam-Smith to counter than the omnipresent threat of the Londoner ending matters with one, sleep-inducing swing. Furthermore, the fate of Light, who suffered a stroke and had to have a blood clot removed from his brain in the aftermath of what was unquestionably a dull contest, should only underline how deceptively dangerous the Londoner is.
Okolie, 6ft 5ins, uses his size well but not in the way that, say, Tyson Fury does. When he puts some snap behind his jab it’s a serious weapon that tees up his monstrous right hand that he whips in on the blindside or straight through the middle. Worse news for Billam-Smith, however, is that his lead hand is effective even when it’s merely pawing; the sheer length of it has nuisance value that few of his rivals have found a way to counter effectively. If a fighter strays too close, Okolie either knocks them cold or he draws on his inner boa constrictor to suffocate their ability to move freely. In short, he’s a nightmarish proposition.
But Billam-Smith, alongside trainer Shane McGuigan, will know all of this already from numerous sparring sessions the friends-cum-rivals have shared. And Shane’s input here will be vital. McGuigan’s Gym has seen plenty of talent come and go – including Okolie – but the Bournemouth man is the longest-serving member of the squad and could soon be the biggest success story. Boxers who are happy to put their entire trust in one coach their entire career, like Billam-Smith has with McGuigan, are very often the most successful and mentally sound.
The chiseled challenger won’t speak of what happened behind closed doors but his insistence on victory suggests he had some success with the headguard on. Likewise, that Okolie called out Billam-Smith likely means he’s not exactly concerned that the challenger has his number, either. The mystery of their familiarity only adds to the fascination from the outside. So too does Okolie’s link-up with SugarHill Steward, the American trainer who’s seen his stock soar as a consequence of his involvement with Fury but, that link-up aside, we don’t yet know if he’s as a good a trainer as his surname would suggest.
Billam-Smith cannot stand off Okolie and hope for the best. To win, he must put pressure on the favourite, particularly when Lawrence is attempting to slow the pace down. The Stratford-based seasider is adept at keeping the action hectic, hurling blows to the body, making his significant presence felt once in close and his ability to fire accurate and hurtful punches in bunches is one of his finest assets.
But Okolie has nearly always thrived when faced with such pressure. And though one can easily envision CBS bullying his way to a points success, the feeling is Okolie will again show what happens when opponents go after him. Though Billam-Smith’s defence has improved, he’s far from slippery or elusive, and as the fight progresses, his eagerness to triumph might create the openings for Okolie, perhaps as late as the last three rounds, to score a signature KO victory.
The undercard is hurt by the withdrawal of Mikael Lawal, who was due to defend his British cruiserweight title against Isaac Chamberlain but there seems certain to be fireworks at super-welterweight when Smethwick’s Sam Eggington, 38-8 (19), tests the unbeaten credentials of Southampton puncher, Joe Pigford, 20-0 (19). There’s no question that the Midlander’s experience dwarves that of his rival yet the feeling is that the long-limbed Pigford might just prove too fresh.
Elsewhere on the bill, and in the same division, Bournemouth’s Lee Cutler, 12-1 (7), takes on Harby’s Stanley Stennard, 10-0 (4) in a well-matched bout and keep an eye on prospects Kariss Artingsall, Mace Ruegg, Lewis Edmondson and Tommy Welch.
THE VERDICT – Victory could catapult Billam-Smith into the big league but he has an almighty challenge ahead.