BEFORE cruiserweights Chris Billam-Smith and Isaac Chamberlain combined to produce one of the best fights of 2022, tonight’s show at Bournemouth’s International Centre was in danger of being defined by the bizarre moment a man with a guitar beckoned Ben Whittaker to the ring while pretending to play the opening riff of Prince’s When Doves Cry. All style over substance, much in keeping with the theme of the night, the man faked playing his guitar for all of 10 seconds before Whittaker made his way to the ring, where, in fairness, he would dazzle, winning inside two rounds and making the impression he intended to make.
Which is all it was, of course: an impression. Just as a guitar was a guitar only in name, Whittaker’s pro debut was not a fight, at least not in the traditional sense. It was hardly a break from tradition, either, for what came before that two-round ‘fight’ were numerous other mismatches, the most disappointing of which involved Sky Sports-stars-in-training Frazer Clarke and Caroline Dubois, both of whom are talented boxers but no more than professional bullies at this point. Only Hassan Azim, in fact, was presented any sort of test by the sea, forced as he was to go six rounds with the resilient and ambitious Jacob Quinn, who was, for my money, the star of the undercard.
Admittedly, it is not the fault of these prospects that they are fed ‘nothing’ fights on the way up. Nor is it their fault television networks seem so intent on pushing them as star attractions long before they are in a position to compete in anything vaguely resembling a compelling fight. (If there were a red button option to fast-track a prospect to 10-0 without having to actually watch any of the 10 ‘fights’, it would be one I would press every time.) But certainly, as proven tonight in Bournemouth, this kind of matchmaking does little for either the unbeaten prospects involved or, for that matter, those watching with half an interest at home.
It becomes all the more noticeable, too, this problem, when a fight like Chris Billam-Smith vs. Isaac Chamberlain comes along – thankfully – and appears to take place in a different realm, under different rules. Suddenly, unlike before, where the fights were barely watchable, let alone interesting, so stripped were they of any intrigue or drama, you have a fight like Billam-Smith vs. Chamberlain; a fight packed full of all the things those mismatches lacked.
This difference in both quality and watchability became evident as early as round one of the headliner and this standard then continued, quite incredibly, throughout the 12 rounds the pair shared.
The second round, for example, a round in which both were hurt and courageously rallied back, was as good a round as we have seen the UK this year. Moreover, it represented the fight in a nutshell; a three-minute sample of a 36-minute domestic classic. One moment Billam-Smith would appear in the ascendancy, and the next Chamberlain, having weathered the Billam-Smith storm, would come roaring back and exploit the possibility of his opponent feeling tired.
Indeed, it was in those moments of exhaustion, both fighters truly elevated themselves and demonstrated their pedigree. In the early rounds Chamberlain was the one having the more difficult spells, whereas later in the fight, particularly during some of the middle rounds, it was Billam-Smith, the natural aggressor, who appeared to be struggling with the pace, his movements no longer as smooth as before, his punches no longer possessing the same snap.
Yet, even so, it was Billam-Smith, with the finish line in sight, who found another gear, or second wind, as all quality fighters do. Everything now seemed a struggle for him, much like it was for Chamberlain, but crucially, around the 10th, he was the one able to persevere and punch through his tiredness, his greater strength and stamina allowing him to get busy in moments Chamberlain was desperate for a rest.
Told he required a finish, Chamberlain came out swinging in the last round. However, such was his tiredness, his punches carried reduced power and his reputation, even before the fight, was hardly that of a puncher. He still tried, though, and the grandstand finish he helped produce, with seconds to go in the fight, was one both awe-inspiring and completely unnecessary given all these two men had already gifted us in the name of entertainment.
For once, all three ringside judges were in agreement at the fight’s conclusion, scoring it 117-111 in favour of Billam-Smith, who retained his European and Commonwealth cruiserweight titles. It was, to date, the best performance of the Bournemouth man’s career and one that should now push him towards a new level of prominence on the British boxing scene.
For while perhaps not the biggest name or most marketable personality, Billam-Smith is a well-spoken, intelligent and likeable champion whose style is as reliable as his character. Better yet, he has, in 2022, that rarest of things: a loyal and local fan base. This factor was key not only to his performance tonight, in terms of dragging him through some rough patches, but could also be key to Billam-Smith’s rise as a headline attraction.
For Chamberlain, meanwhile, it was a redemption night of sorts, what with this being his first big fight on Sky Sports since that soporific clash of styles against Lawrence Okolie in 2018. That night, against Okolie, Chamberlain was, like so many, the victim of hype forced upon him by men in suits, those desperate for him – and Okolie – to make them money. Alas, he then, along with Okolie, inevitably dissolved beneath the weight of this pressure and delivered a snoozer when it mattered, boring the audience inside London’s O2 Arena for 10 pedestrian rounds, a fabricated rivalry done and dusted in a night.
Worse, the Londoner’s reputation, which had been growing, was now diminished somewhat, which was all the motivation he needed to go away after the fight and rebuild. He took himself around the world sparring men more experienced than him – from Deontay Wilder to Oleksandr Usyk – and worked predominantly in the shadows, often appearing on small hall shows to little or no fanfare. To Chamberlain, though, this hardly mattered. All that did matter was that he was improving, the silence something he chose to embrace rather than fear.
Finally, tonight, on a night when the hype machine was directed at others the way it was once directed at him, Chamberlain, 14-2 (8), returned to centre stage and duly delivered. He delivered on his potential and he delivered for the fans. He delivered, most of all, a lesson, not to Billam-Smith, who came away with his hand raised, but to any prospect who believes there are fast-tracks or shortcuts in a sport like boxing. For, make no mistake, performances like the one Chamberlain delivered tonight have to be earned. They are a culmination of years of suffering, not just eight weeks of training.
Interestingly, the path of Billam-Smith, 16-1 (11), has not been dissimilar. His pro debut in 2017 took place at the O2 Academy in Bournemouth, where he walked to the ring without the assistance of a man pretending to play Prince classics on a guitar, and nothing much was expected of him for a number of years. Some even expected him to fade into obscurity after a 2019 split decision loss against Richard Riakporhe (a defeat that looks better with time) and no discernable marketing hook or unique selling point with which he could be rebuilt.
Yet Billam-Smith, of course, had other ideas. Rather than disappear, his intention was to use that disappointment as both fuel and a learning experience and, sure enough, since 2019 he hasn’t looked back, winning seven in a row and landing the European and Commonwealth cruiserweight titles. Since then, all the better for having tested himself in a proper fight early, he has come on leaps and bounds and appears, in 2022, a completely different fighter than the one who came up short against Riakporhe at the O2 Arena. Bigger, stronger, and far more seasoned, Billam-Smith knows now how to carry himself through a 12-rounder, he rarely panics when the going gets tough, he keeps his shots short on the inside like Dariusz Michalczewski, and his game is based entirely around substance, not style. He is, in effect, everything you want in a fighter and everything the sport today for some reason values less than style, trash talk, and hype.