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Chris Billam-Smith vs. Isaac Chamberlain: A fight on a knife edge

A shot at the world champion beckons for the winner of Billam-Smith and Chamberlain, writes Matt Christie

BEN SHALOM, alongside Sky Sports, will stage an intriguing and important domestic cruiserweight clash that is exceptionally difficult to call. From that opening sentence alone, the July 30 contest between Chris Billam-Smith and Isaac Chamberlain for the former’s European and Commonwealth titles has to fall into the must-watch category for hardcore fans.

Too often we see British fighters with ‘world title’ aspirations being carefully guided, via obscure and largely unthreatening opposition, through a particular set of sanctioning body rankings that ultimately do little for their chances of success once they get the shot. It would have been easy for Billam-Smith, for example, to sit on his lofty alphabet placements and wait for his chance to come. Already No.1 with the WBO – though with his gym-mate Lawrence Okolie wearing that strap a fight between them is a no-go – the 31-year-old takes on Chamberlain in the hope of securing the currently vacant mandatory slot with the IBF. Even better, the owner of that belt is the division’s true world champion, Jai Opetaia.

Billam-Smith, the 8/15 favourite, has home advantage at the Bournemouth International Centre and is in the form of his life. It’s a long time since his future was uncertain after he failed to reach the domestic pinnacle as an amateur, losing in the 2016 ABA final to Cheavon Clarke and being tightly outpointed by Viddal Riley in the quarter finals the following year. He credits his link-up with long-time coach Shane McGuigan as a pivotal moment in his development.

“I didn’t get on [team] GB so I turned pro, but there were no offers to do so. I asked Shane [McGuigan] if he’d take me but if not, and I didn’t think he would, at least he could give me some advice about who to go with,” Billam-Smith told Boxing News. “I already had a relationship with him because I’d been sparring George Groves for 18 months before I decided to turn pro. Shane said they might be able to do something with me on a part-time basis on the understanding that I’d do corporate personal training as well. But the corporate deal fell through, I was already at the gym, and I wouldn’t leave [laughs].

“They were always testing me in the gym with top British fighters. I needed that, a stable that would allow me to improve. I have that in me; every second of every day I am looking to become a better fighter.”  

That attitude has served him well. A split decision loss to Richard Riakporhe was used as a springboard rather than a brick wall. Since then he has won six on the bounce, most impressively in his most recent bout when he knocked out Tommy McCarthy in eight rounds in April. That he rematched the tricky and slick Irishman, after edging a gruelling 12-rounder only nine months before, provides another exhibit in the case for Billam-Smith’s mental fortitude.

A further one is agreeing to take on Brixton’s Chamberlain. He too seems to be made of stern psychological stuff. Furthermore, he has natural talent – perhaps more so than “CBS” – in abundance. The key for Chamberlain, 14-1 (8), is to showcase his true ability on the big nights. Not every gifted fighter is able to and the jury is still out on whether Chamberlain’s vast potential can consistently be transferred to his performances in the ring.

It is unfair to judge Chamberlain only on his lone poor showing, however. It came in February 2018 against Lawrence Okolie when he struggled to get into their 10-rounder after being decked in the opening session. He went on to lose a lopsided verdict. What was a highly-anticipated bout between two prospects quickly became a tedious affair, at least from the viewpoint of fans. For Chamberlain, however, that he heard the final bell after touching down again in the sixth should count for something, particularly when one considers Okolie’s subsequent rise towards the top of the 200lb weight class where he is universally recognised as the division’s biggest puncher.

In truth, the test against the spidery, awkward and powerful Olympian likely came too soon for Chamberlain who, in his sixth bout, had already proved his guts and determination when outpointing Wadi Camacho while fighting for seven of the 10 rounds with a dislocated shoulder. But has Chamberlain’s education been enhanced – since the loss to Okolie – to the extent he can cope with the proven quality of Billam-Smith?

Isaac again proved his mettle when dropping Luke Watkins in the last round to secure a 95-94 points success at the end of 2018 before he endured almost two years out of the ring. Four quick wins have occurred since, though the only opponent of note, Dilan Prasovic, was counted out in the opening round just three months after being flattened by Okolie in the third. Though we cannot fault Chamberlain’s form – the savage left hook to the body that took Prasovic out was pristine – we can highlight that he is lacking competitive action, particularly when compared to his opponent, in recent years.

Chamberlain’s new training team also lacks the experience of Billam-Smith’s. Though Jon Pegg is the steadiest of hands, lead trainers Bobby Mills and Conor Ward are yet to encounter anything like a bout of this magnitude. That’s not to say they will struggle to guide Chamberlain through – we simply don’t know how good they are – but merely another factor to consider when attempting to predict the outcome of this contest.

To win, Chamberlain will need to negate his opponent’s accurate and forceful jab. More importantly, he has to keep the tank-like Billam-Smith at bay because on the inside, where the Bournemouth man is at his best with short, potent hooks and uppercuts, Chamberlain could struggle to win a physical battle. Neither fighter has been hugely difficult to hit at this level and though a Chamberlain victory would be far from a surprise, the feeling is that Billam-Smith, buoyed by his South Coast fans, will ultimately prove too strong and accurate for his opponent. The call is for the domestic titles to be retained on points following an absorbing and competitive encounter.

The undercard is decorated by potential stars of the future but any real competitiveness is lacking. Though we understand why starlets need time to bed into the professional ranks, mismatches against opponents many levels below them simply don’t make for pretty spectacles.

Olympic silver medallist Ben Whitaker, making his debut, should be backed to thrash Horden’s Greg O’Neill, 6-6-1 (1), who has already been stopped four times. Don’t blink, either, when heavyweight Frazer Clarke, 1-0 (1), goes in with 39-year-old Latvian, Igors Vasliljevs who has a 4-2 (3) record. Another Olympian, Caroline Dubois, 2-0 (1), will have things all her own way against 35-year-old Tanzanian, Happy Daudi, 11-10-1 (6).

Expect victories, too, for Joe Pigford, Mikael Lawal, Hassan Azim, Steve McKenna and Lee Cutler.

THE VERDICT: Quality matchmaking atop the bill.

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