AT THE Hilton Hotel in Bournemouth, approximately two miles south-west of the Vitality Stadium where Chris Billam-Smith would win the WBO cruiserweight title a little over nine hours later, the 32-year-old was intermittently shoveling fizzy sweets into his mouth while waiting for his chicken burger and fries to arrive. “I like the cherry ones the best,” he said.
Those cherry ones, we would later discover, were among the first things he managed to keep down after he suffered with sickness and diarrhea on the Tuesday and Wednesday before the fight. He could barely throw a punch during the open workouts on the nearby pier, so concerned was he with the possibility of making his illness public in the most degrading way.
Only three days after not being able to leave the bathroom, a right hand from an increasingly desperate and dangerous Lawrence Okolie at the end of the 10th round cannoned into Billam-Smith’s left eyebrow, turning a graze into a gaping wound on impact. It had been a hellacious, foul-filled scrap, one so downright ugly it had no business being so engrossing. A huge left then followed before another booming right, one that landed with an audible crack, sent Billam-Smith juddering into the ropes and towards a neutral corner where briefly, as his bright red mouth hanged open, he looked dazed and on the brink of collapse. The sweet and sour taste of those cherry ones had long since been replaced by his own blood.
Billam-Smith’s ultimate points victory, while far from easy on the eye, was heroic and decorated by moments of drama. The most memorable of which was a chopping left hook in round four, one so accurate and well executed it sent Okolie down on his side, dazed and bedraggled, for the first time in his professional career. And though we’ll rightly remember Okolie’s part in this clumsy dance for his constant missteps and Mr Tickle arms, we should not forget, either, the danger he could manifest when he opted to punch with them instead of hold.
In those moments Billam-Smith somehow stood tall. In front of more than 15,000 local fans, at a stadium in which he was more accustomed to watching his favourite football team play, he had no choice but to withstand several onslaughts that lesser men have crumbled beneath. It’s too easy to over-romanticise our brutal trade for the purpose of a good story but this one, the culmination of years of toil, is worthy of all the schmaltz that has subsequently accompanied it.
Hours before, between mouthfuls of sweets and chicken and fries, the conversation – which drifted from favourite podcasts to music albums – was designed to take Billam-Smith’s mind off those punches he knew he would have to take, but it was clear, beneath the superficial smiles and jokes, he was focused only on beating his former gym-mate. He talked about that gym and of his pride when the McGuigans agreed to take a chance on him six years ago. “I remember smiling all the way home,” he chuckled about being presented with a contract from Shane and Barry. “I owe the McGuigans everything.”
He surely thought of his own family too. Of his young son he had not seen for weeks, of his wife who struggles to watch him in the ring and, more so, of his mother – his hero, his ‘Mums’ – who’s battling breast cancer for the second time. He spoke of the financial and emotional pressure that comes with dividing his time between Stratford in London, where he bases himself to train, and Bournemouth, his family’s hometown. “How can I not prefer it here?” he said when asked where he’d rather be. “I was brought up here,” he continued. “I love everything about this town. This is where I belong.”
As the date with Okolie, at Billam-Smith’s beloved AFC Bournemouth, grew closer he said his goodbyes, grabbed the last of his Haribo Tangfastics, and made his way upstairs to his room to have a nap. Whether he could truly have slept with destiny calling his name so loudly is doubtful, but, regardless, by the time we talk again, most of his dreams have come true. The most important one of all remains in the balance, however.
“Every time I talk about my mum, I get emotional,” he said. “She’s an amazing woman, she’s my hero, she really is. She’s always been my best mate and my rock and we found out, probably six weeks ago, that she’s got breast cancer. Thankfully, it’s a small lump and she had it before, about 25 years ago… she’s having another mastectomy in about two weeks’ time. I want to dedicate this to her, she’s fought it off once, she had a stroke a couple of years ago, she got through that and now she’s fighting it again. That’s obviously where I get my fighting spirit from.”
That spirit was needed not just by Billam-Smith, but by everyone in attendance, to get through the first three rounds. With the temperature dropping quickly, the action, or lack of, was impossible to enjoy and messy in the extreme, but Okolie nonetheless won each of those early sessions on the BN card by occasionally scoring with his lead and trailing right hand. Each time the challenger and underdog attempted anything he was smothered and, at the start of the third, Okolie received the first of countless warnings from McDonnell.
Simply getting through those rounds was the primary objective for Billam-Smith and it was in the fourth, as he replicated a move that McGuigan acted out moments before the opening bell, when that game-plan really took shape. Late in the round, with the Okolie’s right hand overextended, Billam-Smith expertly stepped inside and fired a left hook that had been practiced aplenty and landed perfectly. Though Okolie got to his feet and survived the round, the crisis deepened in the fifth, when McDonnell took the first of two points from him for holding.
When Okolie chose to stand and punch, he was effective, which made his inability to stop grabbing – and later, leaning in with his head – all the more curious. The sheer weight of the 6ft 5ins Londoner was draining both the reserves from Billam-Smith and the patience from McDonnell who was visibly irate – imagine a primary school teacher sick to death of the day job – every time he was forced to split the two fighters.
But Billam-Smith wasn’t exactly behaving impeccably himself, particularly when he constantly threw his arms out wide to exaggerate the truth that he was not responsible for the wrestling-fest. At the end of the seventh, when Okolie lost another point much to his trainer SugarHill Steward’s annoyance, a defenceless Chris was almost bundled out of the ring after taking a right hand and subsequent shove.
The eighth, arguably Okolie’s best, concluded with Billam-Smith’s gumshield being socked out of his mouth by a bowling right on the bell. But it was the challenger’s work on the inside that was the most consistent, as he chipped away whenever Okolie was close. And it was that work on the inside that deserves so much credit – it was understated, effective and spoke of both Billam-Smith and McGuigan knowing Okolie so well.
Into the 10th and Lawrence was counted again as he tumbled forwards, but replays seemed to show that a punch had not caused the fall. Billam-Smith was in the ascendancy when an enraged Okolie landed three truly hurtful blows. Though purists can rightly bemoan the scrappiness on display, it’s important to remember that this has always been the Okolie way. And in all of his previous 17 bouts, his rivals could do nothing to counter it.
There would be another official knockdown in the 11th as Billam-Smith scored with a short right hand that caused Okolie to lose his balance and then scramble on all fours, clutching at his opponent’s legs with all the desperation of a spider trying to escape from a plughole. Again, the replays seemed to suggest the collapse was as much from Okolie’s inability to stand upright as it was the punches coming back.
At the end of the bout, the scores were fittingly haphazard. Benjamin Rodriguez’s tally of 112-112 drew gasps from the crowd before scores of 115-108 (Bob Williams) and 116-107 (Diana Drews Milani) sent them into raptures, and Billam-Smith to his knees in tears.
BN’s card read 115-109, opting not to score a 10-8 round in the 10th, such was the threat Okolie offered when he wasn’t on the deck. But this was not an easy bout to score – or referee. And though McDonnell should largely be praised for his handling, the amount he warned Okolie left many wondering why a disqualification did not follow.
But a DQ would not have been nearly as apt a finale. In the end, Billam-Smith had to do it the hard way as he took the best his rival could muster on a ground that means the world to him and in front of a family that means even more. Someone get that man another packet of the cherry ones.
Southampton’s Joe Pigford has long claimed he wanted to dive into deep waters and the KO artist got his wish when he faced Smethwick’s Sam Eggington, a fighter known to drown all but the most capable of swimmers. In the end, what Pickford needed most was referee Bob Williams to rescue him but the official’s intervention in round six came several punches too late as Pickford’s head rocked and rolled in horrific fashion.
After a tentative opening round, Eggington gained control of centre ring – and the contest – in the second. Pigford, famed for his one-punch power, albeit against mediocre opposition, was too reluctant to throw his right hand such was the veteran’s expertise.
‘The Savage’ upped the pressure in the fourth but, though boxing well, his urgency saw Pigford score with his first right hand of the fight. It had little effect, however, as the more experienced man fired quick combinations over the top. Neither boxer was likely helped when the floodlights suddenly came on halfway through the round that had ringsiders reaching for the sunglasses they’d previously packed away.
Pigford was all out of ideas in the fifth whereas Eggington was boxing superbly. He cornered his foe and let fly with an educated assault that should not have been allowed to last so long. The woefully late stoppage came at 2-59.
Bournemouth’s Lee Cutler scored a deserved 10-round points victory, 97-95 on referee Lee Every’s card, and entered to a hearty welcome as the sun started to disappear behind the stadium. Nottingham southpaw Stanley Stannard started confidently but by the round’s end was being tagged by solid straight shots to the body.
Cutler upped the pressure in the second and a right hook wobbled Stannard early in the session before a weightier blow sent the Midlander back to his own corner at the bell.
By the fourth there was a slow trickle of blood coming from Cutler’s left eyebrow with a clash of heads given as the cause. But Stannard, though being outboxed, was getting closer and closer with his left which he threw as Cutler circled to his right.
Cutler was nursing another cut in the eighth, almost identical to the earlier wound, on his right eyebrow. Stannard, who had been having some success forcing Cutler back, was closing the gap on the card but the hometown boxer ended the fight with gusto, rocking his man with a series of right hands in the last.
Portsmouth’s Michael McKinson kicked off Sky Sport’s live coverage with a rare stoppage victory over Nicaragua’s Lebin Morales in round seven. The southpaw was keen to put on a show and started aggressively, fighting in the pocket with confidence and scoring a knockdown at the end of the opening round with a left hand, hurled downwards at the crouching Morales’ chin. The visitor claimed a push but the difference in class was apparent.
Morales showed heart, and scored with odd right, but McKinson – who had his man rocking at the end of the second with a left uppercut – is simply too good for this level of opposition. The end came at 1-29 of the seventh after referee Kieran McCann had seen enough of McKinson landing his left at will.
Karriss Artingstall of Macclesfield banked eight rounds of worthwhile practice against Salford’s overmatched Jade Taylor, stepping in and out, firing one-twos and controlling the pace and distance. Salford’s Taylor’s attempts to keep pace only saw her repeatedly drilled through the middle. Taylor’s pluck saw her win a solitary round on Every’s 79-72 scorecard.
Southampton’s Lewis Edmonson contained Croatia’s Petar Nosic without any trouble before a somewhat messy conclusion in the fifth. The heads came together, referee McCann called break, only for Edmonson to launch a right hand that seemed to discombobulate the visitor who was by now nursing a cut. The official checked his scorecard, which at the time read 50-45 in the prospect’s favour and raised the arm of Edmonson via technical decision.
Tommy Welch was made to work hard for a 59-55 victory over Belgium’s plucky Amine Boucetta with the Brighton prospect, mouth ajar, blowing as early as the second. Welch looked good when he jabbed with purpose but fitness seemed an issue for the heavyweight prospect despite his sporadic, often wild, attempts to persuade Every to end it.
Iran’s Alireza Ghadiri, who is based in Maida Vale, was dropped in round two after walking into a straight left from Jonatas Rodrigo Gomes de Oliveira. The Brazilian immediately gestured over the fallen prospect who first regained his feet and then control in the third. But this was never as comfortable as the matchmakers likely wanted, with Ghadri – better known as Razor Ali – regularly countered during his somewhat careless bursts forward. Referee Mr McCann scored the contest 58-55.
After the main event, Bournemouth’s flashy Mace Ruegg did his thing to contain Yeovil’s Dean Dodge over four. Ruegg’s fans, some barely dressed, ignored the biting cold to cheer their man to a one-sided success that Mr Every rightly tabled 40-36.
THE VERDICT – Billam-Smith defies the odds to add a new chapter to his fairytale career.