SEVENTY-FIVE years ago this summer, Freddie Mills wrested the light-heavyweight championship of the world from Gus Lesnevich at London’s White City stadium. In this predominantly one-champion era – what a daft idea that was – it marked the first world title success for a British fighter at 175lbs since Bob Fitzsimmons close to half a century earlier. For the then-sedate but now totally unbuttoned seaside town of Bournemouth, it marks its only success on boxing’s biggest stage before or since.
If one boxer is synonymous with the south coast town, it’s Freddie Mills. His name is now more typically remembered with the prefix ‘Fearless’ but there was once a time when he entered the ring with the sobriquet of the ‘Bournemouth Bombshell’. A tribute not only to his hometown – where he famously started out as a milkman’s assistant and fought in long-extinct local venues like the Westover Ice Rink – but also providing a nod to his wartime service.
Yet, over the years Mills’ boxing career has gradually faded to the periphery as his grim unexplained death and a bounty of salacious, unfounded rumours have been allowed to take centre stage. Once his memorial stood proudly among the manicured lawns of the town’s Winter Gardens but following years of careless graffitiing it was moved into storage in the 80s; finally resurfacing several years later in the reception of a local leisure centre.
It seemed that the town with little in the way of boxing pedigree had forgotten the one shining blue-chip piece of its already sparse sporting heritage. These too were the years of AFC Bournemouth as a perpetually lower-league football club clinging on by their bootstraps from the abyss of financial oblivion. But now, with the once inconceivable emergence of the team as a bone-fide premiership club, the town finally has some solid sporting foundations to build upon.
Chris Billam-Smith, who grew up a long right hook from the beach in the Bournemouth suburb of Boscombe East, has been a fan of the ‘Cherries’ for as long as he can remember. At least since a young Eddie Howe featured in defence and big, immovable Steve Fletcher squeezed into the number nine shirt. After 124 years of being in business, the club is finally beginning to make some history and now it’s the turn of Billam-Smith to attempt to do the same. That he gets to do so at the same venue where he first watched his heroes as a young season ticket-holder in the early 2000s is a source of immeasurable pride. “I am definitely having the home dressing room,” he quips to Boxing News, on his upcoming challenge for Lawrence Okolie’s WBO cruiserweight belt this weekend.
It will be the first-ever boxing event hosted at AFC Bournemouth’s 11,369-capacity Vitality Stadium, and the man nicknamed ‘The Gentleman’ is humbled by the demand to attend. “It’s crazy how fast the tickets have sold. It’s unbelievable really, and I’m so grateful to everyone for turning out and to the club for providing the stage,” he says. “It has been an amazing journey to get here.”
Despite his obvious ebullience, he is keen to ensure the faithful that he won’t be overawed by the occasion. “I’ll feed off the atmosphere,” he promises. “But I won’t let it overwhelm me. That just doesn’t happen with me. If anything, it just revs me up even more. You know, the bigger the occasion the better version of me you will see.”
And it is this version of the 32-year-old that has continued to grow and develop since he first laced on gloves in his late teens at neighbouring Poole ABC. Quickly adapting to the demands of the sport, Billam-Smith promptly collected a Dorset amateur title before twice becoming a senior ABA finalist ahead of turning pro at the relatively advanced age of 27. His trophy, awarded to the county’s best senior boxer, resides in the Dorset ABA trophy cabinet at the same Leisure centre as the rehoused memorial to Freddie Mills. “I suppose it’s a nice little touch really to see them there together, and it’s a great feeling whenever I visit,” he explains. “I remember looking at Freddie’s memorial when I was a kid. Even before I knew I wanted to box I’d often go and look at it; I’ve always known that Freddie was the ‘name’ when it came to boxing in Bournemouth.
“I took my little boy swimming there the other day and showed it to him and my wife. I knew Freddie won the world title in 1948 and that the 75th anniversary was coming up. It has been a long time since Bournemouth has won any belts. Hopefully, we won’t have to wait another 75 years after me,” he says confidently.
In his way stands the complex, loose-limbed conundrum that is Lawrence Okolie, a man whose long arms have sucked the ambition from all who’ve faced him in the ring, albeit on occasion at the expense of the fans’ attention. Considering the two men were stablemates at McGuigan’s gym – “we’re friends to a certain extent,” says Billam-Smith, “Lawrence is a funny guy” – the scheduling of what is a voluntary defence for Okolie, in his opponent’s backyard, may have surprised some. “I heard his last show didn’t sell that great [David Light, pts 12], that people weren’t happy with it, and Lawrence got plenty of flack as a result,” proffers Billam-Smith. “This fight is a way for him to try and put some of that flack to rest. There’s also no pressure on him to try to sell tickets. I honestly think this almost presents as big an opportunity for Lawrence as it does for me. Really, without this fight where would he have gone?
“Unifications aren’t happening, and we struggled to get a fight over the line with any of the other champions. I think a big domestic clash is really what he needs against a good ticket-seller. This fight just makes sense for both of us,” he adds.
Tash talk between the pair has, at least at the time of this writing, thankfully been thin on the ground. But with the two men having sparred many rounds together under the direction of Shane McGuigan, is there a concern that Okolie may just know him a bit too well? “I am confident that there’ll be things he doesn’t know about me,” Chris says. “In terms of what we’ve been working on and what strides I’ve made, strength and power-wise. Lawrence is strong on the inside, so I’ve done lots of work getting stronger through working on some slightly weaker areas and doing some different strength work. Lawrence can move his feet well and he’s strong, but it is as much about concentration as it is physical fitness.
“Then again,” he ponders. “He has a new coach [SugarHill Steward] so there could be stuff I don’t know about Lawrence as well. But to be honest, I didn’t see anything I didn’t already know in his last fight, but you never know because he has since had eight more weeks with Sugar.”
For the 5/2 underdog, May 27 will mark the culmination of several months of wheeling and dealing to secure a shot at a belt. Fights with Jai Opetaia – the world champion and IBF belt-holder – and then Arsen Goulamirian – the WBA leader – were pursued but ultimately failed to materialise. However, this has ensured full readiness on Billam-Smith’s part as he has effectively been in camp since January, albeit spending his time preparing for markedly different opponents. “It has been good to get that variety,” asserts the 32-year-old. “One minute I’ve been training for a southpaw, then for someone who tucks up and comes forward and is a real workhorse, and now I’m training for one of the most awkward fighters there is. It’s good to get the brain ticking and it has probably helped do that by having all these different styles to think about.”
Everything about Saturday night – the stadium setting, the belt on offer, the opponent, the crowd – is very different from Bournemouth’s O2 Academy where Billam-Smith fought several times on his way up and is typically a place more synonymous among locals for first kisses and drunken kebab-fuelled brawls. But his journey through the paid ranks has enabled him to recently purchase a house in the leafy East Dorset town of Ferndown. It’s a renovation job, with plenty of open space for the growing family, and a world away from boxing’s often gaudy excesses.
And that, perhaps, is the difference between the Dorset fighter and many of his contemporaries. His ring name ‘The Gentleman’ reflects his personality and fits him understatedly like an off-the-peg M&S suit. He earns his money in a sport increasingly predicated by thin-skinned bombast, and where thoughts that would be better to remain private are often indiscriminately articulated across social media, but he speaks quietly and respectfully, and if your Gran could get behind one boxer it would probably be him. But that is in no way a slight. He may after all lack the ubiquitous inner-city hard luck story, yet the golden beaches and green fields of his experience should not be under-estimated. They have made him what he is, and they have provided him with something special, an opportunity to represent a town and to feel its energy behind him.
“It would just mean a huge amount to me and for the town,” he says. “The town has just been amazing: the people, the businesses, and the football club. The journey the football club has been on is an inspiring one and it has given so much belief to everybody, including myself.
“If I can have any sort of effect like that, even just a small percentage of it, that would be brilliant. It would be so special to create a huge sporting memory for the town as a whole.
“To finally build on Freddie’s [Mills] legacy.”