Making his own history: Chris Billam-Smith interview
Photo: Matthew Lewis/Getty Images
Chris Billam-Smith tells Garry White he is relishing the chance to take on fellow unbeaten prospect Richard Riapkporhe on 20 July and put his hometown of Bournemouth on the boxing map...
If you come from a big city like London, Manchester or Liverpool, you must be spoilt for choice. Their huge populations and urban landscapes providing the perfect elemental mix to produce fighter after fighter and champion after champion.
However those of us that grew up in Bournemouth - our face to the beachfront, fields and farms behind us, the stark heathland of the New Forest brushing our left shoulder and Old Harry Rocks to our right - are not blessed with such a plethora of sporting champions.
Even less so when it comes to boxing. For years there was only the distant and now absurdly controversial presence of Freddie Mills for us to fall back on. Former light heavyweight world champion ‘Fearless’ Freddie, sometimes known as 'The Bournemouth Bombshell', is still the only name that most fight fans would immediately link to the south coast town. There have been other fighters since, but none that dared to rise above the limited status of provincial journeyman.
Bournemouth cruiserweight Chris Billam-Smith is aware of his home town’s historic limitations when it comes to success between the ropes, as well as the once iconic status of Mills. He is determined to change the latter, add to the former and has thus far demonstrated the required apparatus to achieve both aims.
Unbeaten in nine professional fights since debuting in the autumn of 2017, the biggest opportunity of Billam-Smith’s career awaits at The O2 next month. The Matchroom card topped by Dillian Whyte vs Oscar Rivas and supported by the much anticipated domestic dust-up between David Allen and David Price, also includes a host of 50/50 match-ups featuring top emerging UK talent. Chief among these is Billam-Smith’s challenge for Londoner Richard Riakporhe’s WBA inter-continental title.
It's a belt that the fighter known as ‘The Gentleman’ is determined to win so he can continue his mission of bringing boxing glory back to his Dorset home - a place that he currently spends much of the week absent from as fight-night preparation intensifies under the tutelage of coach Shane McGuigan at the gym that bears the famous family name in Battersea, London.
“I still live in Bournemouth,” Billam-Smith tells Boxing Monthly, in a break from training. “But I travel up to London on Mondays and head back on Fridays. I stay at Shane’s house during the week, which is good and means that I’ve no distractions and can focus on my training.
“At weekends I can relax a little bit and fit in all my family and friends whilst I have the chance and get some well-earned rest. That’s important as the camps aren’t easy. Not that I’d have it any other way! But it’s nice being able to go home and switch off. I’m lucky to have that.”
A key feature of his recent training has been sparring sessions with fellow McGuigan trained fighter Lawrence Okolie. Ring-time with the current British and Commonwealth cruiserweight champion has proved invaluable; Billam-Smith discloses: “Lawrence has so much exposure in big domestic clashes and obviously his style is very awkward and he’s tall. He’s perfect sparring for this upcoming fight.
“He’s very good at nullifying you and taking away your strengths. He’s very good at range, can punch very hard from range as well, so you need to get inside, and when you do, you need to create gaps as well, so you can get some shots away. He’s very awkward.”
Despite Riakporhe having an additional year in the pro ranks, both fighters carry the same unblemished 9-0 record, with the equally symmetrically impressive eight wins inside the distance. It is disappointingly rare event for two well-touted prospects to risk their perfect records at this stage of their career, but recent history tells us that such occurrences can deliver fistic gold – think Fowler vs Fitzgerald, for example.
But Billam-Smith acknowledges that there is some danger in challenging Riakporhe; who is placed number three in BM’s domestic 200lbs ratings as opposed to the Bournemouth man’s recent entry into tenth: “Potentially, there is some risk,” he agrees.
“We were wanting to get a big domestic fight this year and looked at people around the domestic scene, including Isaac Chamberlain. Eddie [Hearn] offered him [Chamberlain] the fight, but he turned it down. So, we went for Richard Riakporhe instead because he’s got the WBA Intercontinental belt; a good record and a couple of good wins that have helped build his name.
"You’ve got to look at risk versus reward. Obviously, there’s a risk in any fight, as we’ve seen on the biggest stage with Anthony Joshua. There’s always a risk with someone like Richard who can punch. It’s a great fight for me, but it’s a fight – because I respect him enough - that will bring the best out in me.
"You will definitely see the best of me when I’m in these tougher fights. So, I’m relishing the opportunity to get in there and put on a show.”
The 28-year-old is confident that he can snatch his opponent's WBA belt away and secure for himself a coveted world ranking with the Panama based sanctioning body. “There’s plenty of things we have been working on in training, but I won’t reveal too much,” he says. ”Obviously he can punch solidly with both left and right hand, so it’s about staying away from those and getting my own shots off and taking my opportunities when they come.
“But I believe I have got the opportunity to take him out, once I get my shots off. But you never know, he might be working on a lot of things himself. He might be able to nullify me more and that. But I don’t believe he’s ever really been hit by someone like myself. I’m not saying I’m a massive one-punch knockout artist, but I believe I can hit a lot sharper and harder than his previous two opponents and I will be in a position to get my shots off.”
Without getting too far ahead of himself Billam-Smith already has one eye on the future and the belts currently held by training partner Lawrence Okolie. “By the end of the year I think Lawrence will have vacated those belts, so my next fight after this could be for a British or Commonwealth title,” he says.
“It’s not like I’m going to be fighting for the full WBA world title, because I’m not ready yet, I need that experience. I’m not a dreamer or in any sense delusional, you’ve got to earn your stripes in this sport and it’s the domestic scene I will be looking at for the next three fights at least and we will go on from there. But all eyes first are on 20 July. I’m in with a really good opponent and it’s an opportunity I can’t wait to take.”
Billam-Smith responds eagerly to the suggestion that this next fight could be staged in his hometown. “Yeah, 100 per cent. I would love that,” he says.
“It’s such a small town Bournemouth that it would be great. I don’t think there has even ever been a televised boxing show from the town. I will have a word with Eddie [Hearn]. It would be great to make some history. There’s obviously some already - with Freddie Mills and stuff - but it would be great to make some more recent history for the town. It would be an honour for me to do that."
These final words come out wrapped in ‘The Gentleman’s’ naturally polite and composed manner. His voice containing subtle inflections, possibly imperceptible to many, that in their pronunciation of certain words open a window into his east Dorset origins.
But there is a steely determination from Billam-Smith to lead the vanguard – followed by others like unbeaten middleweight Lee Cutler - in putting the coastal town on the boxing map.
Come 20 July at The O2 he plans to step out of the tortured shadow of Mills and begin to make his own history.