'The Gentleman': Chris Billam-Smith interview
Cruiserweight Chris Billam-Smith is arguably the hottest prospect to come out of Bournemouth since the 1940s and the golden age of Freddie Mills. Garry White speaks to him ahead of his upcoming showdown with Robin Dupre...
The man known as ‘Fearless’ Freddie Mills was as synonymous with the town of Bournemouth as he was for his windmill punching all-action ring-style.
Mills' 1948 world light heavyweight championship victory over Gus Lesnevich has, in the expanse of time, gradually slipped from human memory and is now mostly only recalled via the confined, captive world of the newsreel. A memorial plaque to Mills was even removed from the town’s central gardens in the late 1980s and rehoused in a local leisure centre.
It's a piece of chiselled stone that Chris Billam-Smith is all too familiar with, as he tells Boxing Monthly:
“I used to live across the road from the leisure centre and spent a lot of my childhood there. I’ve been and read the plaque a few times, even before I knew I wanted to box. Obviously, Freddie’s era was a long time ago, but he is still the name when it comes to boxing in Bournemouth.”
Mills hailed from a time when Bournemouth’s staid image of retired colonels and rain covered deckchairs still held some grain of truth.
Truth be told, this image is a long way from the modern reality of the nightclub stacked, stag-do central that Bournemouth has been for at least the last 25 years. Often perceived as an unobtrusive, golden beached, sporting backwater; it has grown in confidence of late following the whirlwind success of its football team. A phoenix-like rise has seen AFC Bournemouth recover from bankruptcy and near relegation from the football league, to a place at the Premier League’s top table.
Billam-Smith, speaking during a break in training at McGuigan's Gym in Battersea, is very clear about his home town pride.
“I love the place,' he says. "It’s a thriving place to be. It will always be home and I am determined to do the town proud, and inspire others to do well, in their chosen field. Just because we don’t have a tradition of it down there, doesn’t mean we can’t have success. Just look at the football team now!”
After coming to pugilism relatively late, Billam-Smith only really began focusing properly on boxing while he was a college student. Learning his craft at nearby Poole ABC he quickly developed into a successful amateur, winning the under-20 novice class in his 14th contest and then fast-tracking straight into the ABAs - a journey from which he has “never looked back”.
The 28-year-old made his pro debut last September and has progressed serenely if brutally to six straight wins; five being resolved within the distance, and is already on the cusp of breaking into the top ten of the UK rankings at 200lbs.
It is a rapid journey that has been significantly aided by signing with Barry McGuigan’s Cyclone Promotions. Standing shoulder to shoulder with stablemates like George Groves and Josh Taylor, is - for the Bournemouth man - now a routine day at the office.
He confesses that it wasn’t always like this.
“You still pinch yourself now and again. But, the pinches have got fewer and further apart now; I have got more used to it. But, it is still a bit surreal when I think that I was sparring with George Groves just now. He was someone that I used to follow as an amateur.
“It’s great having a gym here full of fantastic fighters, all at different stages of their careers; with different styles and operating in diverse weight divisions. I can learn from all of them and just soak it all up. It’s not just the fighters: obviously there is Shane as a coach and Barry as my manager and mentor. They’ve all been through different experiences and I can learn from all of them.”
The 28-year-old then provides some additional colour about how a Bournemouth lad was able to tie himself up with the McGuigans' London-based operation.
“In late 2015 I got a Facebook message from a lad that was working with Shane. They asked me to come up to London the next day. It turned out that they needed me to do six rounds with George Groves. This was before it had even been announced that George was with Shane and it was actually the first proper spar he did under him.
“I went back a few more times, over the next 18 months, and did some sparring with David Haye as well. When I decided to turn pro, Shane was the only contact I had. So, I thought ‘why not ask him? I might as well start at the top and work my way down’. Thankfully he said ‘yes.'"
All this has led to appearances on some very high profile shows that would often be out of reach to all but the most gilded prospects. For example, Billam-Smith has appeared on the Taylor vs Vasquez undercard as well as George Groves' WBSS quarter-final match-up with Jamie Cox at Wembley Arena.
And he is positively revelling in the experience that these big fight nights have provided.
“It’s a bit surreal really. You don’t really think about it until after. I was fortunate to be on early, so I could just sit back and enjoy the rest of the evening. But, it's great being involved in the changing room and getting to see what these big fights are like, before I start doing them myself.”
For all the razzmatazz of these large television promotions, there is still nothing like walking out at a home show back on the south coast. The 900 capacity O2 Academy is just a stone’s throw from where Billam-Smith grew up in Boscombe East. Its normal function is as a live music venue but locals of a more mature vintage will remember its 90s nightclubbing heyday of House music and pound a pint student nights.
It's a place so mired in local coming-of-age folklore that Billam-Smith is even prepared to recall that it was probably “the place that I had my first kiss”.
It is a venue that he has now fought at three times. In the future, though could it lack the capacity to accommodate his ever-growing fan base?
“Unfortunately, it might not be quite big enough," he admits. "We sold it out last time so we may need to look somewhere else. Which is a shame; when you get a crowd of fans in there the atmosphere is amazing. It’s an old Opera House so the acoustics are amazing and there really isn’t a bad view anywhere.”
It was at this venue that Billam-Smith outpointed Slovakia’s Michal Plesnik back in June over eight rounds. It was the first time an opponent had shown the necessary resilience to extend him the full distance. Despite the frustrations of not being able to conclude proceedings early he is philosophical and readily identifies the benefits that this longer test has provided.
“It was a good learning curve looking back on it. He was tiring from the third and I was trying to finish him the whole fight. Maybe I could have varied my work a bit more, but I can take lots of lessons from it. If I faced the same situation again then I think I’d be able to get the stoppage. I would put my shots together better rather than just throwing the same shot.”
The additional “rounds under the belt” should stand the prospect in good stead as he prepares for his first ten-rounder at York Hall next month. In a fight billed as a “Commonwealth title eliminator” he faces the more experienced Robin Dupre - an opponent that is a move up in class from his previous level of opposition.
“He has that winning mentality and will come out and be busy," Billam-Smith admits. "He is awkward as well and can obviously box. He’s only lost once and that was for the Commonwealth title [against Luke Watkins]. I was ringside at that one and I think he put up a good show early on.
“I know I will need to be sharp with him. I see it as a good challenge and I will see if I am where I think I am.”
Everything about Billam-Smith is polite, respectful and understated. It is difficult to ever picture him getting involved in the seamier elements of trash-talk that so frequently permeate the sport.
It is therefore no surprise that he has adopted the slightly unfashionable ring name of ‘The Gentleman' - an old-school, retro moniker that could easily have hailed straight from the era of Freddie Mills.
He credits trainer Shane McGuigan with its selection but it does readily complement his character.
“I quite like it," he says. "It’s not malicious or trying to be something. I guess it’s quite ironic as well. I suppose you’re not meant to be a gentleman when you step through the ropes.”
It is this last sentiment that will inevitably be seized on by any critics questioning whether ‘The Gentleman’ possesses sufficient 'bad intentions' to make it in the hardest game. Such views conveniently forget that boxing matches aren’t won with the mouth but instead via an efficient union of fist, heart, body and brain.
All qualities that Bournemouth’s best boxing hope for 70 years appears to possess in abundance