Smith vs Williams preview: Who's fooling who?
Arguably the highlight of a stacked card on Saturday night at the Manchester Arena is the super-welterweight showdown between Liam Smith and Liam Williams. Chris Williamson previews a mouth-watering clash...
Quite apart from the intrigue bubbling from what promises to be a terrific, evenly matched showdown between two young British fighters, a number of interesting sub-plots sharpen the focus on Saturday's WBO interim super-welterweight title clash between Liverpool's Liam Smith (24-1-1, 13 KOs) and Welshman Liam Williams (16-0-1, 11 KOs).
Firstly, the match co-headlines what a rejuvenated Frank Warren has billed 'A New Era', the first of twenty annual domestic shows to be simulcast on the BT Sport channel in addition to Boxnation.
Unfortunately, subscription numbers are not reported for BT Sport, although they increased 45 per cent last year according to their 2016 annual report, a document which also noted that most English Premier League games broadcast on the channel reach over a million viewers. So there is no doubt that this deal provides significant exposure for the Warren stable alongside the financial muscle likely to seriously challenge Matchroom and broadcast partner Sky Sports for the first time in several years.
A request by Boxing Monthly for access to the current Boxnation subscriber numbers was declined but the BT Sport influence is already apparent with a number of well-produced promotional documentaries shared through social media. There is a definite 'buzz' about this fight.
Secondly, with the holder of the 'full' championship Saul 'Canelo' Alvarez facing a May catchweight bout with compatriot Julio Cesar Chavez Jr, this contest has been sanctioned for the WBO interim championship. Since much of the boxing community - including Warren - doubt that Alvarez will fight at this weight again, the winner is likely to become 'full' champion. In a further intriguing sub-plot, with Smith coming off a title-losing defeat to Alvarez, as a condition of the WBO sanctioning the Williams match as a 'title' contest, 'Beefy' returned to winning ways in a hastily-arranged four rounder against clubfighter Marian Cazacu on 18 March in Barcelona, Spain.
The reality is that for those in the trade, titles are decorative for well-matched fights like this one. Smith is ranked number one at the weight in Britain by Boxing Monthly, with Williams number two. The Liverpudlian is also ranked nine in BM's world rankings. Whoever wins, it will be regarded as the finest victory of their career by some distance and serve as a useful stepping stone to genuine world class, something Smith probably lacked when he fought Alvarez in Texas last September, a brave but ultimately fruitless ninth-round KO loss.
It's a sign of the times that Smith was defending champion that night, having his fourth 'world' title fight following wins over young fringe contenders John Thompson and 'Jimmy' Kelly (both TKO 7) and a relative 'gimme' to set up the Alvarez bout against Montenegrin Predrag Radosevic (KO 2).
I was ringside in Liverpool for the Radosevic fight on a night memorable for an emotional tribute to the recently passed Muhammad Ali. Williams boxed on the undercard against Argentinian journeyman Gustavo Alberto Sanchez (TKO 3) and the two have appeared on something of a collision course ever since.
Williams' best win came in a rousing and bad-tempered battle with fellow-unbeaten Gary Corcoran last July at the Cardiff Ice Arena. The Londoner was cut early and Williams generally had the final say in a competitive bout up until a chopping right hand dropped Corcoran in the eleventh round, prompting referee Terry O'Connor - who had earlier failed to register a knockdown when only the ropes held Corcoran up - to wave the bout off.
The Ice Arena was rocking that night - at one point an interview I was conducting with Enzo Maccarinelli was interrupted in slapstick fashion as the former cruiserweight champ calmed the crowd down - and one wonders which fighter will enjoy the larger, more vocal support at the Manchester Arena. Of course, Smith lives just 35 miles down the road, but Welsh fans tend to travel for their sporting countrymen and helped fill this arena on a heady March night eleven years ago when Joe Calzaghe unified against Jeff Lacy.
In terms of styles, both are relatively traditional orthodox boxers with hands held high, good jabs and decent if unspectacular shot selection, with both carrying power in their straight right hand. Williams probably shows more variety but his temper bubbles close to the surface and when it erupts - like during the aforementioned Corcoran bout - it can be detrimental to his performance.
Smith appears quite the opposite in this regard, with his emotions kept firmly in check. Even during the intense build-up and the nine rounds he lasted in front of more than 50,000 partisan fans against 'Canelo', 'Beefy' remained impressively level-headed - he simply ran into a better man.
The build-up here has been lively but respectful and one senses each fighter sees a little of himself in his opponent: bred for the sport in a tough, uncompromising environment.
Smith poured scorn on Williams' claim that his apprenticeship in the Rhondda Valleys has moulded the Welshman into a sharper fighting instrument. "Kirkdale was a very rough, inner-city area and I don't care what Williams says, it was a lot worse than his valleys; a proper breeding ground for fighters, " he told Glynn Evans this week. "Around my time - in addition to us four brothers [Paul, Callum and Stephen], you had Kirkdale lads like Neil Perkins, Joseph McNally (and) Declan O'Rourke who were all national amateur champions. And that's just one district. It was rough but it's a great area and I still command a really good following from those streets today."
Indeed, while Smith was busy with his 'secret' four rounder in Barcelona, Williams flew out to the unfamiliar surroundings of the USA's west coast for a couple of weeks training at different gyms, something he claims has sharpened his skills and kept him feeling fresh.
"We went to a lot of gyms like Top Rank and Mayweather [Boxing Club]," Williams told Boxnation. "It was a great experience. The atmosphere was intimidating for a lot of people, but I'm not the type to get overawed with all the ringside shouting and different nationalities. Mainly it was to get away from home for two weeks [and] we had a great time and a lot of fun. It can only benefit me and keep me fresh."
With the posturing and talking almost over, we'll soon find out who the better man is. Under trainers Joe Gallagher (Smith) and Gary Lockett (Williams) both will turn up extremely physically fit and unlikely to buckle under what is sure to be a quick pace.
My feeling is temperament will play a key part. A disciplined fighter usually beats an undisciplined fighter and I fancy the white-hot atmosphere will contribute to Williams losing his cool, negatively impacting his boxing. The pick is for 'Beefy' to maintain focus and control enough of the fight to win a close and hard-fought thriller by a couple of rounds.