FOR all the “new media” talk and debate, and there have been plenty of them in recent weeks, there is no denying how effective they can be if done right. Just six weeks ago, on the Sky Sports Boxing podcast, Lawrence Okolie, fresh from an average performance against the unknown David Light, spoke candidly about his performance and on his next breath declared that he was ready to fill a spot alongside Chris Billam-Smith on the bill Bournemouth scheduled for May 27.
Then everything went fast. Within days, it was confirmed that Okolie, the number two contender in the cruiserweight division and holder of the WBO belt, would be defending his title against Billam-Smith, a sixth-ranked man and Lawrence’s former gymmate. Wouldn’t it be nice if it was always this easy? The fact that the two are part of Boxxer’s promotion stable is obviously the reason why there were no hiccups, coughs or gibberish during the negotiations, and perhaps a taste of what life might be like if everyone just left their egos at the door, got together and they worked in harmony to move themselves and the sport forward. It’s ironic that this contest – arguably the most enticing of all currently on the British boxing calendar – will have to draw attention to itself with two other world title bouts being staged by rival promoters, on rival networks, on the exact same night. Okay, there were promises of staggering main event times to compensate for the jam, but that’s not a solution, it’s just highlighting the problem.
But let’s not focus on that. Hackney’s Okolie, 19-0 (14) and 30, was fighting for the bodysuit belt for several reasons. No doubt, part of this is due to the excessive dilution of the titles to the point where the term “world champion” has long since lost all meaning, at least to the outside world, most of which have largely given up trying to make sense of the championship structure – or lack thereof – many years ago.
However, with regard to Okolie, it is also true that even in today’s confusing landscape, the right fighters – those with the perfect mix of charisma, connections, talent and fame – can earn their titles and run with them. The boxer does the belt and that’s it. Though talented and hard to beat, he never spent much time on social media or stuck his head up the butts of the most powerful. It also didn’t help that there’s always a toss-up on who goes to bed first – his opponent or the audience. While he undoubtedly possesses the power to bend skulls, he is better known for winning ugly all the way.
But in Billam-Smith, 17-1(12), he takes on a boxer who could be on the verge of becoming a crossover star if he triumphs at his beloved Vitality Stadium. And not because he’s a flatterer or playing the fame game with every breath. No, Billam-Smith is the archetype of the British hero, any man who is honest, humble, of expensive descent, and thus has gained a huge following just in his hometown. Perhaps most importantly, he never puts up a boring fight.
Billam-Smith, an aggressive boxer and pugilist who has rediscovered his strength in recent years, is brave and exciting in a way his opponent rarely does. However, for those who pay more attention, Okolie is just as honest and determined as his opponent. The fact that he is happy to go to Bournemouth, consciously playing the B-side and the villain, even though he is the one bringing the trophies, shows an understanding of his image and a desire to get the most out of him. This in turn should underline his confidence, even if it’s not always clear when he’s going about his business in the ring.
What so few fail to mention about Okolie is that not once did he look like he had lost a fight. And it is precisely this deceptive efficiency in controlling the pace and distance of 12-round bouts that Billam-Smith may find even more difficult to counter than the ever-present threat of the Londoner finishing the case with one dream-inducing stroke. Moreover, the fate of Light, who suffered a stroke and had to remove a blood clot from his brain after what was no doubt a dull fight, should only underscore how deceptively dangerous the Londoner is.
Standing at 6 feet 5 inches, Okolie makes good use of his size, but not in the way that, say, Tyson Fury does. When he puts some latch behind his jab, it’s a serious weapon that rips off his monstrous right arm, which he strikes from the blind side or straight through the middle. The worse news for Billam-Smith, however, is that his guiding hand is effective even when it’s just a paw; its sheer length has a nuisance value that few of its rivals have found a way to effectively counter. If a fighter gets too close, Okolie will either knock him out or use his inner boa constrictor to stifle his ability to move freely. In short, it is a nightmare proposition.
But Billam-Smith, along with coach Shane McGuigan, know all this already from the numerous sparring sessions that friends-rivals have shared. And Shane’s input here will be crucial. Many talents have come and gone at McGuigan’s Gym – including Okolie – but the Bournemouth player is the longest-serving member of the team and may soon be the most successful. Boxers who happily put all their trust in one trainer throughout their careers, as Billam-Smith did with McGuigan, very often are the most successful and mentally healthy.
The chiseled challenger refuses to talk about what happened behind closed doors, but his insistence on victory suggests he had some success with his helmet on. Similarly, the fact that Okolie called out Billam-Smith probably means he’s also not concerned that the challenger has his number. The secret of their acquaintance only intensifies the fascination from the outside. Like Okoli’s connection to SugarHill Steward, an American trainer whose stock has skyrocketed as a result of his involvement with Fury, but aside from that connection, we don’t yet know if he’s as good a trainer as his name suggests.
Billam-Smith can’t stand Okolie and hope for the best. To win, he needs to put pressure on the favorite, especially when Lawrence tries to slow down. The Stratford Seaman is adept at keeping up the frantic action, throwing punches to the body making his presence felt when close, and his ability to deliver precise and painful combos is one of his best assets.
But Okolie has almost always prospered in the face of such pressure. And while you can easily imagine CBS intimidating him on his way to scoring success, it seems like Okolie will once again show what happens when opponents follow him. While Billam-Smith’s defense has improved, he’s not slippery or elusive, and as the fight progresses, his will to triumph could create opportunities for Okolie, perhaps only in the last three rounds, to grab a signature KO win.
Undercard hurts with the withdrawal of Mikael Lawal, who was due to defend his British cruiserweight title against Isaac Chamberlain, but fireworks appear to be set for super welterweight as Smethwick’s Sam Eggington, 38-8 (19), tests the undefeated credentials Southampton boxer Joe Pigford, 20-0 (19). There is no doubt that the Midlander’s experience eclipses that of his rival, but it seems the long-legged Pigford may prove to be too fresh.
Elsewhere on the bill, in the same division, Bournemouth’s Lee Cutler, 12-1 (7), will take on Harby’s Stanley Stennard, 10-0 (4) in a well-matched fight and keep an eye out for the prospects of Kariss Artingsall, Mace Ruegg , Lewis Edmondson and Tommy Welch.
VERDICT – A win could catapult Billam-Smith into the big leagues, but he has a formidable challenge ahead of him.