SOMETIMES a fighter’s desperation to not lose is so great that he may end up doing things in the ring that will make losing the only option. To their confusion and our collective dismay, self-preservation becomes self-sabotage, and before you know it, a given fighter, fearing defeat, is unsure whether his opponent beat him that night or whether he has finally recovered.
Tonight (May 27) in Bournemouth, this story as old as time was replayed in the WBO cruiserweight title fight between Chris Billam-Smith and Lawrence Okolie. A strange, messy fight, this battle by the sea promised to be awkward from the very first round and became even more awkward as Okolie, the champion, apparently determined to undermine any good, clean work in the fight by getting into unsightly situations that had ruined it so far his professional career. This meant that despite stunning Billam-Smith in the first round and landing some excellent right crosses and upper cuts throughout, Okoli’s undoing was ultimately his inability to gain confidence from these successes and maintain the attitude and attitude of a champion in the lead. Instead, from the very first round, the 30-year-old from Hackney looked worried, timid, full of nervous energy but devoid of any form. There was some danger with that nervous energy, of course, but mostly it just ended up with Okolie landing a single punch and then immediately jumping to hold Billam-Smith, moving frequently before the punch was fully applied.
Unfortunately, for anyone familiar with the game Okolie, this approach will come as no surprise. Nevertheless, it’s a shame that the former Olympian, given all his physical attributes, couldn’t understand the extent to which it marred all his good work and do something to curb it. Instead, he just produced more and more of them as the fight went on, leading to several point deductions and numerous warnings from referee Marcus McDonnell, whose patience was being tested. Even Billam-Smith, who once shared a gym with Okolie and is therefore used to his style, couldn’t believe what he had to endure in front of his supporters at Bournemouth. In fact, time and again he could be seen glancing over Okolie’s shoulder and throwing an annoyed glance in the direction of McDonnell who was about to separate them, or his corner team.
It wasn’t Billam-Smith’s fault, the nature of the show and the fight. In front of the rowdy home crowd, he managed to keep his form and composure, no easy feat in the presence of a spoiler, and also made the best shot of the fight: a sharp left hook in the fourth inning that left Okolie for the first time. This initial break was followed by two other knockdowns, one in the 10th round and another in the 11th round, but neither felt particularly clean and neither should count. Still, you can’t blame McDonnell for mistaking Okolie’s clumsy style and coordination issues for a dazed, dazed, or hurt man. Fuzzy limbs, Okolie often chased Billam-Smith, especially when he realized he was behind, only to trade this appearance of aggression for uncertainty when he was close enough to grab some of his opponent’s anatomy. In fact, this was demonstrated quite perfectly when Okolie found himself on the floor for the third time in the fight. On this occasion, as if imitating an excitable dog, Okolie pitted the earl against him for essentially diving to hold Billam-Smith’s leg. (I’d like to joke.)
Overall, watching Okoli felt like he was plotting to lose a fight that could have been won. It wasn’t the level of Andrzej Golota’s self-sabotage, but it wasn’t far off either. After all, whenever the master actually kept his cool and shot something clean, it was clear he had the speed, strength, and accuracy to at least unnerve Billam-Smith and make him think twice before a trade, willy-nilly. At times like this, even when Okolie may have been knocked out earlier in the round or had a round point deduction, there was a feeling that he was only one big right hand away from tipping things in his favour. This, in a way, shows both his strength and his commitment to keep going in the face of adversity, most of which he created himself. It is also said that Okolie, despite losing point after point for various reasons (some legitimate, others less so), has been in the fight forever, right to the end, and therefore, like Golota before him, will regret his inability to hold it all tonight together and really believe in yourself.
Why that is, we will probably never know. But it certainly isn’t the first time Okolie, 19-0(14), has let his fear of being hit or beaten get in the way of all the excellent work he can potentially do. It had happened before in much less dramatic circumstances, and against opponents far less capable than Billam-Smith.
As for Billam-Smith, unlike his opponent, he was the epitome of professionalism throughout. Balanced, busy, and always eager to equalize an opponent in a trade, he never once let Okoli settle down in a fight and seemed to develop a knack for hitting something significant whenever Okolie began to loosen up and gain enough confidence to neglect holding as an offensive tool . He also displayed a great chin and miraculous recovery power, often taking hard shots from Okolie only to go through them and continue down from Okolie. This left Okolie confused, nervous about his inability to impress someone who couldn’t be refused, and Billam-Smith bore the wounds of battle at the end (he had a nasty gash near his left eyebrow).
Of the two cruiserweights, it’s undeniable that only one showed up wanting to fight, and that man was Billam-Smith, 18-1 (12). In the meantime, Okolie obviously wanted to knock out – ideally with one punch – but without any real desire to trade clean punches or give and take with an opponent whose only desire when entering the ring was just that.
As expected, the meeting of former gym colleagues became an interesting sight. Surprisingly, there was no hesitation from either of the men, or any kind of ceasefire due to their previous – seemingly close – relationship. Instead, the main problem and the main reason Billam-Smith overtook the clear winner (with scores of 116-107, 115-108, 112-112) was that one man was desperate to win the fight and the other desperately didn’t want to lose it. This, usually a recipe for a distasteful dish, if not a total disaster, saw thousands of fans walk out of Vitality Stadium tonight, not quite sure whether a man desperate to win won the fight because of that desperation, or desperate not to lose, desperately trying not to to lose created an unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy; or, in short, throw it all away.