The fighter Chris Billam-Smith knows better than anyone else stands in his way of world title glory on Saturday.
Back home in Bournemouth, ‘The Gentleman’ takes on Lawrence Okolie for the WBO cruiserweight title, his former training partner and the man he has sparred hundreds of rounds with over the last three years.
Shane McGuigan has guided Billam-Smith throughout his professional career with Okolie joining his gym in May 2019 with two of the country’s best cruiserweights operating side by side under his watchful eye.
Under McGuigan’s guidance, the Hackney fighter rose to the summit of his division, celebrating his crowning moment in March 2021 with an emphatic knockout victory over the battle-hardened Krzysztof Glowacki to claim his maiden world title.
While under the same roof, the possibility of the two stablemates ever fighting was laughed off and dismissed by both men who grew close during those countless hours locked away in McGuigan’s Leyton gym.
But a split at the start of the year paved the way for something different. Okolie and McGuigan parted ways with the champion’s relocation to Dubai making the arrangement no longer viable.
It opened the door for the friends to turn foe on Saturday night with Billam-Smith and McGuigan in the unique position of knowing their opponent inside out.
‘Lawrence is the one opponent out there I know better than anyone else,’ Billam-Smith told Metro.co.uk. ‘I know what he brings and what he is able to do. I don’t think there is anyone in this division I know better. It makes it easier to prepare for.
‘I had sparred him a few times before he arrived at Shane’s gym but I didn’t really know him. We became gym mates, we got on very well together. We shared a lot of rounds together and we developed a lot of respect for each other. But he left the gym and that left us where we are now.’
Okolie has defended his world title three times since his triumph at Wembley Arena and after leaving McGuigan’s gym, linked up with SugarHill Steward, the man credited with helping Tyson Fury find the concussive power that has helped him rule supreme at heavyweight.
Okolie already has that particular attribute in bulk but has put plans to join Fury in the heavyweight division on hold to chase unification at cruiser.
Billam-Smith is fully aware of the finishing power his old teammate has but given the unique position he and his trainer are in, the insider knowledge they have could prove vital in dethroning the champion on the biggest night of his career this weekend.
‘Us sharing the gym together and being close, that was always going to be an obstacle that would have prevented us from fighting,’ he said. ‘I wasn’t sure if our paths would ever cross because we also weren’t sure whether he would be moving up to heavyweight sooner than planned. But he stayed and he has the world title and that is what I want.
‘Despite the history, it is just training for another fight. The added bonus of course is we know what Lawrence does, his patterns, the way he works so that gives me and Shane a huge benefit going into this fight because we have two heads going in together. We have both done so many rounds with Lawrence, we know what he does well and what he doesn’t do well.’
Okolie has blasted his way through 19 opponents to date, 14 of those wins coming inside the distance, with Billam-Smith acknowledging the Londoner is perhaps the hardest man to beat in their division.
‘He has looked the least likely to lose his belt out of the champions but he might not have boxed at as high a level as some of the other guys,’ Billam-Smith said. ‘They all bring their own gameplans and own styles and own problems but he is definitely one of the hardest people to beat in boxing. That’s an attribute in itself and a compliment to him and the way he goes about his business.’
Victory for Billam-Smith on home turf will also be a victory for McGuigan with the challenger crediting his rise in the sport to the dedication and skill of the man in his corner.
‘For Shane, there is a lot riding on it for him too,’ Billam-Smith said. ‘For him, it is about getting me to that world title. That is my goal as well but there is a bit of added motivation I suppose for Shane.
‘It will be another world champion on his resume. He knows the dangers Lawrence has so it will be satisfying for him too.’
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