It is seven months since Chris Billam-Smith lived his dream. On a spring night, the lifelong A.F.C Bournemouth fan stood on the center spot of his favorite football team’s stadium holding aloft the WBO cruiserweight title after beating Lawrence Okolie.
Bournemouth may be one of Britain’s most popular seaside resorts but the temperate south coast town is still no place for a winter stadium fight so, this Sunday, Billam-Smith returns to the atmospheric Bournemouth International Centre for the first defense of his belt.
Given that Billam-Smith’s fan’s would have packed out the three thousand capacity arena no matter who he was matched with, it would have been no surprise had this voluntary defense of his title been promoted as a celebration of a local hero with an opponent hand-picked for the showcase.
That isn’t Billam-Smith’s style. Instead, the 33-year-old will take on the tough, accomplished Mateusz Masternak.
‘The Gentleman’ wouldn’t have it any other way. Billam-Smith’s rise to the top of the cruiserweight division has been characterized by his willingness to accept fifty-fifty fights. Since losing his unbeaten record to Richard Riakporhe back in 2019, Billam-Smith has won nine successive fights against ambitious opponents and collected the British, Commonwealth, European and WBO world titles.
Masternak has been a stalwart of the cruiserweight division for over a decade but this is his first opportunity to fight for a world belt.
The Pole has only lost once since being narrowly beaten by Tony Bellew in their European title fight back in 2015 and that defeat came to the excellent Cuban, Yuniel Dorticos in 2018. He may be 36 years old and a veteran of 52 professional fights but having waited so long for this opportunity, he is sure to leave everything he has left in the ring on Sunday night.
"As a fighter you can’t just prepare for a plain sailing night, especially against someone as experienced and talented as Masternak,” Billam-Smith said at the final press conference.
“It the way we prepare but the way I’ve been in camp has been fantastic so I’ve got a huge amount of confidence in whatever situation I’m in in the ring, even through any hairy moments. I’ve shown before that I can come through them and I think that’s what makes me so much more confident and makes me such a great fighter.”
That extra self-belief should come in handy on Sunday night. Show promoter, Ben Shalom, was honest and probably extremely accurate when he said that had this fight been made before Billam-Smith boxed Okolie, Masternak would have likely walked to the ring as the betting favorite.
Clichés are clichés because they possess an element of truth and one of the longest running standards in boxing is that a fighter immediately improves once they have a title belt wrapped around their waist. The exact percentage of that improvement depends on who you choose to listen to but it is undeniable that self-confidence plays a vital part of a fighters make up.
Billam-Smith now has first-hand knowledge of exactly what it takes to succeed at the highest level and although he isn’t the type of character to make bold, brash predictions about the outcome of a fight, he does believe that his best will be enough to beat whatever version of Masternak turns up on Sunday night.
“I feel like I’ve grown in confidence but it’s probably better for Shane [McGuigan, his trainer] to say but I feel like you have that belief in the process because all the hard work was worth it,” he said.
“I’m expecting the very best version of myself. I think I’ve shown that this camp in the gym and I’m expecting that with that work that I’ll be putting in, it’ll be very interesting to see how he deals with it.
“52 fights and never been dropped, that’s an impressive feat for the level he’s boxed at but I believe that’ll change on Sunday night.”