CHRIS BILLAM-SMITH has warned WBO cruiserweight champion Lawrence Okolie that he is a changed man since they shared over 300 rounds of sparring in Shane McGuigan’s gym.

The pair spent years training alongside each other under McGuigan and racked up hours of sparring in big gloves and headguards although an actual fight seemed unlikely at that point.

However, Okolie left the stable last year and has since started work with Sugar Hill Steward which opened the door for a May 27 showdown with Billam-Smith, who has won British, Commonwealth and European titles at cruiserweight.

There had been suggestions that the Bournemouth man could face either IBF champion Jai Opetaia or Arsen Goulamirian, who holds the WBA title, as he went in search of a world title shot.

But, after Okolie took care of his mandatory challenger David Light last month, he agreed to take on Billam-Smith at the home of Bournemouth FC.

CBS said: “I was a little bit surprised because it was very soon after his last fight but at the same time he didn’t really have a choice. He didn’t have a great performance and this is an opportunity to headline again.

“Although he is a world champion, after the performance the other night and the backlash he got for it, he might not have been given the opportunity to headline a show. 

"So he has to play the opponent card and what better way to do it than in a domestic fight in someone else’s backyard? It’s a huge opportunity for him to get back and try and look good.”

Victory over Light moved Okolie to 19-0(14) and he has been made a big favourite to retain his belt in this fight with Billam-Smith, who is 17-1 after tasting defeat at the hands of Richard Riakporhe back in 2019.

But Billam-Smith believes Okolie will be underestimating him based on their many rounds of sparring and is adamant he has the blueprint to beat the awkward puncher from London.

He said: “He can only underestimate me due to the fact I’ve improved so much since he’s left the gym. He hasn’t seen this version of me and I haven’t really shown this version of me in my fights yet either.

“Nobody knows him better than me and I’m strong enough and clever enough to work him out. There are small adjustments to be made so you don’t end up walking forward into a clinch, basically.

“He’s just so unorthodox so you have to really think about getting inside his awkwardness but being as effective as possible. You have to find ways to stay away from certain shots. He has good power, he never dropped me or anything but he has decent power. But it will be different in 10oz gloves but it’s the same for both of us.

“Neither of us know what it’s like to fight the other one because we never hit each other with 10oz gloves.

“But I think in the last few spars we had, I had a lot more success and I built a lot as a fighter in the last few spars and then even more so since then.

"In 2021 I had 34 rounds of competitive fighting and that helped me a lot. I think I’ve figured out the best way to beat him.”