Chris Billam-Smith is one fight away from his wildest boxing dream coming true.
The popular Bournemouth cruiserweight, who has won British, Commonwealth and European titles, has always dreamed of a stadium fight in his hometown for the world title.
Should he come through Germany-based Kosovan Armend Xhoxaj at Bournemouth’s International Centre on Saturday night, he will be in line for Australia’s IBF champion Jai Opetaia at Bournemouth’s Vitality Stadium next summer.
It’s all he’s ever wanted in the sport, but Xhoxaj comes first and the 32-year-old from the south coast has been doing his homework.
“There are a few fights of his online,” said Billam-Smith. “He’s really game, comes forward, puts the pressure on, throws a lot of shots, got a good one-two and a good right hand and he definitely poses a threat. I’ve got to be switched on and if I’m not it will be a hard night’s work. For me, it’s about putting on a good performance, especially with what lies next.”
Billam-Smith is referring to the Opetaia fight, but first things first and he’s turning the International Centre into something of a fortress. He had some early bouts in his hometown, but now he’s attaining cult hero status there and possesses one of boxing’s most raucous fan bases.
“I’ve seen all the videos from last time in the build-up to this one and listening to all the crowd and the atmosphere,” he said. “I’m so excited for that on Saturday night, but I’ve got to keep focused and do a job so they’re still singing at the end.”
The fans were singing back in July, when he shared a British fight of the year contender with Isaac Chamberlain that had the crowd on its feet for long periods of the fight. But the idea is not to be in slugfests every time.
“Obviously I’ve developed into quite a good inside fighter,” Billam-Smith said. “It’s part of my game now. At the same time, I want to be entertaining but I’ve got a family and you don’t want to take too many shots. As much as you want to be remembered for the good fights you’re in, and taking the good fights, you’ve got to get out unscathed. And although it was very gruelling, afterwards my face was barely marked up and I felt alright. I took a few shots, but you’re always going to take a few shots – especially with the style I’ve built into – but it’s about mixing it all up and getting the win, that’s always what’s most important.”
The motivation of the IBF title fight is spurring him on. Billam-Smith believes that an impressive victory on Saturday night will assure him of the fight he covets.
“I can’t put on a lacklustre performance and edge out a points win, or not look superb on the night,” he added. “I’ve got to put on a good performance and keep people talking and build towards that fight. Everything building towards that fight starts on Saturday.”
The work has been done with trainer Shane McGuigan for months and years.
They have formed a strong bond and Billam-Smith remembers the days when he started out in the stable with the young and now decorated trainer, when the likes of David Haye, George Groves and Carl Frampton were there. It’s a different time now.
“Shane has always produced amazing fighters, they’ve always been good fighters, well-known names and people have always enjoyed watching Shane and his fighters, but now it’s a new crop and it’s emerging talent coming through,” Chris went on. “Before, they were established when Shane had four or five world-class fighters very close together, but now it’s emerging talent, me as well being the dark horse of the gym, and I’m at world level now and it’s still a surprise for a lot of people.”
The burgeoning stable features Ellie Scotney and Caroline Dubois, Adam and Hassan Azim, Daniel Dubois, Lawrence Okolie and Robbie Davies.
For Billam-Smith, it’s not just about the old adage of success breeding success, but of what is required to make it in the gym.
“For me, it’s always been such a high standard set, there’s always an expectation of you,” the cruiserweight said. “Some people might see that as a bad thing, but it’s a belief really. Shane believes in his coaching ability and his way of training and the team knows how to build fighters and it’s a belief they can do all of that and the fighters have the talent to do it.
“It’s an expectation, but the reason for it is they believe in us and that belief has always been there, that the fighters in the gym can go on to great things.”
Billam-Smith’s fans have a similar belief in him and while the sport might play second fiddle to the town’s beloved Cherries Premier League team – the club Billam-Smith ardently follows – the popularity of boxing in the south coast town that spawned former light-heavyweight champion Freddie Mills has never been greater. Billam-Smith might be the figurehead, but he’s seen its rise on all levels.
“When I first turned amateur down here, there were about three amateur clubs down here, and now there are about 10,” he acknowledged. “White-collar boxing is growing, unlicensed boxing is growing, there are a lot of gyms down here now and they’re popping up all the time, and there’s a huge fanbase and love for boxing here. It’s grown massively since I started boxing 16 years ago and I’m fortunate that it has. To be from a town that’s not known for its boxing and to the first person for a long time, putting on these shows, I’m very lucky all the stars aligned for me to have such a great fanbase and one that creates an amazing atmosphere.”
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