Chris Billam-Smith is the new WBO cruiserweight world champion after defeating the previously unbeaten Lawrence Okolie, who was knocked down three times and also docked two points for his ugly and excessive brawling.
Two of the judges had Billam-Smith a comprehensive winner by margins of 116-107 and 115-108 while the third official bizarrely decided it was a 112-112 draw. It was a ridiculous score and the first two judges at least captured the mayhem of Okolie’s desperate tactics and the controlled discipline of Billam-Smith who deserved all the plaudits.
A shuddering left hook from Billam-Smith dropped Okolie in the fourth. The champion lay on his right side, looking stunned by the power of his former training partner. Okolie held on but Billam-Smith caught him with a right uppercut before the end of the round. A nick over Billam-Smith’s right eye opened up but he looked supremely confident as he stalked Okolie in round five. Okolie was reduced to yet more holding and the referee deducted a point midway through the round for his grappling.
In the sixth a chopping right from Okolie reminded Billam-Smith that the fight was far from over. Okolie carries real power in his fists but too often he preferred to hold and brawl.
The next warning, in round seven, came when Okolie was berated for the use of his shoulder. An irate Marcus McDonnell then took Okolie into a corner to admonish him. It did not curb Okolie’s determination to rough up Billam-Smith with illegal tactics and McDonnell marched him back to the corner yet again – and docked him another point. At least Okolie landed a hard and legitimate combination before the end of a messy round.
Before the start of the eighth Okolie was instructed to box rather than brawl. Boos from the crowd reverberated but a left from Okolie clipped Billam-Smith. Just before the bell a brutal right from Okolie sent Billam-Smith’s gum-shield flying out of his mouth.
But halfway through round ten Okolie was down again when a left hand connected. It did not look a heavy punch but Okolie tumbled to the canvas. But the champion rose to his feet and cracked Billam-Smith with some effective blows, although he was warned yet again for using the shoulder as they clinched.
Okolie was desperate but encouraged by a bad gash above Billam-Smith’s right eye. But he was again mauling and brawling and chastised by the referee. Just before the end of the eleventh Okolie went down for a third time after a series of combinations. Okolie tried to hold Billam-Smith’s legs as he tumbled to the canvas in a pitiful sight. The sold-out and deeply partisan 15,000 crowd celebrated the certain victory of Billam-Smith, the local favourite.
After almost six years as a professional fighter, with much of that time spent a long way from the boxing limelight, victory will feel impossibly sweet to Billam-Smith. His amateur career was not marked by any great achievements and when he joined Shane McGuigan’s gym as a pro his esteemed trainer did not expect too much from him. Billam-Smith’s dedication and tenacity soon changed McGuigan’s opinion but for many years he remained behind Okolie who worked in the same gym as a world champion.
The decision of Okolie and McGuigan to part company last year allowed Billam-Smith to finally challenge his former stablemate for the world title. Okolie has always had the capacity to send either his opponent or the watching viewers to sleep. His contrasting achievements have seen him score some frightening knockouts while more often using his long arms and awkward style to smother his rivals in tedious and ugly bouts that bored everyone into glum submission.
But, when it mattered most, Okolie was disappointing in the way he approached this fight. McGuigan trained Okolie for years – just as he continues to train Billam-Smith – and before the fight he had made some withering comments. Stressing that Billam-Smith is “a much superior person”, McGuigan said Okolie has “self-preservation stamped on his forehead” which means he either tries to end fights early with his concussive power or, staying out of harm’s way, “he wins in a boring, messy way”.
Billam-Smith, with the polite manner and understated classiness to match his nickname, “The Gentleman”, proved himself a deserved winner. The crowd was exultant as Billam-Smith, a fervent Bournemouth supporter, gave the south coast town yet another night to remember. With Premier League football already secured for another season, the Vitality Stadium rocked with delight for their new world champion. Okolie, meanwhile, cut a forlorn figure, as he relinquished his title to the far better man.
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