The New World Champion
“I don’t know what just happened, my whole life has gone so quick and gone to this moment. I have no words, this is perfect.”
As the dust settled inside the ring, the newly crowned WBO Cruiserweight World Champion stood dumbfounded by the events unfolding before him. No words could adequately convey the feeling as his life-long dream now crystallised into life-changing reality.
After a wayward judge’s scorecard punctured the anticipation, drawing groans of shock from the crowd, the following two cards would confirm what everyone watching knew… Chris Billam-Smith had done it. Just a few more tentative seconds until “AND THE NEW…”, the fighter sank to his knees as the home crowd leapt to their feet. A uniformity of elation rang out around the packed-out Vitality Stadium. Bournemouth had a new World Champion.
Stars Begin To Align
And yet, if this was his coronation before the world, to his hometown Chris Billam-Smith has been the heir-apparent for months. Since landing one of the knockouts of the year with his devastating performance against Armend Xhoxhaj in December, both Chris and the people of Bournemouth have been baying for another big night of boxing on the South Coast.
Chris has almost single-handedly helped carve out a resurgent sporting identity for his hometown. Building on the work of its now Premier League football team, Chris has worked with Boxxer and Sky Sports to bring major boxing events to what has historically been a blind spot on the national sporting stage – despite the natural allure of the South Coast. When a world title fight was announced against the unbeaten Lawrence Okolie, a former training partner of Chris’, at the stadium of Chris’ beloved AFC Bournemouth, it felt like stars were beginning to align.
“To become number one in my division by winning at my team’s ground would be a dream. It gives me goosebumps just thinking about it.”
Sentiments that would be spoken into reality come May 27th.
The Best Of Enemies
Fight week saw a fanfare of activity with open workouts and press conferences held in the glaring sun on Bournemouth Pier, the seaside town providing a much-celebrated yet altogether different backdrop to events. Pre-fight build up centred on the two fighters’ former relationship as sparring partners training under Chris’ current coach Shane McGuigan. Unphased by the politics, Chris basked in the occasion, enjoying his moment, a moment that Okolie was keen to stifle, respectfully playing the role of the pantomime villain.
This almost archetypal “hero versus villain” narrative would reach its dramatic high as the two took to their respective ring walks on fight night. The challenger would be the first to walk, adorned in the black and gold of his customary ThruDark robe, the gravitas of his attire matched only by the callous look in his eyes. 15,000 voices roared as fireworks accompanied music from Adele to Kano and Chris Billam-Smith stepped calmly towards the ring, the chaos of his surroundings doing nothing to penetrate the focus of his mind. The reigning champion would make him wait though and when he eventually emerged it was to a torrent of jeers from the home crowd. Waving to them as he walked, Okolie was unfazed by the animosity that greeted him.
And The New
The fight itself had it all, though hindered at times by Okolie’s clear game plan to frustrate the challenger and quiet his buoyant crowd. This would not work however as a series of knockdowns, the first suffered by Okolie in his professional career, combined with repeated point deductions for holding electrified the home support. Carried on a wave of emotion from his seaside supporters, Chris continued to box, picking off his opponent despite taking some significant shots himself heading into the championship rounds. To those watching, three recorded knockdowns and two-point deductions left few doubts as to who would have their hand raised after the final bell.
Bruising, frustrating and unyielding at times, the hard-fought slog of the fight itself would be matched only by the outpouring of emotion that came afterwards. The sheer ecstasy of the home crowd, chanting the name of their new world champion as they had done all evening, celebrating a moment of local history as much as it was an individual moment. This was a victory for them and for their hometown. An underdog story not only by virtue of the two men in the arena but as an event that underscored Bournemouth’s ability to host sporting events of a national magnitude with both energy and passion. However, for once the bigger picture paled in comparison to the intimate.
A Moment In Time
It’s a strange thing to suggest that events inside the ring, for all their connection and cause, felt wholly separate to the party taking place in the stands - but that's exactly how it felt. As in the eye of the storm, time seemed to stand still watching Chris find his way through the moment with incomprehensible joy. Perhaps this is what it means to watch everything come together at a single point of fulfilment as you, the distant observer, cannot begin to imagine the feeling as another’s dream is realised. The warmth in his message juxtaposed by the violent gash above his left eye, the newly crowned champion took the time to dedicate his victory to his young family and above all his mother, recently diagnosed with breast cancer.
And that, in one climactic, career-defining moment was a microcosm of everything Chris Billam-Smith is. Months of hard work and discipline in training, the decorum shown throughout fight week, the focus of the ring walk, the ability and steadfast grit to outbox an undefeated opponent over 12 rounds all culminating in a message of gratitude to those closest to him. Chris Billam-Smith has always been “The Gentleman”, he is now “The World Champion.”