Chris Billam-Smith unchanged by living the life of a champion

Life as the champ has not changed too much for Chris Billam-Smith.

After the night of his life, when he dethroned old training partner Lawrence Okolie in front of 15,000 of Billam-Smith’s rabid Bournemouth’s fans in the town’s Vitality Stadium, Billam-Smith had fulfilled his dream to capture the WBO cruiserweight title.

But the man dubbed ‘The Gentleman’ – and for good reason – is not flash, boastful or one to brag about his achievements. 

To announce his defence with Polish hardman Mateusz Masternak, this Sunday, December 10, in Bournemouth, he showed up at the press conference with his same close-knit team. No entourage. His belt in a case and wearing a smart suit, it was business as usual.  

“I’m not a prima donna,” Billam-Smith said, before joking. “I carry my own stuff. I can’t blame someone else if I lose it!” 

Then, of the silverware he added to British, Commonwealth and European titles, Billam-Smith continued: “Someone said, ‘Just wear it everywhere’. ‘No, it just sits under the bed at home’. Most of the time I forget it when I’m meant to bring it somewhere.”

Having recently moved house, Billam-Smith was helped with some renovations by a neighbour who is a builder. So the champion invited the neighbour round for dinner, and to make sure the champion didn’t look big-headed, Billam-Smith removed the belt and tucked it under the bed.

“I thought, ‘You just look like a knob, don’t you?’ We had them all up, my Commonwealth, my European and my world and I thought, ‘You’ve got to take them down’.”

Then, laughing, Billam-Smith added: “I kind of feel bad, I think he wanted to see it.” 

But things have not changed much. Billam-Smith has been popular in Bournemouth for some time and it is not the biggest town. He is often recognised, and sometimes he is asked to talk boxing. 

Does he mind?

“It depends, who and where the situation is,” he said. “You get some people just walking past who are like, ‘Did you watch the Fury fight?’ ‘No, I didn’t’. And they’re like, ‘Surely…’ 

“And they go in depth about boxing and I don’t care, really. Half the fights aren’t happening, the big fights everyone wants to talk about aren’t happening. Fury-Usyk has taken ages and all that, and that’s the sort of stuff I can’t be bothered with. But it’s part and parcel of the job when you win a world title, people want to talk to you about boxing. More people notice me around Bournemouth and doing the weekend food shop [than before]. It’s not as simple sometimes, but it’s not mad, like I’m getting mobbed, because I’m there with my son Frank and I’ve got a trolley and I’m making sure he is alright, not picking up everything in the trolley and chucking it on the floor and you’ve got someone trying to chat to you about the last fight they were at… It’s nice. I’m really grateful for all the support but sometimes it’s just like, ‘Now’s not the time, I’m trying to do a food shop and look after a one-and-a-half-year-old’ so it’s hard work. But other than that, nothing’s changed. I’ve still got to change nappies. Life hasn’t changed. I think it would be different if I won it and retired, but I’ve got another fight on the horizon, so my mindset is the same in that I need to defend.” 

Logistically, Billam-Smith has a new commercial team in place to help build his brand, but even that he says is “all added stress.”

There are not many more grounded fighters who would choose a quiet life over the razzmatazz that high-level boxing rubs shoulders with, but he knows he is making an impression in Bournemouth and it is one that could be felt in years to come. 

“I’m starting to realise it a bit more,” Billam-Smith admitted. “I’ve read that there’s a bit of a delay where if you achieve something, it takes a couple of years. People see you as something else now, but you’re the same person and you understand that. Maybe I don’t realise how big it was, maybe it isn’t that big, I don’t know, but I don’t see it as things have changed. I was driving my son to nursery one morning and this kid with his mum shouted, ‘Chris’. And I was probably looking so miserable. I’d been up with the little one all night and I waved at him and his mum messaged me on Instagram and said it had made his day and it was his birthday coming up, but when it comes to what it might do further down the line [for boxing in the town], I’m not aware of it. I’m aware of an impact, but not sure of the level of it.”

But it is not as if he’s had too much of the red-carpet treatment. He firstly had to let a cut heal from the Okolie fight in May. Then, when he went back to London to train with coach Shane McGuigan, he booked into a short-term let in Walthamstow. To say the place was underwhelming is understatement. It was far noisier than advertised, had been inhabited by smokers and a child’s sock had been used to cover the smoke alarm.

Two or three days later, Billam-Smith, refund in the bank, found a more suitable place.

And he’s in there with new McGuigan stablemate and old pal Lee Cutler. 

Cutler is a friend from Bournemouth who fights for the English title on Sunday’s bill and who is completing his first camp under the tutelage of Josh Pritchard, McGuigan’s No. 2 in the gym.

There was a time when Billam-Smith was the new boy in the McGuigan camp, when the likes of George Groves, David Haye and Luke Campbell were training with Shane. Now it is Cutler’s turn.

“Once I was the one who was so grateful to be in that position in the gym,” Billam-Smith said. “And I still am, but now with Lee I know what he is going through because he feels he’s the runt of the litter because he’s the newest. I know what that’s like so I think it’s good for me to process his emptions and go through it with him and decompress it with him.”

But when Billam-Smith first started talking about bringing big-time boxing back to Bournemouth, he hoped others might also be able to build off his success, getting other local fighters on his bills and giving them opportunities.

“Lee more than anyone, because I’ve been with him and I’ve been through the mill with Lee, through the amateurs and we’ve pushed each other so much,” Billam-Smith said. “He’s a young gun coming through and doing really well. I won the novices when he was just starting out, and a few years later he won the novices, so it was always similar. He’s just a bit younger than me. He’s obviously had an early loss in his career, he’s rebuilt and now he’s looking at an English title next, so there are similarities in that. I’m excited for him. He’s improving all the time.” 

Cutler, 13-1, meets Kingsley Egbunike on the Bournemouth International Centre show.