Ben Shalom admits ‘focused’ Chris Billam-Smith has a lot on the line and is facing a hard fight

“The first defence is always a hard night, it’s always a special night,” said Boxxer promoter Ben Shalom.

The Bournemouth International Centre is sold out for Sunday night when WBO cruiserweight champion Chris Billam-Smith makes the maiden defence of his crown against experienced Polish contender Mateusz Masternak.

It is a crown Billam-Smith won back in May against Lawrence Okolie and now he has to deal with the expectancy of being a champion. But Masternak is a hard man and while it is his first world title shot, it could be his last, so Billam-Smith needs to close the door on the challenger’s own dreams.

“[It’s] the night where he [Billam-Smith] has to prove he’s world level and, if he comes through on Sunday, Richard Riakporhe, his mandatory challenger, will be there,” said Shalom. “It’s a huge rematch for both of them and a fight I’m really looking forward to. He [Riakporhe]’s licking his lips. In his head, he’s beaten Chris Billam-Smith once, when he was a fighter he feels he’s a shadow of what he is now, and he’s looking forward to that fight. Chris will feel he’s not the fighter he was then, too [back in the early days of their careers], so it’s a great British fight between two fighters who know each other well… But Masternak will have other ideas. There’s a lot on the line on Sunday.”

Shalom has that look promoter’s get when they know their champions are not in easy. He is aware of Masternak’s experience and pedigree. 

“I think if we’d made this fight before the Lawrence Okolie fight, people would be like, ‘Bloody hell, that’s a dangerous fight for Chris’,” Shalom explained. “That’s how fickle the boxing world is. He had an unbelievable performance against Lawrence Okolie, who was maybe considered the best cruiserweight, but Masternak’s a world-level fighter who’s been waiting for this opportunity a long time. He’s had a long time to prepare and his team have come for this fight. I think we’re going to have to see a career-best performance to come through on Sunday night. In my eyes, it’s a 50-50 fight. People talk about Masternak coming towards the end of his career, but everything shows he’s here to win and I think it will be a great fight. Chris will have to be his best.”

Some fighters win the world title and grow into the role, improving rapidly. Billam-Smith, trained by Shane McGuigan, is an excellent fighter who is always looking to improve himself, but Shalom admits Masternak is a perfect gauge to ascertain whether Billam-Smith is ready to kick on from the night of his life, when he won the title against Okolie in May.

“I think that’s what this fight is,” Shalom stated. “He needs to prove that he’s world class. I think there’s still a lot of question marks, perhaps unfairly, around Chris. Now he’s got to stay at that level, but if I’m honest, I’ve never seen someone so focused, so locked in, and so ready to prove himself on that world stage. If he can win on Sunday night, there are some huge fights for him. But every fight at this level is tough. Every fight is going to be at a level that before Okolie he just wasn’t boxing at, and he’s just got to prove himself every time. He’ll have the fans again. He’ll have the atmosphere, he’ll have everything in his favour, but he’s got to beat a guy who’s been waiting his whole career for this moment and a guy who’s been at a top level for a long time.”

As well as Riakporhe, Lawrence Okolie might also make an appearance, although his partner is expecting a baby.

“I hope he is [in attendance,” Shalom said. “He’s having a baby this month so it’s a special time for him becoming a father for the first time, so I think he wants to take stock. For me, when you have three performances in a row that aren’t quite at the level you want [in reference to Okolie], take stock and come back. He’s a fabulous athlete. He’s one of the most talented boxers if not the most talented boxers, I still believe, at cruiserweight. But something wasn’t clicking for him. He’ll come back next year. He’ll want to regain his world title. I’m sure he’s still a favourite to do that. Fingers crossed, he will be here on Sunday night. I’d like to see him out in February. He’s only lost once in his career, in a cauldron that was Bournemouth against a home fighter, and a hometown hero. I’d like to see him out in February and fight for the world title again in the summer.”

While Billam-Smith has brought big-time boxing to Bournemouth, Shalom is enjoying steering the ship. He is enjoying the South Coast visits, trying to build cards with local talent who can piggy back off Billam-Smith’s brand and success.

“It’s definitely a special place,” Shalom added. “I’d never been to Bournemouth before and it was an eye-opener to be honest. I really fell in love with the place. I spent a week there and it was almost like a little holiday but the way everyone came out… It’s one of those old-school English towns and the way they’ve got behind Chris and the momentum that it’s picked up has been ridiculous. We talked about the stadium when I first signed him and I thought it was one of those things you say when you’re signing someone, [thinking] are we actually, really going to get there. Especially because that [Isaac] Chamberlain fight wasn’t bang sold out. That was 3,000, we got there, it was slow but the atmosphere was brilliant. That was the night that really kicked it off because anyone who was there experienced something quite amazing, whether you saw it there or on TV, and the fight delivered. Then the locals, the football team and Sky were like, ‘You know what, this has kicked off’, and from there it’s been a whirlwind. The fight against Xhojaj was the perfect start as well because we had that unbelievable, clinical knockout, after Chris had been on the backfoot for a couple of rounds. It wasn’t easy, and that took it to another level. It was the perfect way to take it to the stadium and then get 15,000 and that really did sell very quickly.”

And while there is local talent on the bill, there are TV slots of Boxxer’s talented Olympians. Lauren Price is on the cusp of world class, and Ben Whittaker returns after an injury-plagued spell.

“For me, it’s all about Lauren Price, Ben Whittaker and Chris Billam-Smith this weekend,” Shalom concluded. “I think they’re three people that have come on so much.

“[For Price, this is] the fight the one before the Sandy Ryans, Mikaela Mayers and Tasha Jonas. I know she wants to fight the winner [of Jonas-Mayer next year] already.”