Chris Billam-Smith excited for the perfect night against Lawrence Okolie in Bournemouth

“Pressure for me is excitement,” said Bournemouth cruiserweight Chris Billam-Smith.

He challenges his old gym mate Lawrence Okolie for the latter’s WBO title on Saturday, in front of his own South Coast fans, 15,000 of them no less, at the home or Bournemouth FC, the team Billam-Smith has supported as a boy.

The pressure should be on Billam-Smith, but it’s something he has always wanted, ever since he heard the cheers an old amateur teammate received from his first experience ringside. It is not just a dream come true for Billam-Smith, it’s THE dream.

“The more pressure there is the more excitement there is. And I think they come hand in hand. For me, pressure is a privilege. I’ve always loved that quote, that Billie Jean King quote, and if you’re in a pressured situation, you’re privileged to be there. When you’ve got 15,000 people from your hometown behind you, it’s a massive pressure, a massive excitement and a massive privilege.” 

Much of the build-up has centred around the relationship between the two former McGuigan’s Gym campmates. Okolie is now with SugarHill Steward, while Billam-Smith is still with Shane Mcguigan.

The tension between the fighters is something Billam-Smith has relished. The fight has a built-in storyline for Sky Sports. Asked if Okolie is a frenemy (term – a person with whom one is friendly despite a fundamental dislike or rivalry) Billam-Smith smiled.

“I guess so in a way.” 

Then, discussing the animosity over the last few weeks, he added: “It’s been a really good, enjoyable build-up, a bit of back and forth here and there and at the end of the day it’s an all-British world title fight, so it’s great for British boxing fans, with a stadium added to that, it’s perfect.”

But is the bad blood legitimate?

“I think there’s a little bit of needle there,” the challenger admitted. “You’re competitors at the end of the day, and the fact that we both have been in the same gym at the same weight, I think there’s always going to be a bit of bad blood, if you want to call it that. But it’s been good fun in the build-up. I’ve enjoyed it.”

It was a fight that seemingly came out of nowhere. Many thought Billam-Smith’s title try would come against IBF champion Jai Opetaia, and there were negotiations to bring WBA champion Arsen Goulamirian over but they came to nothing. Boxxer wanted a title fight for the stadium and after checking with Billam-Smith, reached out to Okolie. Not many thought it was possible, but within a couple of weeks, it was over the line and set for May 27.

“Me and Jake [McGuigan] were on a call with Boxxer, and we were talking about Goulamirian and he was proving very difficult to get over [from France], so we sort of ran out of champions and said, ‘What about Lawrence?’ At the time, we weren’t thinking about it because it was quite close to his fight with David Light [in March] but then we thought, if he gets rid of this guy it gives him nine weeks, which is a decent amount of time. You can have a week off and then you’re in camp, especially when you’re on the back of a camp anyway. It’s perfect. So we offered it, they went to Lawrence and he took it. As soon as that was done it was signed, sealed and delivered.”

Playing the game with the pre-fight hype, Okolie has said he has spies in McGuigan’s camp. It adds a level of intrigue. Billam-Smith doesn’t think that’s the case, however. 

“That’s Lawrence for you,” said the 6ft 3ins Bournemouth man. “He’s got to make something up.”

Billam-Smith is 32-years-old and 17-1 (12KOs) as a pro. He has had two Sky Sports fights in Bournemouth’s International Centre that has led to this, outpointing Isaac Chamberlain in a war and then nearly decapitating Armend Xhoxhaj. They were the stepping stones that made this jump into a football stadium feasible.

“Absolutely,” said Billam-Smith. “Now it’s just up to me to go out and do my job. Everything else is in place, and now it’s down to me to turn up, do my job and it’s the perfect night.”