Chris Billam-Smith ready for ‘hardest fight’ against Mateusz Masternak

Bournemouth hero Chris Billam-Smith has adopted a challenger’s mindset as he prepares to make the first defence of his WBO cruiserweight title.

Billam-Smith meets long-time Polish contender Mateusz Masternak at the Bournemouth International Centre on Sunday night in a voluntary defence.

There is already intense speculation about what comes next for the champion, with the likes of Richard Riakporhe and Lawrence Okolie seeking rematches, but Billam-Smith is aware he cannot afford to be at anything other than his best.

“For me, [Mateusz] Masternak is my hardest fight to date, stylistically – he’s so, so tough,’ Billam-Smith explained. “I can’t just be giving him a few rounds, hoping that he’ll tire out because he doesn’t tire out. Then I’ll chip away at him and then break him down, because that’s not Masternak. You can’t plan to do that knowing you’re going to do that, whereas other fighters, you can. For me, this is like the [Isaac] Chamberlain fight but a much better version, a much more consistent version throughout. His [Masternak’s] gas tank is good, he puts his shots together really well, he can punch, he’s one of the most durable men in the [cruiserweight] division, he’s got good feet, he puts his phases together. He does everything really, really well. So for me, this is my hardest fight to date. That’s how I approach the fight going into it.”

It is Billam-Smith’s fourth consecutive fight in his hometown. He has become a Cottage Industry on the South Coast and more than 3,000 fans sold out the BIC weeks ago. His fans create a boisterous atmosphere, but Billam-Smith must focus on Masternak.

“The occasion doesn’t really matter, in terms of my mindset,” the champion added. “I have to prepare better than I’ve ever prepared before as, like I said, it’s my hardest fight. I think maybe now, I’ve got more belief in myself in terms of what I can do, and that’s why I know that I’m going to win the fight. But still I have to prepare myself to get to that level and be able to beat the best version of Masternak. Also, the BIC [Bournemouth International Centre], if you’ve been there for a fight, it’s a full-on atmosphere, and I’m so excited because it holds the noise more than the [Vitality] Stadium. The stadium was phenomenal, don’t get me wrong, but the noise in the BIC is, as defending champion, it’s going to be special. I’ve got goosebumps just talking about it.”

It was back in May when 15,000 fans flocked to the Vitality to witness Billam-Smith’s coronation against former gymmate Okolie. It was an intriguing if scrappy battle. Billam-Smith knocked Okolie down in round three, and the defending champion had points docked for excessive holding. It was the night when Billam-Smith’s ultimate boxing dream came true.

“I don’t think there will be a better night, because in the first [world title] fight, it was the original, it was that authenticity of it, and winning another world title will be amazing, but it won’t top it,” Billam-Smith said. “That, because of the setting – it’s so deep that night – from me sitting there as a season ticket holder, 12- or 13-years-old, chanting player’s names, thinking that must be amazing having people as fans – and then I’m stood in front of the stands I used to sit in, everyone chanting ‘Red Army’ at me. Even as much as the date, George Groves, my favourite fighter, he won his world title at a football stadium on the 27th of May, and it’s exactly the same with me. Everything about that, when they said 27 of May, that’s just like… I’m a bit weird with dates, I was like ‘George won his world title then… and it was a football stadium, this is written’. Just everything, the weather, the opponent, Lawrence [Okolie], all the way up until he joined the gym, and then he left the gym and we spoke about it, and it happening at the perfect time. Honestly, before then, I probably wouldn’t have beaten Lawrence. I didn’t have the attributes to beat him, but now, I’ve grown into the fighter that I can’t see myself losing to him. It was like a divine intervention then.”

Billam-Smith is 33. He did not start boxing until he was 16 and he did not go through the conventional high-level amateur channels in that he was not a Team GB fighter. But he lives the life. He gets better every week and every fight. He even created his own podcast, The Perfect Athlete Podcast, speaking to experts in their fields about how to make physical and mental improvements so he can learn from them.

While Riakporhe wants to score a repeat victory over him from an earlier career win, Okolie wants revenge. But Australia’s IBF champion Jai Opetaia also wants a crack at the WBO title, too.

“I think his grandad loves the WBO belt or something, so he really wants to try and get his hands on that belt, so that’s a huge fight I think, down the line,” Billam-Smith continued, discussing Opetaia. “I said to him after the Jordan Thompson fight, I’ve got some business to deal with but we can unify in the next year and we can look at doing that. Great fighter. If we both keep winning, that’s going to be a huge fight in the division.” 

One of the reasons why Billam-Smith has been able to cultivate his fanbase is from being in exciting fights. Sometimes he has made bouts too exciting for his own good, but trainer Shane Mcguigan says his charge is better on the front foot and being aggressive. Billam-Smith admits his warrior instincts can help rather than hinder him.

Yeah, It’s the way I fight,” he acknowledged. “It’s one of my strengths, so I have to use that, you know? He [Masternak]’s not [Arsen] Goulamirian, where he’s just walking you forward. He’s a boxer who puts his shots together well. There’s going to be times where there’s boxing and there’s fighting, there’s going to be times where I’ll have to dig deep and stick it on him, and I think that’s the key to this fight – is being able to adapt through the rounds, and know when to do the warrior stuff, and when to do the boxing stuff. I think that’s really important.” 

It is a treacherous first defence. Masternak has had more than 50 fights and it’s his first chance at a world title. He has beaten world-level fighters. Some may look at his age, 36, and think he’s started a decline, but Billam-Smith is paying no mind to that. That is why he wears the belt but cloaks himself in the mindset of a challenger.

“I listen to about four people’s opinions in boxing and they’re the ones that matter,” he concluded. “Maybe five if you include my own. So with stuff like it being a big fight, the last one [against Okolie], I just focused on the fight itself and the job I had to do, which is the same as this.”