Billam-Smith starts three-fight Boxxer deal with Masternak defence

Chris Billam-Smith makes the first defence of his WBO cruiserweight world title on Sunday, when he clashes with long-time contender and Polish hardman Mateusz Masternak.

They meet at the Bournemouth International Centre in front of 3,000 of the champion’s fans in the first fight of Billam-Smith’s new three-fight deal with promoters Boxxer.

Although Billam-Smith wants big fights, and to unify, his path is not entirely in his own hands. Lawrence Okolie, his old sparmate whom Billam-Smith dethroned, has a rematch clause, and Billam-Smith believes the former champion will exercise it. 

“I don’t think he has turned it down,” Billam-Smith explained, of why Okolie has not got an immediate rematch. “He wanted the rematch, but he’s been in underwhelming fights. His performances have been underwhelming for a while and it ends up scrappy and stuff like that, and most of the time people come to fight [Okolie] they come to win on points because they don’t know how to deal with the awkwardness because they haven’t done hundreds of rounds of sparring with him like I have. 

“Lawrence is a fighter and he will want a rematch, I know what he’s like. It’s the same, when he lost to [Erislandy] Savon in the amateurs. He wanted to get back in there and learn from it and it will be exactly the same now, but as with Savon, who beat him the first and second time, the result will be the same. I think the second time around, Lawrence has to do something better in his next fight regardless, because if he has another stinker, it’s hard for him to come back. That’s just me being honest. I like Lawrence, and I do wish him well, but from a boxing perspective and the entertainment side of things, it's a hard sell.”

Boxxer hope Okolie returns with a bang early in 2024, to create some kind of buzz for a rematch. The first fight was intriguing but a messy, mauling affair with referee Marcus McDonnell constantly warning Okolie throughout and Billam-Smith scoring a knockdown on his way to a points win.

Other than having his hand raised, the lone knockdown was the highlight of the night for Billam-Smith.

“That’s something we’ve worked on so much, Lawrence always exits that way, when he doesn’t find his range, it’s built in him, he can’t change that,” recalled Billam-Smith. “I can tell him and he’ll do it but it’s not going to change, because he’s done it his whole amateur career as well. That’s just a default setting. So at the end of round three, Shane [McGuigan] was like, ‘You’ve got to start dropping back now’, and I dropped back, and threw a one-two, because he throws a left-hook and I’ve missed that, threw a one-two, and then I walk him down, he throws a left-hook to the body, and that’s when I step back find that shot, he drops back to that position, and found the left-hook, so for me that’s the biggest shot, because we’ve worked on that a lot. Shane said it before that round, so I’m listening, and we’re working as a team. Watching it back, hearing that noise and hearing everyone erupt. Before then it was a silent crowd and then everyone just erupts, you see the crowd go crazy, so that’s by far, the best moment.”

Billam-Smith will be hoping for similar moments against Masternak on Sunday, but he is taking nothing for granted. Masternak is tough, experienced and has been into opponent’s hometowns before, notably outpointing former world champion Jean-Marc Mormeck in France in 2014.

The three contracted Boxxer fights for Billam-Smith could be Masternak, the rematch with Okolie and then a rematch with Richard Riakporhe, who defeated Billam-Smith on a split decision earlier in their careers. That said, IBF champion Jai Opetaia has his eyes on Billam-Smith’s WBO belt, so could a unification fight be the third bout?

“Yeah, I mean, possibly,” said Billam-Smith. “I don’t really think too far ahead because it’s boxing, as all of us around here know what it’s like. It’s very touch-and-go at times, until people get in the ring, you even don’t know what’s going on, so I just take every fight as it comes, let the team deal with it that side, and have the conversations when they need to be had.”