Billam-Smith will aim to ‘seek and destroy’ Masternak, says McGuigan

Chris Billam-Smith is in a real fight on Sunday, when he defends his WBO cruiserweight title against long-time contender Mateusz Masternak.

The Bournemouth champion’s coach, Shane McGuigan, admits Billam-Smith’s first defence is far from a gimme. 

“Definitely not,” McGuigan said. “There’s a reason he’s [Mateusz Masternak] never been a voluntary defence for anybody. He’s been ranked in the governing bodies for years and no one’s given him the voluntary [fight]. He’s never had the chance to be a voluntary, so for us to do this, some might think it’s silly because it’s a hard fight. But also, I think it’s a fight that makes Chris [Billam-Smith] look good. There will be sticky moments within the fight because he’s tough, durable, and he’s a decent puncher, [with] good feet, but that’s what Chris has to get up for at this stage in his career. He needs challenges because, the fight before Lawrence [Okolie], in Chris’s eyes, it was a complete gimme and he switched off a lot. He needs something to get the bit between his teeth and I think we’ve got that in there with Masternak.”

Billam-Smith is 18-1 with 12 stoppages. The Bournemouth star is having his fourth consecutive fight in his hometown although Masternak is a happy traveller and has done some of his best work on the road. But as McGuigan said, the fight before Okolie, against Armend Xhoxhaj, Billam-Smith was careless and got too involved before wiping out the German-Based Kosovan in the fifth round. Billam-Smith is big, strong and tough and Masternak applies pressure. Staying on the back foot will only invite the Pole to box to his strengths. 

“Chris has a killing mentality, he’s one of those guys where he has a seek-and-destroy [mentality], that’s when he’s at his most effective, when he’s aggressive,” McGuigan explained. “There will have to be calculated aggression, that’s the way we’ve got to take this fight on. I think when Chris boxes on the back foot, a lot of the time he switches off and he gets leaky; but when he’s in that middle range, and working that way in on the jab, that’s when he’s at his most effective. If you look at Masternak’s career, he’s boxed people like [Yuniel] Dorticos who’s very heavy-handed, a much thumpier puncher than someone like Chris, but it's not repetitive and it's a little bit too slow. Chris holds decent power but that transition from long to short, and the flurries of shots, I think that’s what’s going to be a huge telling factor in this fight. The only thing is, we can’t pick up any collateral damage on the way. Chris is 33. He was badly cut in his last fight, badly cut in the fight before that, so that’s something that we’re going to have to be very aware of. His eye has healed well but he’s going to have to stick to a solid game plan – but the game plan isn’t going to be getting on your bike, and try and outbox this guy because that’s where Masternak is at his most effective – when he’s pushing people back, so we’re going to have to take it on.”

McGuigan has been in the opposite corner for a host of top names, pitting his boxers against Vasilii Lomachenko, David Haye, Callum Smith, Tony Bellew and Leo Santa Cruz. This week McGuigan has observed Masternak up close and he can see this is nothing new to the Pole after his 52-fight career, even though this is his first shot at a world crown.

“I remember I watched Clinton Woods vs. Glen Johnson, that’s the sort of man, Glen Johnson,” McGuigan said, making the comparison of Masternak with the US veteran. “He was old and seasoned and he had losses on his record, but he’d learnt from all of those losses and he is most effective at 36-years-of-age. He’s designed to fight. You can see that in his dimensions; thick set, big neck, keeps himself in shape, lives a life where he doesn’t blow up and go down in weight – that curtails longevity in your career. But, you know, I’ve had Lomachenko in the other corner before, world-class fighters in the other corner that are just pound-for-pound greats. He’s definitely not that, but he’s a really good all-rounder and it’s a potential banana skin for sure.”

Johnson and Woods had three tough fights and Woods improved with age, and after he had won the IBF light-heavyweight crown he improved as the champ. Many believe Billam-Smith, now 33, will grow into his world championship belt and show improvements and additional confidence from winning the belt.

“No one would’ve expected Chris Billam-Smith to win the world title when he turned pro,” McGuigan added. “He went into five ABAs [England National Amateur Boxing Championships] or whatever, never won a major title in the amateurs, never got on GB, and I think those people like Chris or Clinton Woods, or Anthony Crolla – well, Anthony Crolla captained England – but really, they’d work so hard to get to world level that when they’re there, it’s not like, ‘Okay, I’m checking out now’. I’ve had super-talented fighters where it’s come easy to them, they’ve won world titles and they’ve just gone, ‘Well, I should’ve been here, I was meant to be here’, and they kind of just take their eye off the ball a little bit. The 12-week camp slips to 10 weeks and they’d come in a little bit heavier, or they’re not training quite as hard, or not putting their roadwork in, or their sprints in, their diet is a little bit off and they’re crashing the weight a little bit too much. All of these things happen once you get comfy, when you get the money. But for Chris, he went to private school earlier on in his life and it was never about, ‘I want to make millions and millions of pounds’. He’s a really intelligent guy and he could’ve taken his hand to a lot of things. He got into boxing because he is passionate about boxing, and he wants to prove himself, show to himself how good he is and how hard he’s worked over the years. This is just the showcase of all of that. But really, once he’s won the title, there’s been no change. it’s not quite been the same with other fighters that I’ve worked with that have got up to that level.” 

Already there are talks that Billam-Smith will face Richard Riakporhe in March and rematch Lawrence Okolie in the summer. But no one can look beyond the veteran Pole on Sunday at the Bournemouth International Centre.

“You know that, it’s like this stage, we get up to world level and there’s not gimmes, and that’s why we wanted a decent fight for him, because he needs to get switched on for it, and he has a lot of respect for Masternak,” McGuigan concluded. “I think we take one fight at a time, one round at a time, and that’s just the way we’ve got to approach everything from now on, because it takes one minor slip-up, or a lapse in concentration.”