As one severely disrupted sporting season draws to a disappointing close, another revs up, preparing to explosively recommence in unfamiliar surroundings.
In a tale of two Eddies, struggling AFC Bournemouth look almost certain to plummet from the English Premiership – sending loyal manager Eddie Howe into football’s second flight for the first time in over five years. However, on a different patch of grass just 144 miles northeast, one of the seaside town’s brightest sporting talents will continue stealing headlines next month.
Commonwealth cruiserweight champion Chris Billam-Smith (10-1, 9 KOs) takes on Nathan Thorley on August 7, as Eddie Hearn’s ‘Fight Camp’ gets underway at Matchroom Boxing’s Brentwood headquarters. The bout – delayed by over three months – signals another meaningful appearance on Sky Sports for the former British title challenger.
Speaking to Boxing Social, Billam-Smith sounded excited at the prospect of stepping into the makeshift, outdoor arena, “I’m obviously very lucky to be one of the few fighters fighting on the Matchroom show, so I’m very grateful for that opportunity. It’s an opponent [Nathan Thorley] I was supposed to have back in May anyway, so I’m just glad and thankful that I can get it done three months later.
“I think once the first bell goes, we’ll just get down to business, you know? You’re switched on, you know you’ve got the small gloves on and no head guard, so it’s just gonna be like a lively spar. That’s how fights should be. At the end of the day, we still have a job to do and that doesn’t change. Ideally, I love fighting in front of fans and my fans, especially, support me really well; they travel, but it’s very strange times. You’ve just gotta get your head down and get to work. Hopefully, the fight I have after this one, we can have a crowd again.”
Chris Billam-Smith, aged 29, isn’t your typical boxer. The stereotypical, rough, trash-talking exterior adopted by many of his peers hasn’t ever suited him, hence his moniker: ‘The Gentleman’. He’ll knock you out, but scrape you back off the canvas and thank you for the privilege.
He speaks eloquently, discussing his early life in Bournemouth and how the transition from a small flat in South London to a larger house on the south coast benefited him and his elder brothers. Stories of a younger ‘CBS’, cocky and full of attitude, were hard to swallow. But he wears maturity well – as a product of proud, loving parents.
“When I started boxing, it just humbled me massively,” explained the McGuigan’s Gym protégé. “I was never a really bad kid, but I was getting up to mischief and I’ve been very lucky to have great, supportive parents. My dad works in the film industry. He’s a stagehand, and his dad worked in the film industry as well. It’s an industry where it’s very much who you know. My mum is a doctor’s receptionist, but she was a stay-at-home mum most of the time.
“We moved into our four-bed house [in Bournemouth], so I was very lucky as a kid. I had everything I wanted; I was spoiled, if I’m honest, because of how hard my mum and dad worked. They taught me the ways of the world, manners and things like that. Boxing is a sport where you’re only one punch away from everyone slating you anyway, so you don’t want to make it worse by giving them a reason.
“It’s the same with my mates, they always wind me up now to keep my feet on the ground. They’ll say: ‘Alright, we’ve seen you’re in the paper, mate. We know you have a blue tick’, all that kind of stuff. They don’t let me act like that cocky character; I just wouldn’t get away with it.”
It is that work ethic, instilled in Billam-Smith through admiring the career and sacrifice of his father, Alan, which has taken him to the summit of the domestic rankings. Constant improvements made with Shane McGuigan – Chris’s only professional coach – have caught the eyes of British fight fans. He has become known for excitement and entertainment, and is arguably undefeated.
Many felt that he’d done enough when tackling reigning British champion Richard Riakporhe in July 2019, but he wound up with both hands firmly stuck at his sides, suffering a split-decision loss. While some boxers would take time and comfortable contests to caress their damaged ego, ‘CBS’ threw himself back into the mix, obliterating Liverpool’s Craig Glover in his own backyard (TKO5).
“As a fighter you naturally want to get to the top. You expect these things to come. Being in the gym I’m in, there’s a very high level expected of you and that’s how I’ve always been; there’s no short cuts, nothing like that, that’s how I always train. I was the same as an amateur and it’s the level you expect to get to that dictates how you train in the gym.
“Obviously, Shane is training world champions, so it’s guys who have been fighting for world titles that surround me, and I’m managed by a Hall of Fame fighter [Barry McGuigan]. All of these things help. It’s started happening for me now, and it’s been a good progression and a good learning experience. It’s made it seem more normal. I enjoy it all. It’s nice to get recognised for all of your hard work.”
Of Bournemouth’s appreciation for their newest sporting hope, the humble Billam-Smith explained, “When you’re out in your local town or you’re with your mates and you get stopped by a random person – that’s when it’s a bit mental and a bit strange. It’s really, really nice the support I get from home and from people I don’t know. Boxing’s not massive in Bournemouth, but because I’m boxing on Sky it’s put it back in the public eye and it’s not just for me; it’s for my family and for those people who support me.
“I mean, Bournemouth’s not known for a lot of things. People go to London because there’s so many opportunities there. Bournemouth is only a little town, there’s not a huge amount of people, but I’m very fortunate. I think because it’s not a boxing town and it’s not a big town, this seems like a big thing because I’m the first person to do it in a long time. But hopefully it will become more normal to have boxing in the paper. It just gives me more motivation to do well, that support from the town as a whole.”
‘The Gentleman’ told Boxing Social of his relationship with former Team GB Olympians Lawrence Okolie and Anthony Fowler, both stablemates under the tutelage of Shane McGuigan. Okolie, European cruiserweight champion, has been a positive influence for Billam-Smith, leading by example in setting extremely high standards and providing solid sparring without a hint of divisional rivalry. But it was Fowler – an extreme opposite in terms of profile and personality – that he saved particular praise for.
Billam-Smith explained, “[Anthony] speaks his mind online and stuff, but he’s not that person in the gym. He just likes to interact with his fans and build his social media; that’s part of boxing. You get fighters who are unbelievable talents but can’t sell a ticket, you know? If people don’t wanna watch you, you aren’t making much money.
“I didn’t know what to expect of him, but he really is a top lad and he’s a hell of a fighter. He expects the best of himself, and the best of everybody around him, so if somebody is slacking in the gym, he’ll tell them straight, and you need that. If you look at his social media, he’s either getting loads of love and people liking his stuff, or he’s getting hate mail! But that’s part of our business and he understands that.”
The cruiserweight’s relationship with Shane McGuigan was a friendship, as much as a professional partnership, and the young trainer born from stellar fighting stock was like (another) older brother. They laughed, joked and wound each other up – but when it was time to work, nothing else mattered.
Since turning professional in 2017, he’s been surrounded by some of the best fighters in the UK, including friend and mentor George Groves and unified world champion Josh Taylor. All three competed at a high level in the unpaid ranks, with Billam-Smith fighting in two National ABA Finals, falling short on both occasions (LPTS vs Jack Massey in 2013, LPTS vs Cheavon Clarke in 2016). Boxing has been a part of his life long before he popped up on the television screens of friends and family.
The Commonwealth champion looks set to launch another attack on the Lonsdale belt if he successfully defends his title against Nathan Thorley on August 7. But it should just be the beginning. Despite the polite, educated conversation with Bournemouth’s boxing favourite, there is spite in his punches, and a determined nastiness in his approach. Some boxers are accused of being too nice to succeed, too respectful, and too concerned with the wellbeing of their opponents. That wasn’t it.
Chris Billam-Smith is only being true to himself. What else do we have, when it’s all said and done?
Main image: Scott Rawsthorne @ Unknown Boxers.