Lawrence Okolie and Chris Billam-Smith describe their relationship as “former co-workers”, but co-workers don’t usually trade punches in front of 15,000 enthusiastic spectators in a football stadium.
WBO cruiserweight champion Okolie defended his belt against home fighter and former gym mate Billam-Smith at Bournemouth’s Vitality Stadium on Saturday.
Billam-Smith is trained by Shane McGuigan, who also coached Okolie before the pair parted ways last year.
“We’re not good friends. We don’t hang out outside the gym,” Billam-Smith said.
Okolie added: “It’s like having a friend at work. They’ve never seen your house or interacted with you but you like them when you go to work.”
Whether they are best buddies or just acquaintances, there is still a lot of intrigue surrounding the all-British world-title fight.
Having sparred more than 300 hundred rounds together, ‘The Sauce’ Okolie and ‘The Gentleman’ Billam-Smith felt they had the upper hand against their former stablemate.
From work friends to enemies
With McGuigan in his corner, Okolie won the vacant world title against Krzysztof Glowacki in 2021. Billam-Smith watched from ringside, jumping from his seat when Okolie scored a decisive sixth-round knockout. punch.
Just two years later, there is an undercurrent of tension bubbling over.
“He’s always been Shane’s favourite,” Okolie, 30, told BBC Sport.
“Chris probably watches me every day in the gym. Wants what I have, looking behind me, thinking that one day I’m going to fight this guy.
“The more it festers the more I think maybe we have never really been friends. Maybe he has set himself up.”
Billam-Smith is a British, Commonwealth and European champion, and the WBO’s number one ranked challenger.
“I’m probably Shane’s favorite because I’m the one who comes every week. I’m at every circuit and Lawrence isn’t,” he said.
“I never thought I would fight Lawrence when he was with Shane. When people are in the gym you don’t expect them to leave, especially with how highly Lawrence thinks of Shane.
“But when he left the gym, Shane and I talked and here we are.”
Okolie returns to typing – Billam-Smith
Billam-Smith will live out a childhood dream by competing at the ground of his beloved football team Bournemouth.
“If I’m not Chris Billam-Smith the fighter and I’m the little kid who grew up in the city and went to watch football, had dreams of winning a world title, it’s really you,” he said. – said.
The 32-year-old says he has “improved tenfold” since Okolie left the McGuigan gym. He also acknowledges the effectiveness of Okolie’s understated style, but believes that insider knowledge puts him in a unique position.
“A lot of people have looked at Lawrence over the years and thought they could go in there and beat him. I never thought that,” he said.
“You have to spend enough time with him to get to know him. I did that and I was lucky enough to know his strengths and weaknesses.”
Despite his unbeaten record, Okolie has faced criticism in the past for some poor and mundane performances. On occasion, he used his height and reach advantage to punch and win his way to victory.
“He’s going back to type. You can’t change an entire fighter in that amount of time,” Billam-Smith said.
“There was a slightly different game plan when he was with Shane but there were a lot of things that took root.”
Silverback gorilla to be released – Okolie
After defeating challenger David Light last March, this is Okolie’s second fight with American trainer SugarHill Steward.
Steward wanted to instill the famous ‘Kronk’ style in his fighters – an aggressive approach to boxing on the front foot and looking for the knockout.
Okolie compared himself to a “silverback gorilla” released by his trainer.
“I think Chris and his team went hunting and started going wild, taking chimpanzees and orangutans,” he explained.
“They start thinking they’re doing good and think they’re going to get the gorilla. Maybe you knew the gorilla when it was in your stable, but now it’s gone and there’s no chains.
“I’m going to show you what it’s really like. What a gorilla can do. I’m going to surprise him. They’re hoping for certain things and I’m working hard not to give them.”