Chris Billam-Smith was 16 when he went to see Arctic Monkeys in his hometown. This weekend, 15 eventful years later, he’ll take centre stage at the same venue, writes Craig Scott
“I REMEMBER I was sat at some random car park. I think it was the week of my debut; what car would I have been in then? I think it was a Ford Fiesta. Or it might have been a Vauxhall Astra, I had an old estate that I got from my brother. I’d just done the press conference to announce that I’d signed with Cyclone Promotions. That was my first proper interview.”
Plenty has changed since the first time I’d spoken to Bournemouth’s Chris Billam-Smith, 15-1 (11), back in September 2017. Thankfully, he drives neither of those two vehicles anymore, although they proved their (diminishing) worth in the early days of his professional career, carting him to and from Shane McGuigan’s gym to spar David Haye, or to announce himself to boxing’s media at that press conference as an unassuming, unfashionably polite addition at cruiserweight. “The Gentleman” moniker has certainly stuck.
Back then, Billam-Smith was the newest addition to McGuigan’s small, trusted stable, and was something of a gamble, a wild card. Now, he’s the longest-serving member of an impressive team bursting at the seams with talent, and he is respected by the gym’s experienced champions and its electrifying prospects in equal measure. He has no plans to abandon ship, not now, not ever. That isn’t his style.
One thing the reigning European and Commonwealth, and former British cruiserweight champion has remained adamant about though, will eventually come to fruition on July 30 as he headlines a professional boxing event in the seaside sanctuary of Bournemouth, live on Sky Sports. He mentioned a desire to bring big time boxing back to Bournemouth when we spoke back in 2017, and in facing Brixton’s Isaac Chamberlain on the latest Boxxer card, he’ll have realised yet another lofty ambition.
With the rise and fall (and rise again) of the town’s football team, Billam-Smith thinks the time is right to push ahead with prime time sporting events: “Bournemouth wasn’t really a hot bed for sporting talent when I first started boxing. Obviously, now we’re doing alright with the football, we’ve got Adam Lallana who started here in Bournemouth and he’s gone on to do amazing things. It’s become more of a success in terms of sport and that gives the town a real buzz.”
“I’m in my hometown, headlining, defending my European and the Commonwealth titles on Sky Sports, it is pretty big when it comes to looking back at those moments before my first fight. I’m gonna be on the same stage where I went to my first ever gig which was Arctic Monkeys, 16 years ago. It’s why I got into the sport. I watched my mate Dean fight and everyone there was chanting his name. I thought, ‘That atmosphere, that must be an amazing feeling.’ All those people there for you. It’s a real moment to cherish – I’ll do exactly that.
“This one was very late notice in terms of opponent,” continued the 31-year old. “The whole show to be honest, it’s sort of popped out of nowhere. It’s a good fight [with Chamberlain], another good domestic one to be involved in. Between us, we’re all fighting each other which I think is a great thing for the division and the sport. It’s what everybody wants. There’s really only a few at the top now, and once I win this, there’ll just be the three of us sat there with no debate, really. I’m absolutely buzzing to be heading home for the fight, just super excited.”
This fight signals a switch in platform and promoter for the south coast’s breakout star, after leaving Eddie Hearn and DAZN following a run of eight fights with Matchroom Boxing. His last performance, a blistering stoppage of Belfast’s Tommy McCarthy (rsf 8) in their highly-anticipated rematch in April of this year, signalled the end of their promotional affiliation. Billam-Smith explained he was extremely grateful for Hearn and Matchroom, but it was time to shine in Bournemouth.
Despite almost polar opposite upbringings, Billam-Smith and next opponent Chamberlain spent some of their formative years just 14 miles apart, in Tadworth and Brixton respectively. And while Chamberlain suffered heartbreak and loss at a young age as a result of violence in the streets of Brixton, Billam-Smith’s childhood took some unusual twists and turns of its own, showing him the value of freedom.
His father worked for years as a stage hand, called upon for some Hollywood blockbusters and was extremely successful in his field, while his mum was a doctor’s receptionist. After moving from Tadworth to Bournemouth when Billam-Smith was just three, they enjoyed a “big house with a big garden,” he recalled. Then, at age 11, he was whisked off to travel Australia while his peers where buying their school uniforms and mourning the end of the summer holidays. It remains one of the greatest experiences of his life.
“My brothers were 17 and 19, and my parents wanted to go travelling before they turned 50. We went to Australia and that ended up being for eight months; we all travelled round in this 4×4 and stayed in a tent, this little bowled out camper bed – I’m surprised I can even stand up, to be honest! Now and again, we’d treat ourselves to one of the cabins and that was an absolute luxury. We travelled from Perth, all the way up the west coast, it was crazy.”
“Looking back, it just seemed so normal to me until I started getting older and realised it wasn’t this normal thing that parents do: take their kids out of school for a year,” he laughed, thinking of the practicalities of such a trip as an adult and a new father himself. “I spent a lot of time on my own; I had this BMX, and I just remember every campsite, I’d be like, ‘Nope – can’t stay on that one, hasn’t got a BMX track.’ It was just freedom, I guess. One of my favourite places we stayed had no electricity, so it had no flushing toilet. Just a ‘dunny,’ as they like to call it. We were cooking on a packing stove all the time, stuff like that. Basically, it was a national park and it was just pitch black at night. I’ve never seen so many stars.”
All of this before boxing, as Billam-Smith turned his attention to the fight game relatively late. He signed his first professional contract at 27 after two failed attempts at winning the ABAs (losing to Cheavon Clark and Viddal Riley), and when we spoke in 2017, he wasn’t a man that seemed destined for championships. Confidence blossomed slowly but surely under the tutelage of the McGuigans and despite losing that freedom he so valued as an 11-year old in the outback, he thrived in the discipline and development: “I was always very coachable, I was always a very good listener. I could learn – I just needed to be taught the right things.
“I was very fortunate that Shane took me on. Not many people get that kind of opportunity; I know Olympians that haven’t. I’d done a lot of rounds of sparring with George [Groves] and David [Haye], so thankfully, Shane said ‘yes,’ otherwise I would not be in the position I’m in right now. I think we’ve both just gained trust in each other, really, on both a personal and professional point of view. I personally always believed in Shane as a coach having seen what he’d done with Carl Frampton and George Groves at that time. Then, seeing what he did during camp, in the gym, the stuff he was doing with Josh Taylor, I knew this was where I wanted to be.
“On a personal level, there’s been a lot going on,” he continued, “He’s been there for me as a friend and vice-versa; there’s absolutely no reason for me to leave the gym. Jake, Barry, I’ve become really close to the whole family through a lot of difficult times. That naturally brings you closer to people. Shane is the coach when it comes to the profession and I’m not one to think about leaving – even though others did. They’ve always been good to me and they gave me the opportunity. They’ve developed my career superbly and there’s no complaints from my side; I hope the same would be said from them about me.”
Fighting Isaac Chamberlain in Bournemouth presents another risk – but that’s what he’s in the game for. Since bursting onto the domestic scene Billam-Smith has fought Tommy McCarthy twice, Craig Glover, Nathan Thorley, Richard Riakporhe (his only loss as a professional), and added some solid European tests. His bounce back from that sole career defeat was widely commended: this is boxing, let’s move on, we have to earn our spot all over again.
Now, ranked highly in boxing’s often-contentious sanctioning bodies, world titles are only just out of arms’ reach. But the biggest difference in Billam-Smith’s life hasn’t been the ascent to the top of a rankings table or the addition of another shiny belt occupying a shoulder; it has been the birth of his first child, little Frank Billam-Smith, born to the fighter and wife, Mia, just over six weeks ago.
“Life just makes sense as soon as he’s born. It’s a crazy, crazy feeling; it’s one you don’t understand until you experience it yourself, I don’t think. I was speaking about my dad earlier and I have a lot to live up to, so, if I can do all of those good bits, I’d be doing alright. He’s only young and I’m away from them just now during the weeks from Monday to Friday. It’s just more motivation, more love, it’s just the greatest feeling. People are asking, ‘Is he gonna box?’ I wouldn’t like him to. I’d like him to train, and hopefully I’ll be done by the time he realises what I did for a living, so hopefully he’s never addicted to it.”
On this camp specifically, he spoke of eradicating distractions, despite the pressures of another mouth to feed at home. He knows that Isaac Chamberlain is coming to win, looking to seize the opportunity to return from boxing’s wilderness. This is the Brixton man’s second big headline fight after underwhelming at London’s O2 Arena back in 2018, and Billam-Smith knows exactly what to expect: “He’s got good hands, good variety of shots, he’s tough, he’s durable, he carries power and he’s quite slippery as well. It’s gonna be quite different from other styles that I’ve faced before. He’s a very good fighter and he’s only lost to Lawrence [Okolie] on points, which not many people have done. It’s a new puzzle for me to crack and a new style for me to deal with.”
Okolie, the WBO cruiserweight belt-holder, is now a stablemate of the Bournemouth man, but “The Gentleman” confirmed they haven’t yet compared notes on preparing for Chamberlain, their second common opponent after both bowled over Russ Henshaw in one round. Okolie is a different proposition now – unbeaten and entertaining, not as raw as he was when the pair of South Londoners clashed four years ago. Billam-Smith waxed lyrical about his other gym mates in the McGuigan gym, describing Ellie Scotney as a “ball of light,” and talking highly of the explosive Azim brothers, Robbie Davies Jnr, Anthony Fowler, and the Dubois siblings. He’s now the old-head in there, and you get a sense he quite enjoys that – it’s his badge of honour.
On July 30, Billam-Smith will look to extend the team’s run of impressive results with the added pressure of doing so in front of his home fans, after successfully bringing boxing back to Bournemouth. It’s a change from the London fight nights he has become accustomed to, but plenty has changed – he doesn’t actually have a car at the moment, in case you wondered. But for now, he is back where he belongs, and a step closer to reaching boxing’s peak. “I know what I want, I know where I can go, I know what I can do. There’s a level of feeling content with where I’m at now and the journey I’m on. I think if you’d told me back then that this was gonna happen, I’d have said, ‘Okay – that’s great.’ You’re always edging slightly closer, so when you get there, it doesn’t seem like such a big leap. Once you achieve something, it seems easy because, well, you’ve achieved it. It’s always about looking onto the next goal.”