THE same day news broke regarding an Amir Khan failed performance-enhancing drug test, two British cruiserweights stood eyeball to eyeball, then thought about shaking hands before ultimately choosing to embrace each other.
Not only a surprising turn of events, the hug shared by former gym mates Lawrence Okolie and Chris Billam-Smith that April afternoon seemed altogether healing. It was healing for them, on the one hand, for it shattered any of the usual tension that occurs on the day of a fight announcement, and it was somewhat healing for the rest of us too.
Because, frankly, never was a good news story as welcome as on a day like Tuesday, April 4. Hours after the Khan news had broken, we searched for answers and for the light and, thankfully, in the end wouldn’t have to wait long, for it arrived that same day in the form of a compelling all-British WBO cruiserweight title fight announced for May 27 in Bournemouth. Better yet, there was a storyline to this particular fight capable of distracting us from more pressing and depressing matters, at least temporarily, as well a refreshing shock element to it which, depending on your degree of cynicism, restored your faith in boxing’s ability to get its act together and make the fights the fans want to see when such measures are required.
For this, credit should go to the boxers involved. It is their job, after all, to ensure fights like this occur and seemingly Okolie and Billam-Smith have been the driving forces behind the decision to essentially fast-track a fight that previously seemed destined to end up taking place either later this year or even next year. Why this has happened is anyone’s guess, but it would be fair to say that historically the cruiserweight division has never been awash with opportunities for fighters – financially, that is – and therefore tends to lend itself to surprisingly straightforward deals and unexpected (and competitive) fights.
Between Okolie and Billam-Smith we have a continuation of this trend. Both no doubt had options – safer ones, less risky ones – but, equally, both knew their quickest and straightest route to a pot of gold was to collaborate on a date already in the books, with both a venue and television slot in place. Moreover, to accelerate this proactive thinking, it was only three weeks ago Okolie sleepwalked through a dull 12-rounder against New Zealand’s David Light, which likely had the effect of both motivating Okolie to get out again – against someone a bit more threatening – and motivating Billam-Smith to pounce at a time when Okolie is perhaps still finding his feet after a prolonged period of inactivity.
That’s good news for fans accustomed to hearing reasons why two fighters can’t immediately fight rather than reasons why they should. Clearly, contrary to popular belief, a belief pushed by promoters and fighters themselves, a great fight is not hard to make so long as those involved in the process of making it truly want it to happen and are not, as tends to be the norm, using the façade of effort either for attention or to furtively work on an easier option elsewhere.
Another thing contrary to popular belief, and again this is evident in the case of Okolie and Billam-Smith, is that a great fight does not need animosity as its fuel or selling point. Here, with Okolie and Billam-Smith, there is no such dynamic, nor would one expect anything like that to develop in the weeks leading up to their fight at the end of May. Instead, in place of animosity you have nothing but respect between two former sparring partners who, according to both, were friends during the time they spent together at Shane McGuigan’s gym.
Since then, Okolie, 19-0 (14), has left McGuigan and prepared for his last fight alongside the American Sugar Hill. Yet, whereas often a divorce in boxing would be used for backstory or, in some instances, produce genuine tension and needle between the relevant participants, there is no such thing apparent with Okolie and McGuigan and Billam-Smith, 17-1 (12).
In some ways you would think that would come as a disappointment, too, what with all the possibilities that kind of storyline would offer: bitter cruiserweight champion battles the contender whose coach was the man who once guided the champion to his cruiserweight belt. However, far from disappointing, the mutual respect shown by Okolie and Billam-Smith when in each other’s company – no better exemplified than when they warmly hugged following their press conference – merely proves what we have been saying all along: it’s the fight that matters, not the tools, however genuine or manufactured, promoters and fighters use to sell it.
Some, alas, still don’t understand this. They try to sell us fights of little or no interest and then attempt to appeal to our thirst for chaos and confrontation by having the two mismatched boxers engage in vulgar displays of pre-fight “beef”. This leads to a slew of fake slanging and shoving matches at press conferences, the footage of which then naturally finds its way on to social media and, in turn, makes boxing look like a sport run by incompetent idiots, full of nothing but short-tempered, ill-mannered thugs. To some degree, that perception is true, of course, but only boxing would readily present that image to the world – an already judgemental and sceptical world – in order to simply sell a fight that without such measures would struggle to do numbers either at the gate or on pay-per-view.
It’s the ultimate act of sporting self-harm, I suppose. We do it to ourselves and with increasing regularity as well. As if the frequent failed drug tests and various cover-ups were not enough for the sport, boxing then shoots for the lowest common denominator, both in terms of selling tactics and the target audience. They assume its audience is stupid and give them what stupid people these days want: fake press conference brawls; young women with zero boxing ability pulling hair and screaming expletives; banter, content, beef. They do this with all the subtlety of a Carlos Maussa right hand and only the ones paying attention will question it or indeed appreciate that a pre-fight hug is as good as a pre-fight brawl if the fight to follow is one worth making in the first place.