SOMETIMES, so great is a fighter’s desperation not to lose, they can end up doing things in the ring that ensure defeat is the only option. To their confusion, and our collective dismay, self-preservation becomes self-sabotage and before you know it the fighter in question, afraid to experience defeat, is left unsure whether his opponent got the better of him on the night or, ultimately, he got the better of himself.
Tonight (May 27), in Bournemouth, this tale, one as old as time, played out once again during the WBO cruiserweight title fight between Chris Billam-Smith and Lawrence Okolie. An odd, messy eyesore of a fight, this battle by the seaside promised to be awkward from as early as round one and only got more awkward, too, with Okolie, the champion, apparently determined to undermine any good, clean work in the fight by falling into the kind of unsightly situations that have blighted his pro career to date. This meant that despite stunning Billam-Smith in the first round, for example, and landing several excellent straight right crosses and uppercuts throughout, Okolie’s undoing was in the end his inability to take confidence from those successes and maintain the posture and stance of a champion in the ascendancy. Instead, from as early as round one, the 30-year-old from Hackney cut a worried, skittish figure, one full of nervous energy but lacking any sort of form. With this nervous energy came a certain danger, of course, but mostly it just resulted in Okolie throwing a single punch and then immediately leaping in to hold Billam-Smith, often making the move before the punch had even fully connected.
Sadly, for anyone familiar with Okolie’s game, this approach will have come as no surprise. Yet it is a shame nonetheless that the former Olympian, given all his physical attributes, couldn’t understand the degree to which it was undoing all his good work and do something to curb it. Rather than that, he simply produced more and more of it as the fight went on, leading to a couple of point deductions and numerous warnings from the referee, Marcus McDonnell, whose patience was tested throughout. Even Billam-Smith, a man who once shared a gym with Okolie and is therefore accustomed to his style, couldn’t believe what he was having to endure in front of his home fans in Bournemouth. Time and time again, in fact, he could be seen looking over the shoulder of Okolie and shooting an exasperated glance in the direction of either McDonnell, en route to separating them, or his corner team.
It was no fault of Billam-Smith, the nature of this performance and fight. In front of his raucous home support, he managed to keep his form and his composure, which is no easy task when in the presence of a spoiler, and he also landed the best shot of the fight: a crisp left hook in round four which dropped Okolie for the first time. There were two other knockdowns following that initial breakthrough, one in the 10th round and another in the 11th round, but neither appeared particularly clean and neither of them should have counted. Still, McDonnell could not be blamed for mistaking Okolie’s ungainly style and coordination issues for a man being stunned, staggered, or hurt. A blur of limbs, Okolie would frequently chase after Billam-Smith, especially once realising he was behind, only to then swap this pretence of aggression for one of uncertainty once he was close enough to grab hold of a part of his opponent’s anatomy. This, in fact, was demonstrated rather perfectly when Okolie found himself floored for the third time in the bout. On that occasion, as if mimicking an excitable dog, Okolie had a count issued against him for essentially diving in to hold Billam-Smith’s leg. (I wish I was joking.)
All in all, there was a sense when watching Okolie that he was conspiring to lose what could have been a very winnable fight. It wasn’t quite Andrew Golota levels of self-sabotage but it wasn’t far off, either. After all, whenever the champion actually maintained his composure and fired off something clean, it was clear he possessed the speed, the power and the accuracy to at least unsettle Billam-Smith and have him think twice about exchanging willy-nilly. In those moments, even when Okolie had maybe earlier been dropped in the round, or had a point deduction in the round, there remained a feeling that he was just one big right hand away from swinging things back in his favour. That, in some ways, is a testament to both his power and his commitment to keep going in the face of adversity, most of which he created himself. What is also says is that Okolie, despite losing point after point for various reasons (some legitimate, others less so), was forever in the fight, right until the very end, and will therefore, like Golota before him, tonight rue his inability to hold it all together and truly believe in himself.
Why that is we will probably never know. Certainly, though, this is not the first time Okolie, 19-0 (14), has allowed his concern with getting hit, or beaten, to get in the way of all the excellent work he can potentially do. It has happened before in far less dramatic circumstances and it has happened, too, against opponents far less capable than Billam-Smith.
As for Billam-Smith, he was, in stark contrast to his opponent, a picture of professionalism throughout. Measured, busy, and always willing to match his opponent in an exchange, he never once let Okolie settle in the fight and seemed to develop a knack for landing something significant whenever Okolie began to loosen up and gain just enough confidence to neglect holding as an offensive tool. He also displayed a great chin and wonderful powers of recovery, often taking hard shots from Okolie only to walk through them and continue walking Okolie down. This left Okolie a man confused, unnerved by his inability to make a dent in someone who would not be denied, and it left Billam-Smith wearing the wounds of battle at the end (he sported a nasty gash by his left eyebrow).
Of the two cruiserweights, there can be no denying that only one had turned up wanting a fight and that man was Billam-Smith, 18-1 (12). Okolie, meanwhile, seemingly turned up wanting a knockout – ideally, via one punch – but with no real desire to trade clean punches or give and take with an opponent whose sole desire when entering the ring was to do just that.
As expected, then, it became a curious sight to behold, this meeting of former gym mates. Surprisingly, its issue was not hesitancy on the part of either man or indeed any sort of ceasefire on account of their previous – apparently close – relationship. Instead, the major issue, and the main reason why Billam-Smith ran out a clear winner (by scores of 116-107, 115-108, 112-112), was that one man desperately wanted to win the fight and one man desperately didn’t want to lose it. That, usually a recipe for an unsavoury dish, if not total disaster, then resulted in thousands of fans walking away from the Vitality Stadium tonight not quite whether the man desperate to win had won the fight by virtue of this desperation or the man desperate not to lose had, in trying so desperately not to lose, created an unfortunate self-fulfilling prophecy; or, in short, thrown it all away.