CHRIS BILLAM-SMITH sank to his knees as tears of joy rolled down his face.
He was experiencing the perfect night, his ultimate dream, having dethroned former gym mate Lawrence Okolie to capture a cruiserweight title.
Wife Mia joined Billam-Smith in a hugely meaningful embrace in a moment that went beyond words. It could be seen but not understood outside the inner circle and only a few who knew the journey, the struggle and sadness could feel it.
Fifteen thousand fans caused the foundations of the underdog’s beloved Bournemouth AFC to shudder as they roared their approval. It was a sob story, but not a sad one.
The tears were not just for the new belt-holder, but for loved ones, those who were there and those who no longer are, and those who have supported and nurtured an unlikely dream.
Shane McGuigan, who trained David Haye, Carl Frampton, Josh Taylor, Daniel Dubois, Luke Campbell, George Groves, Lawrence Okolie – of course – knew instantly it was his greatest moment in boxing. The feelgood pictures showed the destination – and what a place it was – but the Billam-Smith and McGuigan story was about the journey.
Mia can never get used to watching her husband get punched in the face, but beforehand they sit and imagine the best- and worst-case scenarios of a fight. What happened at the Vitality Stadium went beyond best case and into the realms of fantasy.
Just after the words ‘and the new’ were announced, Mia and her husband embraced on the ring canvas. It might have been his dream, but he was sharing it with the person he wanted to most.
“That’s amazing,” Billam-Smith says of fulfilling the vision with Mia being there to enjoy it. “We’ve been real close throughout our relationship, very open, trusting and loving. Without her, there’s no way I would have been able to get to that stage or get to that opportunity, let alone take it with both hands. It was a special moment.”
Earlier in the week, Mia Billam-Smith told The Guardian’s Donald McRae she worries for her husband in this violent business. Chris is ‘The Gentleman’. He has a lot going for him and would be – and will be – a success away from the ring. He doesn’t need to get punched in the head for a living. He’s bright, articulate, affable, good company and should be on every network’s radar for a commentary gig. Yet, post-fight, he was gashed above his left eye with marks of an intensely gruelling battle spilling across his face.
Behind tired, weary eyes were stories of immense happiness, darkness and trauma from the effort of trying to get to this exact point.
This was Billam-Smith’s childhood dream. Not one of them. Not part of it. The whole thing.
This was something he had visualised as a kid, in Bournemouth, watching a young pal boxing on a local amateur show. Billam-Smith saw everyone cheering for his friend and knew then that is what he wanted, to be the man in the middle, soaking in the admiration and adulation. In his mind’s eye, the dream became an almost impossible exaggeration – until it wasn’t.
Box as an amateur in front of mates in Bournemouth. Have a pro fight in front of home fans. Maybe have a TV show in Bournemouth. Bring boxing to the Bournemouth International Centre. Have a fight in the stadium. Headline in the stadium. Win a world title in the stadium. The dream snowballed; with an unstoppable momentum one would find hard to rationalise as anything but fate.
If Billam-Smith could have written a script 20 years ago, he lived it out almost to the most minute detail this week. Almost.
With such hope, it is little wonder there was a physical toll. Maybe from the stress-induced pressure cooker of expectation, maybe from some dodgy food, Billam-Smith started to feel unwell as fight week began.
He never envisioned having to deal with being ill, but he was. Every good script needs adversity for the hero to overcome but the stiff-hitting Okolie – pre-fight favourite and long reigning champion – was surely enough.
“I was never pulling out of this fight, not a chance,” said Billam-Smith, afterwards.
“He might not have pulled out, but I was looking at it,” Shane McGuigan interjected. “This is not one we could reschedule.”
“I’m not letting 15,000 people down,” Billam-Smith continued. “I was getting in that ring. I had sickness and diarrhoea waking up on Tuesday morning. All the training had been done, but I was pretty ill. I got a bug, tried to fast it for 24 hours to get rid of it, then ate a little bit and [it] carried on until Thursday. Making weight was easy! But it wasn’t nice. I was really low on energy… But I was never, ever letting those fans down.”
The story has been told, how Billam-Smith first went to McGuigan’s gym to spar George Groves in 2016. Then a lanky and ungainly hopeful, Billam-Smith longed for the star power to rub off on him. He enjoyed watching Frampton, felt McGuigan helped Groves get his groove back and Billam-Smith was a fan of Shane’s innovative ways and self-belief.
Then Billam-Smith went for a GB assessment, put himself up in London and asked Shane to coach him for the week. Shane would train his pros and, when everyone had left, they would work. Money was not involved but Billam-Smith was grateful, McGuigan was happy to help.
“He gave me his precious time to let me know what it was like,” remembers Billam-Smith.
Later, there was a meeting in the old Wandsworth office with the McGuigan family, patriarch Barry, brothers Shane, Jake and Blain, and they welcomed Chris to the stable. Barry’s wife, Sandra, was also working for Cyclone and was, acknowledges Billam-Smith, “the glue that holds the family together.”
“They did a lot for me as a team, as a family and brought me in,” Billam-Smith reflects. “They’re such a great, close-knit family with great core values, family values, and that usually bodes to good people and makes you good people in life.”
Shane explains: “I feel like working with Chris has opened my mind up to anything is achievable if you dedicate yourself properly, apply yourself, have the right attitude and don’t set boundaries in your own head. He’s genuinely exceeded all expectations but we just kept setting new boundaries. We kept setting new goals.”
SOLITUDE IN SADNESS
“It’s been Chris’s saviour over the last number of years,” says Barry, talking about the gym.
Twenty-five years ago, Chris’s mother, Carol, had a mastectomy. The cancer returned six months ago and in a couple of weeks, the woman he calls his “hero” and the lady Barry refers to as “the apple of Chris’s eye” will have another. In 2020, Carol had a stroke, and Barry had one 10 years ago.
The gym has been an escape. Something Barry knows all too well. The Irish icon has used it to distract himself over the years, and goodness has he had plenty to contend with. His father Pat died in 1987 from a rare form of blood cancer aged just 52. Brother, Dermott, took his own life in 1994.
“It helps you switch off because you need complete concentration so for those couple of hours a day,” Barry says. “He [Billam-Smith] has to focus on what he’s doing. He’s really driven and determined so he can shut out most of the worries in the world.”
As they worked through adversities, Shane and Chris became closer. The fighter wound up moving in with the coach, a working relationship became a strong friendship and although Billam-Smith was not the second coming of Groves or Haye or Frampton it didn’t matter. McGuigan added a quality human to his stable.
“He liked Chris,” Barry adds. “He liked how decent a bloke he was, and he could see that he was dedicated. What’s more, he could see that he was really good on the pick-up as far as training and technique was concerned, and the stuff he was doing with him, he was really getting better and responding. He [Shane] thought it was worth it to invest in this young fella, because he didn’t have any big hurrah around him. He was just a genuine, hard-working decent kid. That’s the same guy you see today.”
“Go, dad,” Nika McGuigan urged her father.
Nika did not have much strength, but implored her dad to leave. She knew it was important he went to support Billam-Smith and the team at London’s O2 against Richard Riakporhe on Saturday, July 20, 2019.
Wanting to be in two places at once, Barry went.
“I left Nika’s bedside that night to go and see him [Chris]. I asked her if I could go,” Barry recalls. “And that was the last time we really talked. She wanted me to be ringside for him.”
Nika had suffered with cancer as a child and now it was back; this time it was too much.
Shortly after, Danika’s condition deteriorated and, tragically, time ran out on July 23. She was only 33.
“Seeing what they’ve gone through and knowing that I was probably a burden at times, especially during those times, I’m so grateful to the whole family,” Billam-Smith says. “No one should bury their sibling who’s a year-or-so older than them, and likewise no father should have to bury his daughter. That’s horrendous. When that was going on, I lived at Shane’s and I felt I’d let the family down. I remember thinking at the time, they’re a winning gym and I’ve lost at a level that they’re not used to losing at… when it’s for a WBA Continental [title] or whatever it was.”
A couple of days after Danika died, Shane was back doing his job and Billam-Smith was back trying to improve.
“Whether it was a distraction for him or not, the strength Shane showed through that time was just incredible,” says Billam-Smith.
A year following Danika’s passing, Barry’s oldest sister Sharon died after a long battle with cancer.
“2019 was the saddest time in my life, for all of us,” recalls Barry. “He [Chris] could see how devastating it was to have Nika sick and then die so quickly and how much she meant to us.”
When Chris’s mother was diagnosed several weeks ago, he did not share it with Barry. Cancer had done enough to the McGuigans. For that, Barry has even more respect for Billam-Smith, going into a championship fight while trying to look after those around him, shouldering the burden rather than thinking he was becoming one.
“He didn’t want to talk to me about it because he didn’t want it all coming back,” Barry sighs. “Our family has been destroyed by cancer, so we understand the sensitivity of it all and how worried [Chris is]… because his mother’s so important to Chris… he had a lot of pressures on him and he handled it remarkably.”
It is why, when Billam-Smith addressed the post-fight media after his title triumph, he broke down with the exhaustion.
“Every time I talk about my mum, I end up getting emotional,” said the champion, fighting his lips from trembling and his voice from cracking. Unsuccessfully on both counts.
“Yes… She’s, er, an amazing person. She’s my hero. She really is.”
Through 2019 and 2020 fighters came and left the McGuigan Gym and loved ones were lost.
“The one constant was Chris Billam-Smith,” Barry explains. “Always there, always happy, always working his arse off, always training really hard.”
“My sister…” Shane adds, “she was in a very critical state and I didn’t go and see her the day of the Riakporhe fight because I wanted to concentrate and we didn’t know how much longer she had left, but we had no idea it was as soon as it was. When I came in after the fight, she’d lapsed into a coma so I didn’t get a chance to say goodbye. That will always be a regret of mine. Chris realised that was a horrendous time for us. We put on a brave face and prioritised boxing. It’s a job. I made no money out of that fight but I did it because I wanted to see him win and I didn’t realise that she had as little time. Chris realised that. He didn’t let anyone down.”
“I owe so much to Shane and the McGuigan family,” Billam-Smith told the post-fight media pack after the night of his life. “Many people along the way have helped me, but that family has just been so good to me. They’re part of my family now.”
The day before he won the world title, Billam-Smith’s son Frank turned one and his dad said goodbye because he had to go to work but not to worry, because he would be coming back with a gold-plated present.
The McGuigan and Billam-Smith relationship goes beyond business. Barry is a fight manager, but he is a friend to the boxer, too.
“You try to keep a little distance but he’s the guy we’ve had a very personal relationship with,” Barry states. “His moniker ‘The Gentleman’ is so apt, he’s a lovely man. Sweet guy who can really fight. It meant everything to us [to see him realise his dream]. When you’re in the trenches and all the shit’s coming down, he’s the guy you want beside you. He’ll certainly outlive me, but I’ll be friends with him for the rest of my life.”
The cast has other members, too. Shane’s No. 2 Josh Pritchard referred to Billam-Smith as his “best mate” post-fight and the comparatively unseen Jake McGuigan handles much of the business-side of the gym.
“Jake’s phenomenal at his job,” says Billam-Smith. “He’ so underrated. He’s the best manager in the sport. If you look at the way the McGuigans have managed fighters’ careers, like Josh Taylor and Carl Frampton, in terms of the fights they’ve got them at the right times, myself included, they’ve built all three of those from their debut, pretty much trained all of them from their debuts…I might have a loss on my record but it was still the right fight at the right time. We rolled the dice against Richard that time in a big step-up 50-50 but I still came out winning in terms of my career. I’ve got a lot more out of losing that than I would if I’d beat another three, four, five journeymen or even people at a lower level.”
It is a story of about a group who have suffered loss and defeats has subsequently stiffened their collective resolve.
“In boxing you have to be selfish,” Shane adds. “You have to think about No. 1, but a lot of people forget how they got there and they don’t really appreciate the people helping them on the journey. If anything, he [Chris]’s over appreciative. But it also makes it worthwhile when someone is that thankful. It is family.”
“They work for the fighters,” Billam-Smith continues. “Not enough people do in this sport and they really care about their fighters.”
“People like Chris get that opportunity because of what we fight for every day,” says Shane. “Whether it’s with the promoters, other people, the TV networks, we fight for them all the time and it’s a big success.”
Reflecting on what happened in Bournemouth, Shane shakes his head.
“You can’t script it,” he continues.
Groves won his world title with McGuigan seven years ago to the day, also in an outdoor stadium. It’s the anniversary of Billam-Smith joining the team this month. Everything was coming full circle.
“Our life as a family over the last year has been one high to another, in terms of our son being born, the fights, to buying a house and it just seems to keep getting better and better,” Billam-Smith smiles. “I’m counting blessings, things are looking positive with my mum, a lot of people are worse off than us. I’m grateful for the position I’m in and being able to share it.”
Billam-Smith chose to savour every drop of that incredible night in Bournemouth, politely declining questions about future opponents.
A few days later, he said that there will never be a next step for him in boxing without the McGuigans.
“I think if Shane packed it up tomorrow, I’d pack it up tomorrow,” the boxer states. “Josh is a great coach but it just wouldn’t feel the same there and Josh probably would feel the same. I’m just so glad we got to do this together. The fighter gets a lot of praise, I know Shane’s getting a lot for this one and deservedly so because the Chris Billam-Smith that turned up at his gym six or seven years ago was a lot different to the one now. Yes, I did the work and forged myself into what I am but he’s put up with me and really helped get me where I am. We will be forever friends and forever grateful for each other’s company and memories that we have created.”
There will be the chance to add more moments to the album. Whether it’s the dreamy heights of giving Canelo the chance to win a title in another weight in Las Vegas, an Okolie rematch, Riakporhe again, another belt-holder or more magic by the Bournemouth seaside, they will be together.
Okolie played a very respectful role post-fight and Billam-Smith’s viral emotional lapses were classy moments from a classy man.
Barry feared he’d deafened poor Joshua Buatsi, who was ringside next to him, with his persistent encouragement but the Hall of Famer has no hesitation discussing Billam-Smith’s upside.
“A good soul, a good, kind, smart, intelligent fella who has got the right morals,” Barry says. “Everything about him is good, and it’s just great that he won, and won so well in front of his home crowd. They’ll be talking about this in 100 years.”
The culmination of a journey that winded its way to sunny Bournemouth was a special moment, and Barry’s right, it will remain in a time capsule – a message in a hazy, euphoric South Coast bottle – for future generations.