Chris Billam-Smith on his close relationship with McGuigan, learning from Groves and becoming a dad

When he first stepped into the punishing and intimidating surroundings of an amateur boxing gym, the primary aim for Chris Billam-Smith was merely to supply himself with an impressive playground story.

‘My brother Ben was always into boxing,’ the European and Commonwealth cruiserweight champion tells Sportsmail. ‘He took me a handful of times when I was a teenager, but I was sort of just going so I could tell my mates at school the next day that I went to boxing last night to sound cool.

‘Then when I went to college I met a mate of mine, Dean, and I started training with him. I went to watch him fight and everyone was there chanting his name. I just remember stopping and thinking, “that must be amazing, having everyone there and your friends and family chanting your name. What a feeling that must be.”‘

Chris Billam-Smith is set to take on Isaac Chamberlain in Bournemouth on Saturday night

Chris Billam-Smith is set to take on Isaac Chamberlain in Bournemouth on Saturday night

Chamberlain (centre) will provide a stern test for the 31-year-old on his big homecoming

Chamberlain (centre) will provide a stern test for the 31-year-old on his big homecoming

Billam-Smith is fighting back in his home town for the first time in a number of years

Billam-Smith is fighting back in his home town for the first time in a number of years

A late starter in the sport, Billam-Smith, 31, began chasing the same euphoric high as Dean when he bit down on his gum shield and embarked on his own fighting career at the age of 16. 

A year later he competed in his first amateur bout, and over the next decade it soon transpired that he could one day have significantly more to boast about than attending a local boxing class.

The Bournemouth man enjoyed 43 amateur outings in total, winning 32 of them, and came unstuck in the ABA finals on two separate occasions. After his second defeat at the hands of future Olympic heavyweight Cheavon Clarke, Billam-Smith decided it was time to turn professional.

He did so under the tutelage of Shane McGuigan, son of Irish fight legend Barry and one of the most respected trainers in world boxing. Five years, 16 contests, and 15 wins later, the pair are now close friends as well as a formidable team.

‘We’ve got a good relationship me and Shane,’ Billam-Smith says. ‘I’m very, very grateful for the opportunity him and his family gave me to begin with, but it’s really grown over the years our relationship.

‘We’re a similar age, I think he’s maybe two years above me, and we have very similar interests. He likes his music and both of us are non-drinkers as well, so on nights out we know how to have a good time without a drink. We’re just very similar people and we get on well.

He was a later starter in the sport, but Billam-Smith has gone on to become European and Commonwealth cruiserweight champion under Shane McGuigan (left)

He was a later starter in the sport, but Billam-Smith has gone on to become European and Commonwealth cruiserweight champion under Shane McGuigan (left)

The pair have become close friends outside of the ring as well as a formidable team inside it

The pair have become close friends outside of the ring as well as a formidable team inside it

‘But yeah, Shane’s obviously one of if not the best coach in the world and he’s one of my best mates as well, so I’m very fortunate to have such a good relationship with my coach.’

Over the last half-decade McGuigan has attracted a host of top fighters to his stable; David Haye, George Groves, Luke Campbell and Lawrence Okolie to name a few. Current undisputed lightweight champion Josh Taylor also stormed through the 140lbs division with Shane by his side before an acrimonious split in 2019. Billam-Smith has had the luxury of plying his trade alongside some of the best in the business.

But when asked to name the stablemate he has learned most from, there is an easy answer.

‘I picked up the most from George Groves,’ he insists. ‘George was my favourite fighter before I even joined the gym, then I got the chance to spar with him and I became his sparring partner. That’s how I got into Shane’s gym and then I asked Shane to train me, so we were gym mates and now we’re friends.

‘It’s a bit surreal. George was like an idol to me and now he’s a good mate of mine. So I’m very fortunate to have had that experience and I learned so much from George.

‘He was a world-class fighter for so many years and his jab was one of the best jabs ever. I learned a lot from him for sure and from Josh Taylor as well, because he had a really good inside game and that’s something I’ve learned under Shane, the inside work. I’ve learned the tricks from Shane and then you see other people carrying it out like Josh, just that tenacity he has and the inside work is really good.’

Billam-Smith has worked alongside some top fighters in McGuigan's gym, but it was George Groves (R) who taught him the most

Billam-Smith has worked alongside some top fighters in McGuigan’s gym, but it was George Groves (R) who taught him the most

Groves clinched a super-middleweight world title at the fourth time of asking under McGuigan

Groves clinched a super-middleweight world title at the fourth time of asking under McGuigan

Groves, the former WBA super-middleweight champion best known for his iconic rivalry with Carl Froch, finally claimed world honours at the fourth time of asking under McGuigan and undoubtedly enjoyed his finest moments with the young coach in his corner.

He had already spent nine years in the game by the time Billam-Smith ventured into the professional ranks, meaning his experience, wisdom and ability provided invaluable education in the gym. Yet having dedicated his life to the sport, towards the back end of his career Groves’ preferred strategy was to let himself go in between fights and return to a peak fitness level by the time another came around.

This is where Billam-Smith drew the line in emulating his idol.

He explains: ‘I try and stay in shape all year round. For me peaking is slightly different, and I’ve also had to grow into the cruiserweight limit. I was probably a bit light when I first turned pro, so I’ve had to do a lot more training in between camps to bulk up and fill into the weight a bit better.

‘I definitely enjoy my food, don’t get me wrong, and I definitely put on a few pounds, but not quite as severe as George used to!

‘The thing is with George, he did it and a lot of fighters do it from such a young age, so it’s been their entire life. I only started when I left school and my first fight was at 17, so it’s not been that long for me and I feel like I’ve got to play catchup with a lot of these guys.

Billam-Smith doesn't emulate his idol outside the ring, however, and always maintains fitness

Billam-Smith doesn’t emulate his idol outside the ring, however, and always maintains fitness

‘And also for me, fitness and running is a hobby of mine as well. So I always like staying in shape anyway, it’s good for the body and good for the mind.’

Billam-Smith’s fitness-orientated lifestyle had to take a back seat in the aftermath of his latest victory, a crushing stoppage of Ireland’s Tommy McCarthy back in April.

That powerful display, comfortably the most impressive of his career to date, was followed by even greater news outside the ring when he and wife Mia welcomed their first child into the world.

Sleepless nights have been a given ever since, though the fighter nicknamed ‘The Gentleman’ is quick to acknowledge that his other half has out-parented him so far.

‘It’s hard work,’ he admits. ‘You have to try and just sleep when you can, especially training all the time. So it’s just getting in plenty of naps when I can.

‘But no, absolutely loving it and to be honest, my wife does a lot of the work. I chip in where I can and it’s amazing, I’m absolutely loving it.’

Is he a world champion nappy-changer yet? ‘Yeah yeah, I’ve got that nailed. Three in 10 minutes. Then he just decides when I change him that he wants to go again!’

He recently produced a career-best display by stopping domestic rival Tommy McCarthy

He recently produced a career-best display by stopping domestic rival Tommy McCarthy

And after his latest win, the Bournemouth man became a father for the very first time

And after his latest win, the Bournemouth man became a father for the very first time

This weekend it is back to business for Billam-Smith as he prepares for a long-awaited homecoming in Bournemouth, where domestic rival Isaac Chamberlain (15-1, 8 KOs) awaits in a fascinating encounter for the European and Commonwealth straps at the town’s International Centre.

While on the cusp of a world-title opportunity at 200lbs, some feel he is taking a needless risk here up against a talented opponent with similar aspirations to his own. The risk and reward balance tips slightly towards the former, with little for him to gain by becoming the second man to beat the 28-year-old after current stablemate and WBO champion Lawrence Okolie.

However, the choice of opponent was not a priority for Billam-Smith, who simply longed for a return to Bournemouth.

‘With this fight all I wanted was to fight back home, it didn’t matter who it was,’ he says. ‘I wanted to fight back home, but every fight is a dangerous fight – especially at cruiserweight. Everyone can punch at the weight, but I believe in myself 100 per cent, so it wouldn’t matter who I was in there with.

‘It’s a good fight and it’s another opportunity, I’m not in the sport to take easy fights, so it’s a great fight and I didn’t want a bowl over. It’s a tough fight and one I’ve got to think about, train hard for and give the fans a really good performance.’

On Chamberlain, Billam-Smith added: ‘He brings a lot of different problems to previous opponents. He’s got quick hands, he’s got decent power, but he’s slick so it’s not really a style I’ve faced in the pros to be honest with you. 

This weekend Chamberlain represents a tricky test that he perhaps didn't need to take

This weekend Chamberlain represents a tricky test that he perhaps didn’t need to take

‘It’s a whole new bag of tricks I’ve got to get past this time, but that’s what boxing’s about. You’ve got to get in there with all different styles, all different opponents. They’re the sort of fights that are gonna teach you new things and prepare you for world level.’

Prevailing on the south coast will tee Billam-Smith up for a crack at world glory next. For he and McGuigan, victory over Chamberlain would hopefully be followed by a cruiserweight title shot ‘within the next 12 months’. And maybe even at Dean Court, home of his beloved AFC Bournemouth. Although that could be wishful thinking.

Capturing a world title would undoubtedly represent the pinnacle of his boxing story, though there remains a controversial blemish on Billam-Smith’s record – a narrow, disputed split-decision points defeat against fellow British cruiserweight Richard Riakporhe (15-0, 11 KOs) in 2019.

A return bout is surely inevitable given their respective ascents through the division over the past three years. And the stakes are likely to be even higher this time around.

‘I think it’s a fight that will make sense when there’s a world title on the line,’ Billam-Smith points out. ‘It’s obviously a huge fight, people like their rematches. It was a split-decision the first time round, so it’s definitely a fight that makes sense.

‘I’m sure when there’s a world title on the line it’ll be an unbelievable fight for Britain.’

But Billam-Smith is fully confident of delivering the goods on his return to Bournemouth

But Billam-Smith is fully confident of delivering the goods on his return to Bournemouth

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