Lawrence Okolie v Chris Billam-Smith: How ‘work colleagues’ became world-title rivals


Champion Lawrence Okolie, promoter Ben Shalom and challenger Chris Billam-Smith pose at Thursday's news conference
World champion Okolie (left) is unbeaten in 19 pro fights and Billam-Smith (right) has won 17 and lost one

Lawrence Okolie and Chris Billam-Smith describe their relationship as “former work colleagues”, but work colleagues don’t usually end up trading punches in front of 15,000 spirited onlookers in a football stadium.

WBO cruiserweight champion Okolie defends his belt against home fighter and former gym mate Billam-Smith at Bournemouth’s Vitality Stadium on Saturday.

Billam-Smith is trained by Shane McGuigan, who also coached Okolie before the pair parted ways last year.

“We weren’t great friends. We didn’t hang out outside of the gym,” Billam-Smith says.

Okolie adds: “It’s like having a work friend. They’ve never seen your house or go out with you but you like them when you go to work.”

Whether they were best buddies or mere acquaintances, there is still a great deal of intrigue surrounding the all-British world-title fight.

Having sparred more than 300 hundred rounds together, both ‘The Sauce’ Okolie and ‘The Gentleman’ Billam-Smith feel they have the upper hand against a former stablemate.

From work friends to foes

Lawrence Okolie and Chris Billam-Smith in the McGuigan gym together sitting side by side
The two fighters are former gym-mates from before Okolie, right, split from trainer Shane McGuigan

With McGuigan in his corner, Okolie won the vacant world title against Krzysztof Glowacki in 2021. Billam-Smith watched on from ringside, jumping from his seat when Okolie produced the decisive sixth-round knockout punch.

Just two years later, there is an undercurrent of tension bubbling away.

“He was always Shane’s favourite,” Okolie, 30, tells BBC Sport.

“Chris must have been looking at me every day in the gym. Wanting what I had, looking behind my back, thinking one day I’m going to fight this man.

“The more it festers the more I think maybe we never really were friends. Maybe he’s been positioning himself.”

Billam-Smith is a British, Commonwealth and European champion, and the WBO’s number one-ranked challenger.

“Maybe I’m Shane’s favourite because I’m the one who turns up every week. I was there at every circuit and Lawrence wasn’t,” he says.

“I never thought I’d be fighting Lawrence when he was with Shane. When people are in the gym you don’t expect them to leave, especially how highly Lawrence thought of Shane.

“But as soon as he left the gym me and Shane had conversations and here we are.”

Okolie will revert back to type – Billam-Smith

Chris Billam-Smith punches Armend Xhoxhaj
Billam-Smith won his previous fight with a fifth-round knockout victory over Armend Xhoxhaj

Billam-Smith will live out a childhood dream by competing at the ground of his beloved football team Bournemouth.

“When I’m not being Chris Billam-Smith the fighter and I’m the little kid who grew up in the town and went to watch the football, had dreams of winning a world title, it really is pinch yourself stuff,” he says.

The 32-year-old says he has “improved tenfold” since Okolie left the McGuigan gym. He also acknowledges the effectiveness of Okolie’s awkward style, but believes insider knowledge puts in him a unique position.

“A lot of people have watched Lawrence over the years and think they can go in there and beat him. I’ve never thought that,” he says.

“You have to spend enough time with him to figure him out. I’ve done that and I’m fortunate to know his strengths and weaknesses.”

Despite his unbeaten record, Okolie has faced criticism in the past for some underwhelming and mundane performances. On occasions, he has used his height and reach advantage to grapple and overpower his way to victory.

“He will revert back to type. You can’t change a whole fighter in that amount of time,” Billam-Smith says.

“There will be a slightly different game plan to when he was with Shane but there’s a lot of ingrained stuff.”

The silverback gorilla will be unleashed – Okolie

Lawrence Okolie and David Light both miss with punches
Okolie, right, who beat David Light on points in March, will make a fourth defence of his WBO title

Having beaten challenger David Light in March, this will be Okolie’s second fight with American trainer SugarHill Steward.

Steward likes to instil the infamous ‘Kronk’ style into his fighters – an aggressive approach boxing on the front foot and searching for the knockout.

Okolie compares himself to a “silverback gorilla” who has been unleashed by his trainer.

“I think Chris and his team have gone hunting and started getting carried away, taking out chimpanzees and orangutans,” he explains.

“They start thinking they’re doing well and thinking they can take out the gorilla. You might have known the gorilla when it was in your stable, but now it’s out and there’s no chains.

“I’ll show you what it really is. What a gorilla can do. I will surprise him. They’re hoping for certain things and I’ve worked hard not giving them.”

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