In a sport full of glorious highs and devastating lows, Chris Billam-Smith knows what it’s like to be on opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to boxing.
Just weeks after beating former stable mate Lawrence Okolie to fulfill his dream of becoming world champion, Billam-Smith is riding the crest of a wave.
But it wasn’t always like that. In fact, his journey to the top could have ended almost before it even began.
Having only begun to take boxing seriously at the age of twenty, Billam-Smith made impressive progress through the amateur ranks and was invited to a series of assessments by Britain to join his team ahead of the 2016 Olympics.
He made it through the first two stages, but was pushed back at the final hurdle, leaving him “heartbroken.”
Chris Billam-Smith was crowned world champion last month after beating Lawrence Okolie
But he also had a tough time in boxing and considered quitting as an amateur.
Still, the popular cruiserweight revealed it was another amateur incident that really got him thinking about completely packing the sport.
“Towards the end of my amateur career I had all three assessments for the Great Britain team and on the third one I was not admitted. And I was heartbroken and absolutely devastated,” Billam-Smith admitted exclusively to Mail Sport.
“After that assessment it was really hard to accept because I thought I had done enough to make the team and I think some coaches voted yes for me and some no. It was hard to take. for sure, so I was very discouraged. It was like a week before Christmas too so Christmas was not very pleasant for me.
“I was a bit in limbo not knowing what I was going to do with my life because in my head I had planned for years to be in the Great Britain team and train there in Sheffield.
“And then another time in my amateur career where I had a bad fight and got dropped, then I thought about quitting.”
Billam-Smith’s doubts about his future came at a difficult time for the Bournemouth-based boxer, as he had a fight booked the following week.
He decided to give the sport another chance and emerged victorious that night to put the backhand behind him.
“I had a fight scheduled eight days later and I ended up having that fight and winning it. But it was probably the closest I got (to quitting), when I got knocked down in combat,’ Billam-Smith explained.
“It was just hard to take at the time, but I just thought I would regret not taking the fight the following week, and I took that and won it and that quickly erased the memory of having been abandoned in combat.”
Even after getting his amateur career back on track, Billam-Smith still wasn’t sure about putting together a team to start his professional career.
He contacted highly regarded trainer Shane McGuigan after going many rounds with his George Groves charge, but admitted he half-expected to be turned down by a trainer who tended to deal almost exclusively with fighters from global level.
McGuigan agreed to take on Billam-Smith because he was a “nice guy,” and he began to gain momentum by winning his first nine fights as a professional.
Billam-Smith has been guided throughout his professional career by coach Shane McGuigan (left), but admits he was only hired in the first place because he was a ‘nice guy’
Billam-Smith lost his tenth professional fight to Richard Riakporhe and had to question his place in the gym after that loss.
His tenth fight saw him suffer his first loss, however, as he dropped a very slim split decision against national foe Richard Riakporhe.
The loss came at an incredibly difficult time for the McGuigan family, with Shane’s sister Danika, who died of colon cancer just three days after the fight. Once again, Billam-Smith had doubts about the direction of his career.
“It was tough because I’m in a gym full of winners,” Billam-Smith said.
“If someone was losing in the gym, it was at the highest level, fighting for world titles or that kind of level, so losing at that level was a lot to take.” I felt like maybe I didn’t deserve my place in the gym at that time.
“It was also a difficult time for the family, the McGuigans, Danika was ill and sadly passed away three days later so they obviously didn’t see Danika that night, they left the hospital to come to my fight. So during that period, it was very difficult to integrate all of that.
Beaten at the national level, it would have been easy for Billam-Smith to become demoralized, feeling that his chances of rising to the world level had gone up in smoke.
But sitting with the 32-year-old it’s clear he’s a level-headed and thoughtful individual, and that’s reflected in his measured response to how he felt he actually performed in the defeat.
“In terms of performance, I was satisfied,” he added.
“I kind of won in loss, and I think I knew the night that I won in loss in terms of proving that I was worthy of that level and worthy of more opportunities, and of course they came.”
They certainly did.
In Billam-Smith’s very next fight, he won the Commonwealth title by stopping Craig Glover in five rounds, and in his next four fights he would add the British and European straps to his collection.
Billam-Smith had to go through tough times against Okolie but upset the odds for a points win
Billam-Smith was very emotional after the win and revealed his mother was diagnosed with breast cancer while preparing for the fight against Okolie.
He revealed his mother’s illness and his son’s birthday prompted him to put on the best display of his career
Then the big thing happened – Billam-Smith got his shot at a world title against Okolie.
Billam-Smith acknowledges that fighting a man he knows better than most was a major advantage, but his preparation was less than ideal.
Since picking up the win, he has revealed he was “sick in bed” during fight week, while he also found out during the prep that his mother was battling breast cancer.
For many, these would be legitimate reasons for delivering a below-average performance, but Billam-Smith rose to the occasion in front of 15,000 of his own fans at Bournemouth’s Vitality Stadium, insisting he refused to be refused overnight.
“I remember doing the ringwalk and it was just a very special moment. Just look around and nod and soak up the atmosphere without being overwhelmed by it,’ Billam-Smith said.
“I was laser focused on fight night to stay relaxed and calm, not let anything overwhelm me, and the crowd has been fantastic for me at Bournemouth over the past year. We had the Chamberlain fight, then the Xhoxhaj fight and now 15,000 in your home team stadium, it doesn’t get better than that.
“And then all the other stuff, my son’s birthday on Friday – weigh-in day – and then my mum battling cancer. There were so many reasons to fight, so many reasons to win, and I think all of those reasons fueled me.
Billam-Smith’s mindset obviously played a major role in his rise to the top of the cruiserweight division. He was never expected to achieve world honors and openly admits he had doubts about his own career at various stages of his development.
Billam-Smith wants to try his luck against Canelo Alvarez (above) in the future as he continues to face the biggest challenges
But he overcame adversity inside and outside the ring to achieve his goal of winning a world title. And he hasn’t finished yet.
Billam-Smith is already considering future fights with Riakporhe and Mexican superstar Canelo Alvarez.
Riakporhe has also gone from strength to strength since first meeting Billam-Smith, winning each of his last four fights by knockout, while Canelo is widely regarded as one of the finest boxers of his generation.
Both are dangerous fights, but Billam-Smith has never ducked a challenge. After bouncing back from losses and moments of doubt to rise to the top of the sport, he proved he simply couldn’t be written off.
Lorton Entertainment’s “STABLE,” a four-part documentary series covering Shane McGuigan’s work with his fighters, will be released this fall.