Lawrence Okolie and Chris Billam-Smith describe their relationship as “old co-workers”, but the team-mates rarely trade punches in front of a 15,000-strong crowd in a football stadium.
WBO cruiserweight champion Okolie will defend his belt against his hometown fighter and former sparring partner Billam-Smith at the Vitality Stadium in Bournemouth on Saturday.
Billam-Smith is coached by Shane McGuigan, who also coached Okolie before the pair parted ways last year.
“We weren’t good friends. We didn’t go outside the gym,” says Billam-Smith.
Okolie adds: “It’s like having a friend at work.
Whether they were close friends or just acquaintances, there is still a lot of controversy surrounding Britain’s World War II.
With over 300 games combined, both ‘The Sauce’ Okolie and ‘The Gentleman’ Billam-Smith feel they have the upper hand against their former partner.
From friends at work to enemies
With McGuigan in his corner, Okolie won the vacant world title against Krzysztof Glowacki in 2021. Billam-Smith watched from ringside, jumping from his seat as Okolie unleashed the final punch of the sixth round.
Just two years later, there’s a little trouble brewing.
“He was always Shane’s favourite,” Okolie, 30, told BBC Sport.
“Chris must have looked at me every day in the gym. Wanting what I had, looking behind me, thinking that one day I’m going to fight this guy.
“The older it gets the more I think maybe we’ve never been real friends. Maybe he’s been putting himself out there.”
Billam-Smith is a British, Commonwealth and European champion, as well as the WBO number one contender.
“I probably like Shane more because I’m the one who comes every week. I was there for every circuit and Lawrence wasn’t,” she says.
“I never thought I’d fight Lawrence with Shane. When people are in the gym you don’t expect them to leave, especially with how much Lawrence thought about Shane.
“But as soon as he left the gym me and Shane had a chat and here we are.”
Okolie returns to the brand – Billam-Smith
Billam-Smith will live out his childhood dream of competing on the pitch for his beloved football team Bournemouth.
“When I’m not a Chris Billam-Smith wrestler and I’m a young kid who grew up in the city and went to watch football, I had a dream to win a world title, it’s very difficult,” he said. he says.
The 32-year-old says he has “done ten times better” since Okolie left McGuigan’s gym. He also acknowledges the success of Okolie’s style, but believes that inner knowledge places him in a unique position.
“A lot of people have watched Lawrence over the years and thought he could go in there and beat him. I never thought that,” he says.
“You have to spend enough time with him to get to know him. I’ve done that and I’m lucky enough to know his strengths and weaknesses.”
Although he has not lost his reputation, Okolie has been criticized in the past for his difficult and ambiguous actions. Sometimes, he uses his height and finds opportunities to catch and beat his way to victory.
“He’s going to come back to form. You can’t change a fighter all the time,” says Billam-Smith.
“There’s going to be a slightly different game plan than it was with Shane, but there’s a lot of consistency.”
The silverback gorilla will be released – Okolie
After defeating David Light in March, this will be Okolie’s second fight with American trainer SugarHill Steward.
Steward likes to instill a ‘Kronk’ style in his batsmen – a way of punching forward and looking for knockdowns.
Okolie likens himself to a “silverback gorilla” released by his trainer.
“I think Chris and his team are going to go hunting and get carried away, bringing out monkeys and apes,” he explains.
“They start to think that they are doing well and think that they can get the gorilla out. Maybe you used to know the monkey in your cage, but now it is out and you don’t have a chain.
“I’ll show you what it is. What a gorilla can do. I’ll surprise him. He’s expecting things and I’ve worked hard not to give them.”