Lawrence Okolie v Chris Billam-Smith: How ‘Coworkers’ Became World Title Rivals

World champion Okolie (left) is undefeated 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 coworkers,” but coworkers don’t usually end up trading blows in front of 15,000 excited spectators at a football stadium.

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

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

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

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

Whether they were best friends or mere acquaintances, there’s still plenty of intrigue surrounding the all-British world title fight.

Having played over 300 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 enemies

Lawrence Okolie and Chris Billam-Smith at McGuigan Gym sitting side by side
The two fighters are former gymnastics teammates before Okolie, right, split with trainer Shane McGuigan

With McGuigan in his corner, Okolie captured the vacant world title against Krzysztof Glowacki in 2021. Billam-Smith watched from ringside, jumping out of his chair as Okolie delivered the decisive sixth-round knockout.

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

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

“Chris should be looking at me every day at the gym. Wanting what I had, looking behind my back, thinking that one day I’m going to fight this man.

“The more it festers, the more I think maybe we were never really friends. Maybe he’s taking a stand.”

Billam-Smith is a British, Commonwealth and European Champion, and the number one contender for the WBO.

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

“I never thought I’d fight 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, Shane and I talked and here we are.”

Okolie will revert 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 competing on the ground for his beloved Bournemouth football team.

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

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

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

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

Despite her unbeaten record, Okolie has faced criticism in the past for some underwhelming and worldly performances. On a few occasions, he used his height and reach advantage to grab and dominate his way to victory.

“He’ll go back to normal. You can’t change an entire fighter in that amount of time,” says Billam-Smith.

“There will be a slightly different game plan than when he was with Shane, but there are a lot of things ingrained.”

The silver gorilla will be released – Okolie

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

Having defeated challenger David Light in March, this will be Okolie’s second fight against US trainer SugarHill Steward.

Steward likes to instill the infamous ‘Kronk’ style in his fighters – an aggressive, front-foot approach to boxing looking for the knockout.

Okolie compares herself to a “silver gorilla” that was released by her handler.

“I think Chris and his team went hunting and started to get carried away, killing chimpanzees and orangutans,” he explains.

“They start to think that they are doing well and that they can kill the gorilla. You may have met the gorilla when he was in his stable, but now he’s free and there are no chains.

“I’ll show you what it’s really like. What a gorilla can do. I’ll surprise you. They’re expecting certain things and I’ve worked hard not to give them.”

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