The “work colleagues” become rivals for the world title

Champion Lawrence Okolie, promoter Ben Shalom and challenger Chris Billam-Smith pose at Thursday's press conference
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 co-workers,” but co-workers don’t usually end up trading punches in front of 15,000 animated spectators at a football stadium.

WBO cruiserweight champion Okolie defends his belt against home fighter and former gym mate Billam-Smith at the Vitality Stadium, Bournemouth 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.

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

Whether they were best friends or just acquaintances, there is still a lot of intrigue surrounding the all-British world title fight.

After fighting more than 300 rounds together, both “The Sauce” Okolie and “The Gentleman” Billam-Smith feel they have the upper hand over a former stablemate.

From work friends to enemies

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

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

Just two years later, there’s an undercurrent of voltage bubbling away.

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

“Chris must have been watching me every day at the gym. Wanting what I had, looking over my shoulder, thinking that one day I would fight this man.

“The more it gets worse, the more I think maybe we were never really friends. Maybe he’s positioned himself.”

Billam-Smith is a British, Commonwealth and European champion and the number one challenger in the WBO rankings.

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

“I never thought I would fight Lawrence when he was with Shane. When people are in the gym you don’t expect them to leave, especially as much as Lawrence thought about Shane a lot.

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

Okolie will return to the 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 turf of his beloved Bournemouth football club.

“When I’m not Chris Billam-Smith the fighter and I’m the kid who grew up in the city and went to see football, dreamed of winning a world title, that’s really pinch stuff,” he said. he says.

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

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

“You have to spend enough time with him to figure it out. I have and I’m lucky to know his strengths and weaknesses.”

Despite her undefeated record, Okolie has faced criticism in the past for some disappointing and uninspired performances. At times, he’s used his height and advantage over him to wrestle and overpower his way to victory.

“It’s going to go back to type. You can’t change a whole fighter in that amount of time,” says Billam-Smith.

“There’s going to be a slightly different game plan than when she was with Shane, but there’s a lot of things that are grounded.”

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 be making a fourth defense of his WBO title

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

Steward likes to instill the infamous ‘Kronk’ style in his boxers – an aggressive approach to boxing with his front foot and seeking the knockout.

Okolie compares himself to a “silverback gorilla” that was unleashed by his trainer.

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

“They are starting to think they are doing well and think they can take the gorilla out. You may have known the gorilla when it was in your barn, but now it is out and there are no chains.

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

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