CHRIS BILLAM-SMITH admits he will be supporting Richard Riakporhe if ‘The Midnight Train’ gets a chance to derail Jai Opetaia.
Opetaia is universally recognised as the number one fighter in the cruiserweight division but has been without a fight for 12 months since beating Mairis Briedis. Injury, an arrest and a contractual dispute have all added to his time away from the ring.
Last month the IBF belt holder was ordered by the sanctioning body to make his first defence against Riakporhe after mandatory challenger Mateusz Masternak withdrew.
Billam-Smith 18-1 (12) now holds the WBO version of the four titles after a dogged performance against friend and former gym-mate Lawrence Okolie seven weeks ago.
Should Riakporhe get his opportunity and Billam-Smith is successful in his first defence potentially this autumn then the door will be wide open for a rematch to be made. Four years ago, Riakporhe got the better of ‘The Gentleman’ winning a split decision over 10 rounds.
With both men also fighting under the Boxxer promotional banner on Sky Sports the stars may align once again for Billam-Smith.
“For me that’s perfect,” said CBS when speaking to Boxing News recently while on a train journey.
“I wanted to fight Lawrence as an amateur, then as a pro, then he joined the gym and then we fought at a perfect time for me both in my physicality, my ability and where I was at in my career.
“I’ve wanted the rematch with Richard. It’s never really made sense but if he wins a world title it makes sense. I think it can be built into a really big fight; I’ll definitely be cheering for him against Opetaia that’s for sure. I think it’s a massive fight for British boxing. The last time it happened in the cruiserweight division it was Haye against Maccarinelli and that was a massive fight. It’s exciting times.”
Last week it emerged that Riakporhe may have to travel to Australia if he is to become Britain’s next cruiserweight champion. Wherever the fight lands it will prove to be a formidable task for the 33-year-old despite his recent good run of form.
Discussing the match-up, Billam-Smith said: “It’s an interesting one. He’s [Opetaia] been out for a long time, he’s had a lot of problems, he’s had injuries.
“Lawrence obviously didn’t have a great performance when he came back after a long lay-off and when there’s disputes going on in that time, I think it takes your mind away from the task at hand.
“It’ll be interesting to see what Opetaia turns up. He’s sort of become the man and that can sometimes be mentally hard to come back from because he’s beat the man and proven he’s the number one in the division. Obviously, I’d disagree with that.
“It was a great win against Briedis, but Richard’s got some good momentum. I think he’s knocked out his last three or four opponents as well. He’s looked good and his punching has been good but stylistically it’s an interesting fight because Richard has now slowed his feet down, sat a bit more on his punches and willing to give away a few more shots and Opetaia’s got great feet. If the best Opetaia turns up it’s a hard night for anyone. It’s an interesting fight and one I’ll definitely be keeping a close eye on and hopefully it gets made soon and if it’s over here I’ll definitely be attending.”
Billam-Smith and his team are currently working on their own plans for the first defence of his title. His emotional win outdoors at Bournemouth FC’s Vitality Stadium over Okolie proved to be a memorable one with the celebrations that followed but the fight itself certainly won’t win any prizes at the end of the year.
The 12-round tussle was carried along thanks to the atmosphere created by the home supporters that will live long in the winner’s memory. Okolie tried his traditional punch and hold tactics throughout, but the underdog rose to the challenge and put every ounce of physical effort into overcoming a fighter who barely lost a round during his championship reign.
As you would expect Billam-Smith has watched the fight back since, not just once…
“I’ve watched it twice. A few days after at silly o’clock in the morning whilst I eventually got my son back to sleep when we were on holiday. It was a hard watch then I watched it back again, and it’s slightly better than the first time but it’s not an easy watch that’s for sure.
“It’s not the most exhilarating fight and I think if you were there on the night, I’d probably recommend not watching it back because when you’re immersed in it, the emotions, it’s completely different and a lot more enjoyable and enticing.”
The 32-year-old has felt a boost in his self-esteem since that night where he made his dreams come true.
“I feel like a worthy champion,” he said.
“I beat a champion. It wasn’t a vacant belt. It’s not somebody who’s given it and it was somebody who never looked close to getting beat. I definitely have a lot more confidence and now it’s about building on that and pushing on.”
As for who is next well Polish cruiserweight Mateusz Masternak 47-5 (31) stepped away from facing Opetaia and Boxing Scene reported a few weeks ago that the 36-year-old was the “front-runner” to face Billam-Smith.
The 36-year-old would fit any cliché involving the word tough. A veteran of 52 fights Masternak has established himself as a credible test on the cruiserweight scene over the years. Eight years ago, he gave a then prime Tony Bellew a hard night’s work but that was eight years ago. His last meaningful fight came in October 2018 losing on points to Cuban banger Yuniel Dorticos.
BN asked Billam-Smith about the rumours of a fight against Masternak.
“They’ve obviously done a deal to get Richard in place for Opetaia and then Masternak’s stepped aside and maybe they promised him a fight with me,” he responded.
“I think there’s been an offer in for me to fight Masternak, but it’s not sort of the right deal at the moment in terms of the money etc.
“We’re not opposed to fighting Masternak by any means. He’s a great name, it’s a great fight and I believe I beat him which I do with anyone in the world. It’s just about the business side of things but it depends how much value they see in the fight when it comes down to promoting it. My team know what I’m worth. We’ll see what happens. There’s a few options but I just leave it to my team.”
An established name, bags of experience, will come to fight and unlikely to be wiped out in the first few rounds. An ideal first defence then?
“Potentially, yeah,” Billam-Smith answered.
“He’s a well-known name in boxing. Maybe not to the casual fan but a great record. He’s got more knockouts than I’ve got wins. He’s a very experienced operator, a hard night for anyone I believe. Only one person has ever stopped him and that was a long time ago (Grigory Drozd in 2013) and he gives everyone a hard night’s work. It’s a difficult fight for sure but you’re not getting an easy fight now as world champion. Like I said it’s a fight I’m not opposed to. I never have been opposed to fighting anyone.”