When a rock changes form, it occurs over the course of a thousand years. That change happens on both a physical and chemical level. Physical changes its shape. Chemical, its composition. They call this process weathering. A rock erodes, and then resurrects. It can split into sediments, or moves into mountains. It’s carried by the elements, collects energy. And if it gets hot enough, close enough to the earth’s crust, it can melt. Only to break the surface and rise again a thousand years later. The atmosphere determines its outcome.
At any point during this cycle, it can go back to the beginning.
Chris Billam-Smith’s beginning dates back to the year 1990, when he was born into a two bed flat just outside London. The youngest of three brothers, Billam-Smith made the family five. They lived in Surrey until his parents got promotions and moved the family to Bournemouth. A move his brothers don’t let him forget.
They called him ‘golden child,’ not because he was particularly better than them but because he got the best of growing up. His brothers grew up on busy streets in shared spaces; Billam-Smith had a big, back garden and his own bed. He got to play everything as a child. “I just loved sport. Always football. I did karate. I did gymnastics. Fencing. Badminton. Diving. Hockey. If they needed an extra runner on cross country…” He could go on, but you get the gist. Billam-Smith was born moving.
He’d spend Sundays with his mother. She’d wake him up and chauffeur him to hockey practice, which would then be followed by a hockey match. They’d get lunch and gear up for a football match in the afternoon. He remembers: “She’d always be sat on the sidelines watching me.” No matter the weather, she was always there.
His dad was no short of a super hero either. When a local park was closing down in their neighbourhood, Billam-Smith’s father picked it up and brought it home. “He went and bought the slides and swings from the local council, cemented them in our garden. I just had the best upbringing ever. I’m still trying to repay them,” he tells me.
To Billam-Smith, being a kid was a series of kicks at a net. Football was everything to him. He’d be out in the back garden when the sun was in the centre of the sky, and stay put until the light disagreed with him. It turns out it’s harder to score when the only thing outlining the net is starlight. He’d chip away until it was time to come in. His trainers leaving a muddy trail behind him.
At the age of nine and ten, he made it onto the AFC Bournemouth Academy team. The dream was to become a professional footballer. But the career prospect was cut short when his parents planned a spontaneous trip to Australia…for eight months. “We started on the west coast in Perth and went all the way to the east coast, we saw the whole of the country - lived in a four by four trailer tent, slept on a camping mattress which was just canvas six inches off the floor.” Did he bring school with him? “I had a couple workbooks,” he recalls. Fair enough. He had a BMX to keep him company. He did trails across the country and spent time with his parents.
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Boxing didn’t have a role in the Billam-Smith household until the boys got older. One of his brothers had a go at the sport, used to train down at an amateur gym. Chris joined a couple times solely for the workouts, to get fit for football. “I liked the idea of it more than actually doing it,” he explains to me. He just wanted to be able to go school and tell all his mates that he went boxing the night before. Attention was never something he took issue with.
It wasn’t until he saw his friend fight live that he wanted to fight himself. They were in college when a friend, Dean Perkins, had his first amateur fight. A group of friends got together to go out and support him. It was the atmosphere that got Billam-Smith. It wasn’t so different from going to see live music. Only the beats came from people’s fists layered in between the rise and fall of the crowd and its clapping. When Dean stepped into the ring, everyone around him started to cheer: “deano, Deano, DEANO!” As the sounds screaming his name grew, so did Billiam-Smith’s interest. He felt the energy on his skin, he knew he was in his element. He said to himself: “This time next year, I want to box in this show.” Soon all he’d think of was that night and what it would be like to be at the centre of its gravity.
He beat that prediction by a few months. He did fight on that show the following year, but he made it onto another amateur card before. It may have been the small time, but to him, “this was a title fight.” He’s never had a problem taking himself seriously. That night, Billam-Smith sat in the back of a poorly lit locker room—face stone cold—with Cigarettes & Alcohol by Oasis in his ears. He’s hyping himself up moments before he steps out. Then his MP3 dies. The lyrics it stops on? “You’ve got to make it happen.” So that’s what he does. He makes it happen. “I remember walking around and waving my finger in the air. Everyone was like, ‘Can you get out of the ring now?’”
Around this time, Chris stops drinking. Not because he had a problem with it, in fact, quite the opposite. He explains: “I didn’t think I was good enough to do both - be good at boxing and drink.” That instinct would be illuminated years later when he read the book Damage by Tris Dixon. One of the leading determinants of whether a fighter gets brain damage or not is how often they drink. Besides, his friends never found fault with his decision, they had a designated driver. And there was a party coming up.
A friend of his was having a leaving-do before she headed off to her new life in Australia. A switch Billam-Smith was no stranger to. A big group got together at a bar in Bournemouth to say goodbye. While he was there, he was making the rounds to say hello to mutual friends. He saw a girl out of the corner of his eye he didn’t recognise. Long brown hair, red stained lips. He made a beeline for the girl he knew next to her, hoping for an introduction.
She beat him to it, “Hi! I’m Mia!” she beamed revealing a big, white smile behind her lips. They two looked at each other. For Billam-Smith, that’s all it took. But don’t get too excited. The way he describes her to me, that’s just Mia, bubbly and kind to all who encounter her. He may have thought he made an impact that night, but a quick follow up message on Facebook proved otherwise. He asked for her number; she quickly replied: “I don’t give my number out to strangers.” Ouch. He didn’t think he was a stranger, what with the mutual friends and all. So he backed off, respected her wishes. But that wasn’t the end of the story.
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Billam-Smith was living in a motorhome when he met Mia. His parents had split up, his dad moved to Cornwall to be with his sister and his mom was apartment hunting in Bournemouth. He spent six weeks in limbo, living in his friends driveway. “I was literally homeless,” he recounts. He speaks about none of this with a sour tone. It was merely one of life’s many moments.
When another party soon approached, he followed up with Mia. This time she was more receptive. It turned out that she was interested, but she was seeing someone else at the time. That changed. One of the first nights in his mom’s new flat, he asked Mia to come over. This time she agreed. They went to a local chicken shop, and ended up talking until six in the morning. The two started seeing each other steadily from that point on.
Mia had no idea how much boxing meant to him in the beginning. Billam-Smith thought he was going to be a personal trainer, boxing was just something he did for fun. Plus, he was back and forth with a shoulder injury. It wouldn’t stop popping out of its socket, so he opted for surgery. Mia was with him at the height of his recovery. He recalls, “I remember falling in the shower one day, in the bathtub, and just luckily landed but she heard this massive bang and came running.” The two met in a moment of his life where everything felt up in the air. But as he got stronger, so did his intentions in the fight world.
He had his eyes on the Great Britain Squad, he wanted the Olympics. If he made it, they’d bring you up to Sheffield and pay for your accommodation and food. He fell short a couple times. In his final test, he made it to the National Finals in 2016. He boxed against Cheavon Clarke. He lost on points. A week before Christmas, he got the official letter of rejection. He recalibrated.
He’d spent the time leading up to that fight sparring with George Groves, who was being trained by Shane McGuigan at the time. He figured he could have one more go at the elite champions, and when the time came, go pro and ask McGuigan to take him on. They were in America for a fight at the time, so Billam-Smith waited for his return before making the big ask. He rang him up. McGuigan was a bit back and forth at first, said maybe he could take him on part time. He talked to his family and called Billam-Smith back, “Why don’t you come up and spare George tomorrow?” He got the audition. He went up the next day. “I didn’t spar well, and then they asked me up to their office.” He thumped up the stairs to where the McGuigan’s were sat waiting for him. Barry in the chair, Shane, Jake and Blane standing silently. He took a seat with fate. “We’d like to offer you a three year contract. We’ll pay you a retainer, we’ll put you up in a flat in London. You’ll train every day.”
His eyes widened, jaw loosened. He couldn’t believe it. He actually couldn’t believe it. He didn't think they made the decision based on his performance. “I have my own ideas on it.” Billam-Smith explains. “They were setting up a gym, with my background in personal training, I think they thought I’d be of use….” He’ll be of use alright. Not even the McGuigans knew how much.
He signed the contract and walked to the train. It was a golden ticket for the golden child. He gripped the edges of the paper so tightly it threatened to crinkle. He held it the whole way home, a forceless smile finding his face. He told Mia when he got home, the two celebrated. A new path opened up.
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Now that it was official, the only thing missing was the name. It was Shane McGuigan that came up with it. Billam-Smith was training one day up on the mezzanine level of the gym they were in, McGuigan walked in and looked up at him. “I’ve got your name.” He whistled to the top. “What is it?” He billowed back. “The Gentleman.” The Gentleman…alright then. There was no contest. The name settled into him. And I have to say after sitting with him, I agree with the choice.
Chris Billam-Smith defies the stereotypes of boxers, hell, most athletes. You won’t meet someone more respectful. He’s far softer than his Peaky Blinders exterior. He doesn’t drink, doesn’t do drugs. This is where his fight story differs from all the rest. He didn’t start fighting because he had a vengeance. He hadn’t held his aggression back the better half of his life. (Although he admits he’s much moodier when he isn’t training.) Boxing wasn’t his culture, it wasn’t his community. He didn’t need someone to believe in him, because he had four people at home willing and able to the day he was born. He’s approached this sport purely. As an athlete first, then as a man.
His early career was a momentum build. He fought journeyman and waited for his first shot at a stepping stone. Then it came. A domestic title fight against the reigning champion Richard Riakporhe. Everything was going according to plan. He proposed to Mia in anticipation of winning that fight. He took her to the cliffside in Cornwall. She said yes. That weekend Billam-Smith took his first loss. “People at the gym didn’t really lose at that level, I felt like I was wasting their time.” Three days later, Shane McGuigan’s sister passed away from a battle with cancer. It was an extremely difficult time. Billam-Smith felt like he “let the whole team down at a time when they needed it the most.”
While grief swept through the McGuigan family, Chris went back to the beginning. He analysed his every move, and thought about who he wanted to be. He married the love of his life that summer and began to build his family. One night after becoming newlyweds, Mia and him had a conversation. They laid beside each other and began to whisper about the future. Mia asked him: “If you were on your deathbed, what would you be upset you hadn’t done?” For Mia, it was to become a mother. For Chris, it was to win a world title and make a family. Those confessions put everything in perspective for Billam-Smith. He picked himself up and re-built. He won six fights back to back before welcoming his first son into the world. Frank Billam-Smith was born on May 26 of 2022.
As his son enters the world so does his second chance. When the Isaac Chamberlain fight was put on the table, Billam-Smith was out of shape. He’d been out of the gym for ten weeks, the longest he’d ever been away. He had a newborn at home. He was barely sleeping. There was six weeks until the fight; it was going to be live on Sky Sports. This was the test he had been asking for. Win this, and get a chance at a world title. But he was hesitant. He didn’t feel like he was ready. He rang Shane. “That’s a hard fight, I probably don’t want to take it on this little notice.” McGuigan disagreed: “You’re better than him, mate. Take the fight.”
That night, Billam-Smith went to the beach. He shadow boxed along the sunset, whipped his fists at the wind. This time in silence. He started sculpting himself again on those shores. That was night one. He had six weeks to go. This time there was too much to lose. “The whole camp was horrendous until the last week of sparring,” he tells me. He was training in extreme heat, had a lot of weight to lose and was worried about his wife and newborn at home without him.
When fight week came he woke up in Bournemouth and went to his local coffee shop, drove down the streets of his adolescence. It was surreal. His first fight had been here in front of a crowd of fifty, now he was pro fighting in front of 15,000. “Everyone’s there, getting excited…the whole town was talking about me, at least that’s what it felt like.”
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When the night came, war ensued. The fight may have gone ten rounds, but both men went through battle. “It was gruelling,” remembers Billam-Smith. He won the fight by majority decision but that win had more weight than others. He headed to the beach to celebrate when he was told Chamberlain was headed for the hospital. “I kept asking people I knew, Is Isaac okay? Is Isaac okay?” He went on, “You do feel guilt. I remember getting told that Isaac was sent to hospital. My heart sank. He’s a father…I found out he broke his eye socket. It’s part of the sport, but you don’t ever want it to happen.” Chamberlain healed, and Billam-Smith collected the SkySports knockout of the year against Armend Xhoxhaj on his way to the world title belt.
Chris Billam-Smith’s wish came in the form of an old friend. His fight with Laurence Okolie was inevitable. You couldn’t write it better. Okolie was a previous member of the McGuigan gym. The two had been sparring partners for years in the past. Where Okolie rose quick, Billam-Smith scratched his way to the surface. Both men started their fight journeys in their later teens. Okolie was picked up for the Great Britain team, while Billam-Smith fell short. Okolie went on to the Olympics. Okolie collected every title along the way that Billam-Smith had hoped to. The only reason they were allowed to fight was because Okolie switched gyms. We know how they started, now it was time to find out how they ended. Cue Adele.
Chris Billam-Smith walked out to Hometown Glory in front of thousands of his friends and family. It was the WBO cruiserweight title fight back home in Bournemouth. He’d missed his son’s first birthday the day before to be there. His mother was on the sidelines, despite her recent breast cancer diagnosis. Even though he walked out to a ballad, he kept his signature stone face: chiseled jaw and doe-eyed destruction. He took his place in the centre of gravity.
The fight commenced. The two men went head to to head for ten rounds. A left hook shook Okolie to the ground in round four. A cut opened over Billam-Smith’s left eye in five. Okolie got two points deducted for holding. Billam-Smith’s gum shield went flying out of his mouth in the eighth. Okolie went down two more times. It was constant back to back, but as the blood began to drip, it was clear Billam-Smith had him. Both in style and sportsmanship. The judges read their scorecards. They raised a new hand in the air.
Everything Chris Billam-Smith had built, everything he was turned to tears. His knees hit the floor, his lungs flooded. Mia ran to the ring. A stone turned to water. This is the difference between man and matter. A rock cycles through forms over the course of a thousand years, a man can cycle forms in a matter of moments. He stood the test of time. A new champion rose.
That night he returned home at half five in the morning with a belt slung over his back. Mia went home earlier to relieve the babysitter. She was up watching Frank when he walked through the door. Over the course of one year, both of their deathbed dreams had come true. Mia went to sleep. Billam-Smith took Frank.
The father and son sat quietly on the carpet. Frank inspected the red and gold WBO belt his father had won only hours before. He looked at his dad as if to say, “What does this do?” He gave it a couple knocks and quickly went on to something else. Billam-Smith went with him.
Most of what makes us who we are happens in silence. Smith built himself in the back garden, in the Australian desert, in the locker room. He built himself in second chances, and sobriety, in shadow boxing along the sunset, in the sacrifices of being both a fighter and a father.
This is the cycle of a stone. This is how Chris Billam-Smith ascended the throne.
He steps into the ring to defend his WBO cruiserweight title for the first time on December 10th live on SkySports.