On Saturday night, just minutes from the beach and with a sea breeze cooling the arena, Chris Billam-Smith came home to Bournemouth.
Billam-Smith is an old-fashioned fighter, known as ‘The Gentleman’, but his homecoming was a bloody and savage affair over twelve relentless rounds against Isaac Chamberlain.
At the end, roared on by just under 4,000 fanatics, Chamberlain had a swollen cheek and left eye and a bad gash over the damaged eye; the pair were smeared in dark blood. Chamberlain’s vision had been impaired for five or six rounds. It was heroic stuff down by the seaside.
Billam-Smith retained his European and Commonwealth cruiserweight titles by three wide scores in a fight that was tight and gruelling from the opening bell. They fought over every single inch of the blood-splattered canvas, taking turns, in a dazzling opening three rounds, to slam home vicious shots to the body and head. They finished the last at the same pace that they had started the first – they were just hurt, bruised and cut.
The fight exhausted the crowd, it was that type of brawl. And the crowd pushed them on, standing, chanting, singing and throwing and taking just about every punch. Billam-Smith had 4,000 of his faithful in his corner. “I’ve not been in an atmosphere like that for a long time,” said John Latham, the fight’s referee. It did feel like a special night.
Chris Billam-Smith was a 117-111 victor over Isaac Chamberlain on all scorecards
The crowd, so the locals insisted, were Billam-Smith’s friends, family and schoolteachers. They certainly came out and a return to the city, possibly outdoors next spring, looks likely. Bournemouth might just be a fun addition to the boxing calendar. “We made it happen and we will be back,” promised Ben Shalom, the fight’s promoter. The local BBC radio station had followed the fight daily for weeks – it was a throwback night.
The difference in the fight was Billam-Smith’s jab. And, Chamberlain would argue, the slowly closing left eye that hindered his ability to see anything coming at him on that side. He fought the last desperate rounds with only one eye working and still kept the fight close; Chamberlain finished the fight with a sustained thirty seconds of action, knowing perhaps that he had fallen just short. The eye, incidentally, had started to close in the fifth round and bleed from the start of the eleventh. Chamberlain was checked and given a clear after the fight, a precaution of sense.
In Billam-Smith’s corner, Shane McGuigan had to constantly remind his fighter to not get too relaxed. “He’s not a f****** amateur, be careful, be smart,” he urged at the end of the fourth; the fight was so tight at that stage. At the final bell, boxing insiders were darting frantically all over ringside asking in silent whispers for opinions. It was close, but the identical scores from the judges gave it to Billam-Smith by nine rounds to three; I had it seven rounds to five the same way.
Chris Billam-Smith was a unanimous-decision winner against Isaac Chamberlain
Billam-Smith had a very big eleventh round and Cheavon Clarke, Olympian and unbeaten professional, who was working alongside me for BBC Five Live, thought that round had been the clearest round to score all fight. I agreed with him and then we disagreed on the twelfth round. It really was an intense affair with a lot of hard rounds. Clarke, by the way, beat Billam-Smith in an amateur fight six years ago.
Now, they will each go away and enjoy the rest of their lost summer, let their hands and faces heal. Billam-Smith might get an opportunity at a world title soon, but one more fight will not hurt his chances if he can secure something with Jade Opetai, the new IBF champion. Billam-Smith, perhaps with the roar of his crowd in his ears, can still get too involved – that is, admittedly, part of the attraction.
Chamberlain lost, sure, but the defeat does not change his potential; he remains a quality fighter and the twelve rounds, his first over the championship distance, will make him a much better fighter. He is 28 and there are lot of big fights out there for him; a rematch one day is one simple option.
The night by the pier, by the amusements and under the warmth of a fading English summer, belonged to Billam-Smith and his fans. It was a good night for the old sport on its beano to the seaside.