Shane McGuigan expects the experience of having dethroned Lawrence Okolie to prove the difference when Chris Billam-Smith defends his WBO cruiserweight title against Richard Riakporhe on Saturday evening.

Billam-Smith makes the second defence of his title, at Crystal Palace’s Selhurst Park, and does so against the only fighter to have beaten him as a professional – as Riakporhe did via split decision in 2019.

The 34-year-old has regardless since significantly improved, and not least because of the confidence he gained in defeating Okolie to win his title having previously become accustomed to struggling against Okolie during sparring. 

If it is tempting to view that transformation as key to Billam-Smith’s conviction ahead of a fight with someone who, similarly, has previously defeated him, McGuigan believes that the key instead lies in Billam-Smith’s knowledge of how he responds when he is perceived as at threat.

Riakporhe, also 34, is – as was Okolie – one of the world’s heaviest-handed cruiserweights, and it is the knowledge of his explosive power that Billam-Smith’s trainer believes will inspire him when they again share a ring.

“He’s a world-class puncher,” McGuigan said of Riakporhe. “He’s got a good boxing brain. He understands boxing. I just really fancy Chris Billam-Smith to get the victory. On Chris Billam-Smith’s best day he’s got a chance of beating any cruiserweight in the world. On Lawrence Okolie’s best day he’s got the chance of beating any cruiserweight. Richard Riakporhe, same thing. 

“It’s just about instilling that belief in your fighter, and Chris does best when he hasn’t got a guy with five or six losses, like [previous opponent Mateusz] Masternak. It’s easy to take your eye off the ball with those sort of fighters. Lawrence Okolie, everyone’s touting him as a knockout artist. Same thing with Richard Riakporhe. He relishes those moments. He really does. He likes to try and prove people wrong. He’s spent his whole career trying to do so, and this is just another version of that. He’s gonna rise to the occasion.

“When you’re throwing off the cuff [like Riakporhe in 2019] and you’re a bit nervous and a bit jittery – you’re reactive, and you’ve got that power – that can really work in your favor. Lawrence Okolie’s like that. Richard’s got better coordination than someone like Lawrence – he can throw shots at better angles, but Lawrence is almost even more explosive, so you’ve got to know what you’re working with. We’re expecting him to be a better version of Richard Riakporhe, but that unpredictability was quite hard to read, and he grew in confidence in the fight. Now he’s had a lot of fights his own way, he’s been boxing at his own pace, there’s gonna be a lot of stuff that’s gonna unsettle him.

“[Billam-Smith’s] improved a lot. He’s continued to look for those little one per cents; half-per cents; which compounds over time. He’s been a pro seven-and-a-half, eight years now. He’s been a pleasure to work with, and also defied all odds. He can’t end his career and say, ‘There was an extra couple of per cent in there’, and that’s not just a testament to the coaching, it’s a collective effort. We as a team have to look for those extra percentages; he also has to take accountability for his training; his family have to chip in; have the right promoter; the right manager. He’s a great representative for the gym and for professional boxing.”

McGuigan, who also once trained Okolie, was asked what specifically Billam-Smith has improved, and he responded: “They’ve both improved. Chris has got a lot more confident in his abilities and how to implement his key assets in fights; work towards his strengths. He has moments that he switches off, but he’s also been extremely active at the top level. 

“If you look at the momentum – and I’m one of the people that don’t like the word ‘momentum’ in professional boxing, because you’ve got people like David Haye who used to fight once a year and still lighted it up – I just believe that for someone like Chris who’s never touted to be the number one… 

“He was probably fifth or sixth as an amateur in the UK, and now he’s number one in the world. Yeah, there’s three other belts, but he’s still a world champion. He was always getting told he wasn’t gonna do anything. ‘You’re lucky if you win a British title’. People around him, ‘What are you doing turning pro? You’re a smart lad. You can get a good job elsewhere; there’s not good money in low-level boxing’, and he’s always defied the odds and risen to the occasion, and activity has been a massive part of that, because it instills the belief. 

“If you’ve got a lasting memory [of fighting] months ago, it can allow you to sleep easy at night. If it’s a year ago, for someone like Chris, that’ll create self-doubt.”

Read the full article here