Billam-Smith embracing 'AFC Bournemouth of boxing' tag

After 14 games in the 2023/24 Premier League campaign, AFC Bournemouth was looking for just its fifth win of the season. On that Nov. 11 night against Newcastle United, forward Dominic Solanke scored a goal for AFC Bournemouth in the 60th minute and celebrated by hitting the corner flag with a nice 1-2 combination.

Solanke was honoring his friend Chris Billam-Smith, a cruiserweight contender at the time.

Billam-Smith has no problem likening himself to being boxing's equivalent of AFC Bournemouth -- and not just because he is a fan of the English Premier League (EPL) club. He sees similarities between his rise to the top tier of boxing to that of is hometown soccer club AFC Bournemouth, which has one of the smallest stadiums and budgets in the English soccer top flight. Fighting against the odds is something Billam-Smith feels he has had to do too, to get to the position he is now in after progressing from British and European title fights to become the WBO cruiserweight world champion in May.

On Sunday (Peacock, Sunday, 1 p.m. ET), the 33-year-old makes a first defense of his belt against Mateusz Masternak (47-5, 31 KOs), 36, from Wroclaw, Poland, in front of his hometown crowd at the Bournemouth International Centre on the English south coast.

Billam-Smith (18-1, 12 KOs) has progressed from being a sparring partner to former champion Lawrence Okolie and fighting lower down on boxing cards to being the current No. 4 at 200 pounds in ESPN divisional rankings, and a headline act. He is the first world champion boxer from Bournemouth since Freddie Mills, who won the light heavyweight world title from Gus Lesnevich in 1948, and lost the belt two years later to Joey Maxim.

"Just like AFC Bournemouth, I had no expectations on me but I have worked my way up, overcome some challenges and got my rewards," Billam-Smith told ESPN. "Now I'm in the top league like Bournemouth are. I'm a huge fan of the club, I used to have a season ticket for two years when I was 12 to 14 years old and I followed the club when they were in the lower leagues all the way to the Premier League.

Billam-Smith sees a lot of similarities between the soccer club and his boxing career.

"Bournemouth is a small place, not known for its boxing and it wasn't really known for its football either before Bournemouth first got promoted to the Premier League," Billam-smith said. "We don't have much history in either sport down here. I've also had to come from nowhere in boxing to win the world title, not many people thought I could do it last year."

The fight against Masternak takes place at an indoor venue, rather than at the outdoor home of AFC Bournemouth, the Vitality Stadium, which hosted a crowd of 15,000 when Billam-Smith dropped Okolie three times on his way to an upset majority-decision win in May to take the belt.

Unusually, the fight against Masternak will be on a Sunday but this is to ensure there is no clash with AFC Bournemouth's Premier League schedule and that fans can watch both events this weekend.

"Bournemouth football fans are a big part of my fan base and Bournemouth are playing Manchester United at Old Trafford [in Manchester] on the Saturday [Dec. 9]," Billam-Smith told ESPN. "So I couldn't have the Masternak fight on the same day as Bournemouth play Man United because I would have a lot of unhappy fans not able to go to the fight. They bring unbelievable atmosphere to my fights and I couldn't let them down, so we moved the fight to a Sunday which is unusual I know.

Billam-Smith said he've got to know a few of the Bournemouth players over the years and said some of the current squad watch his fights.

"I was speaking to Dominic Solanke the other day before a game and told him I did his goal celebration when I was on [TV programme] Soccer AM," Billam-Smith said. "Then when he scored against Newcastle United [on Nov. 11] he ran over and punched the corner flag. It's crazy when you've got Premier League footballers doing goal celebrations after you! David Brookes, Marcus Tavernier, Junior Stanislas and Ryan Fredericks were at my last fight and Brookesy said he hopes they can get to my next one after they get back from Manchester."

Cruiserweight is often overlooked as a division, but that could change next year. The emergence of exciting Australian Jai Opetaia (23-0, 18 KOs) the IBF titleholder who defends his belt against England's Ellis Zorro on Dec. 23, and the strong likelihood Billam-Smith will face either Okolie (19-1, 14 KOs) or Richard Riakporhe (16-0, 12 KOs) in rematches means exciting fights are on the horizon.

Boxers usually adopt menacing nicknames, like "The Monster" (Nayou Inoue), "The Executioner" (Bernard Hopkins), "The Dark Destroyer" (Nigel Benn), "Bronze Bomber" (Deontay Wilder), "Hands of Stone" (Roberto Duran), "Bodysnatcher" (Mike McCallum) or "The Hitman" (Thomas Hearns, Ricky Hatton). But Billam-Smith is known as "The Gentleman" due to his courteous and respectful manner out of the ring, which never sees him trash-talking his opponents.

"He has huge experience, one of the most experienced fighters in the world at cruiserweight, and possibly my hardest fight yet," Billam-Smith said of Masternak. "He has a fantastic chin, he has only been stopped once in over 50 professional fights and that was by Grigory Drozd in 2013, a long time ago and he has been in with some monsters so I'm expecting a tough night, but I believe I can do the best job on him anyone has managed."

Rematches against Okolie and Riakporhe, who won a split decision over Billam-Smith in July 2019, will still contain plenty of spice, as long as Billam-Smith gets past Masternak who has gone the distance with Yuniel Dorticos, the reigning WBC champion, in 2018 and the now retired former WBC champion Tony Bellew in 2015.

"There are people in my contract [with promoter BOXXER] who I could fight, there are other world champions as well. Lawrence Okolie and Richard Riakporhe are in my contract as potential opponents, so technically I've already signed to fight them. People want to see these rivalries, like we had with Carl Froch and George Groves [at super middleweight] ten years ago.

"Jai Opetaia seems to have risen quickly for some people, but he had been around for a while. He beat Mairis Breidis and looked good, but really that is the only name on his record and no disrespect but it will be a big step up in class for his next opponent Ellis Zorro."

And like a lower division team fighting through the ranks, Billam-Smith has to sell his own tickets as well. His wife Mia has been helping to sell tickets for Sunday's fight while her husband trains in London with coach Shane McGuigan during the week. The couple have a 16-month old son and Mia also works part-time as a successful interior designer. Billam-Smith reckons he has it easier than Mia when he is in training camp.

"She sells some of the tickets, I don't know how she does it as she's also a full-time mum and has a part-time job as well, plus all of the housework and my boxing admin," Billam-Smith told ESPN. "She's a bit like Wonder Woman, she's sold 500 tickets for this fight."