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George Groves analyses Lawrence Okolie and Chris Billam-Smith ahead of world title fight in Bournemouth

Former world champion George Groves explains why Chris Billam-Smith is one of Britain's most improved fighters as he looks to tame Lawrence Okolie's 'equaliser power'; watch Okolie vs Billam-Smith live from Bournemouth on Sky Sports this Saturday.

Chris Billam-Smith
Image: Can Chris Billam-Smith dethrone Lawrence Okolie?

Lawrence Okolie may boast the power and world champion's nous, but he is coming up against one of Britain's "most improved" fighters in Chris Billam-Smith, warns former world champion George Groves.ย 

The long-time training partners will cash in hundreds of rounds of sparring for the real thing on Saturday night when Okolie puts his WBC cruiserweight title on the line against his domestic rival in Bournemouth, live on Sky Sports.

It comes just two months after Okolie returned to the ring for the first time in a year as he extended his unbeaten record to 19-0 with a unanimous decision victory over David Light.

While devoid of knockout fireworks, it did serve as another reminder of the fighting style that has made Okolie one of boxing's trickiest problems to solve.

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Lawrence Okolie says that he's ready to defend his throne against Chris Billam-Smith and is preparing for a hard fight

"He's very effective at what he does, he's got tremendous punch power, equaliser punch power but he's also very strong," former super-middleweight champion Groves told Sky Sports.

"People don't want to be caught at the end of the punch with him because that's where his best shots are, he punches at that long range.

"David Light gave away a lot of height and reach and natural punch power, so wanted to close the distance, really tough guy and took his licks that night. You can't underestimate how strong Lawrence Okolie is on the inside, it's not that great to watch at times when they do come together and there's a lot of tussling.

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"He's got long limbs so he can't punch on the inside properly, he can't get his good work off. I'm sure the process will be marrying up how to work your way out of the close-range stuff to long-range punching, you don't just hold and wait for the referee to break you, if you can tie the guy up, take an angle and punch and slide and then create that distance, it will work more in his favour.

"I feel like that is still a work in progress, he's still got room for improvement there. That's essentially what he does really well, I think people are surprised how strong he really is."

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Ahead of this weekend's WBO cruiserweight clash between Lawrence Okolie and Chris Billam-Smith, check out some of the best British world title fights to have taken place on Sky Sports

Billam-Smith arrives on the back of December's vicious fifth-round knockout victory over Armend Xhoxhaj, during which he marched through an early scare after being buzzed by a thumping right hand from the Kosovan.

The emphatic reply was testament to today's most accomplished version of Billam-Smith in comparison to that of previous years.

"Chris is the more improved fighter, he had more room to improve but he's come on an awful lot, one of the most improved fighters in Britain over the last few years," explained Groves.

"He's risen to every test, he's had to bite down on the gum-shield and weather a few storms and had a few dust-ups and had the loss to Riakporhe but came back and grew. Much more complete fighter now.

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"What Chris has in his locker is where he had to work hard for his supper in earlier fights, he's had to dig deep and smudge out a performance at times, he's got that in his arsenal.

"Staying switched on for an entire fight, you've got to drill that in the gym, drill the conditioning and the determination.

"The same can be said for Lawrence, he's been in physical fights and had to stay switched on and he's so far taken everything in his stride.

"Essentially what he (Chris) does better is his inside game is so much better, that would be through drilling it and putting it into practice."

Groves previously sparred with Billam-Smith on many occasions during their time together under Shane McGuigan, and recalled on this week's Toe2Toe podcast of how 'The Gentleman' punched "lumps" out of him during preparation for his fight against Callum Smith in 2018.

He noted it as stark improvement on prior sparring sessions with Billam-Smith, who came up short in a split decision loss to Richard Riakporhe in 2019 before rallying to eight straight wins since then.

"He's gone from throwing tight muscle labouring punches to throwing short sharp whippy shots on the inside," Groves continued. "He's always been a great bent-arm puncher, but now there's that whip and spite.

"Whether there's that fraction of adjustment in the chain of the punch, he has got that stuff you do with Shane McGuigan where he likes to vary the power and the speed and tempo so you have a touch, touch, whip. Chris has made leaps and bounds in progression in that aspect.

"And not switching off, he's been guilty of that in the past, he's been caught with his chin high. He certainly can't get caught high with Lawrence Okolie.

"It makes for a magnificent fight. I'm invested because I know both guys. I've been in the gym with Chris and sparred him. It's going to be an enthralling fight."

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Take a look at some of Lawrence Okolie's best knockouts

Okolie will be no stranger to division over his approach in the ring, though the WBC belt in his possession speaks to its efficiency so far in his career.

Groves is keen to see the 30-year-old work harder to exploit his power more regularly and earlier in fights.

"If I was working with Lawrence Okolie I would probably say we need to pick the volume up, he can't just wait for that equaliser punch power," he explained.

"You'll end up in the realm of a Deontay Wilder who gets the sensational knockout reel but you might have had to sleep through 10 rounds to get to it.

"He'll create many more openings for himself if he picks up the volume, that doesn't necessarily mean punches, it can be feints and footwork.

"He's a sharp guy, if he shows variety within the tempo, not everything has to be sharp and fast, he's a big dude, he doesn't want to get tired feinting and touching and jabbing but he could vary his power, vary his speed.

"Much more work with the left hand essentially, change the angle of that left hand, whether it comes out straight, whether it goes head or body, whether it goes round the side, from there you're trying to detonate that right hand."

Where does Riakporhe fit into the equation?

One man set to have a keen eye on proceedings from ringside is Richard Riakporhe, who already boasts a win over Billam-Smith earlier in his career and has made no secret of his desire to challenge Okolie.

The 33-year-old has positioned himself for a world title shot after extending his perfect record to 16-0 with a fourth-round knockout victory over Krzysztof Głowacki in January.

Boxxer CEO Ben Shalom told Sky Sports earlier this month that a deal was close for Riakporhe to face WBA champion Arsen Goulamirian.

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Cruiserweights Lawrence Okolie and Richard Riakporhe sit either side of Boxxer CEO Ben Shalom in Birmingham

Whether it comes next or further down the line, there is a feeling that Riakporhe awaits for the winner of Saturday night's main event.

"If you'd picked who is the best man, on what they've achieved I'd pick Lawrence because he's the world champion," Groves said of Okolie, Billam-Smith and Riakporhe.

"Richard Riakporhe has the win over Chris Billam-Smith but there wasn't a lot in it and he was a bit further along in his career.

"Chris has made the improvements, fought throughout lockdown and won the European title. Richard Riakporhe, a bit like Okolie, there can be spells of the fight where he doesn't get going.

"He needs to pick up his activity because he can ice the guy and you can say 'that was a great finish' but if you've had to sit through 10 rounds to get there you can say it's not great. I couldn't confidently pick any of them above the other.

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Richard Riakporhe has set his sights on world titles after signing a long-term contract extension with BOXXER and Sky Sports

"Lawrence might be scratching his head thinking how have I said that, he'll think he's levels above Chris Billam-Smith but I think we'll see Saturday night the improvements Billam-Smith has made. Let's see the adjustments Okolie has had to make.

"Riakporhe I'd pick third out of them, on his day huge guy and huge puncher but I think of these guys at the top top level, he's still got to improve on some areas of his game."

Don't miss Lawrence Okolie vs Chris Billam-Smith live on Sky Sports Action and Sky Showcase from 7pm on Saturday night.

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