Chris Billam-Smith, Richard Riakporhe and the truth about winning ugly

Winning ugly is often the best tactic in boxing, and Chris Billam-Smith certainly won ugly late on Saturday night, to keep his world title at Selhurst Park in south London.

Billam-Smith retained his WBO cruiserweight title with a unanimous points verdict over Richard Riakporhe after 12 rounds of calculated mauling, holding and smart boxing. It was not always easy on the eye, but it was clever from Billam-Smith.

Riakphore had previously beaten Billam-Smith on points, was unbeaten in 17 with 13 knockouts, and the betting favourite. But in the ring, Billam-Smith just knew enough to avoid many clean Riakporhe powerful right hands; it was frustrating at times for Riakphorhe, but boxing is often about solving a puzzle.

Riakporhe left the ring a better fighter than the one who stepped through the ropes an hour earlier. And Billam-Smith just keeps getting better and better.

The Billam-Smith boxing story will continue and might now have stops in Las Vegas or Riyadh by the end of the year. This was not the first time, and it will not be the last time, that he starts as an underdog and then puts in place a careful plan to win.

Riakporhe was unmarked at the end of 12 gruelling rounds and still seemed, 20 minutes after the final bell, a bit confused about what had just happened. He has options to move to the new weight category of bridgerweight or go the full way and let his body grow and take him to heavyweight.

The rounds followed a similar pattern with holding, wrestling and the occasional moment of cleaner boxing. Billam-Smith just had the edge in exchanges and there is a strong argument that he nicked most of the close rounds. Riakporhe was struggling to find space and get into his rhythm – it was Billam-Smith’s job to deny him that space and rhythm. It was not, as I said, pretty, but it was smart.

In the 12th round, Riakporhe had a point deducted for continued use of his head – it was not malicious, but it happened a lot. Both boxers were allowed to hold and that was only fair in a tough fight like this. It is pointless the referee breaking up the action every 20 seconds with endless cautions for holding – they were both infringing, so Steve Gray, the referee, just let them get on with it.

Chris Billam-Smith during his points victory over Richard Riakporhe (Getty Images)
Chris Billam-Smith during his points victory over Richard Riakporhe (Getty Images)

It was still a gripping fight to watch because they can both punch and, in championship fights, desperate things can happen. And they tend to happen in fights where there is a bit of history and more than just the belt on the line.

Both Billam-Smith, who is known as the “Gentleman”, and Riakporhe were respectful during the build-up, but there was a lot of concealed animosity. Riakporhe won their 2019 fight, yet Billam-Smith was steered to the world title. In a bizarre way, Riakporhe was seeking some type of revenge – proof, if you like, that it should have been him.

After about seven rounds, it looked likely that Riakporhe would tire and then, in the last few rounds, it looked like Billam-Smith could be hurt. It was not easy, even if Billam-Smith did win 10 of the 12 rounds. There was always the threat of a late stoppage, a threat that the exhaustion of this truly physical fight could take a toll.

The contest left both men drained. There was genuine tension in the last two rounds and relief in Billam-Smith’s corner at the final bell. Riakporhe knew he had fallen just short, and that might sound like a contradiction in a fight where he only won a couple of rounds. Remember, tiny margins in 12 rounds can still lead to a 12-round shutout.

The scores, by the way, were far too close: 116-111 and two of 115-112. Nobody complained, the right man won, and Riakporhe knows enough to not judge his performance by the two close scores.

“It’s not my first setback, and it will not be my last,” Riakporhe told me after midnight at the deserted Premier League ground. He will come back a better fighter. Billam-Smith now deserves some big paydays and some respect. It was a cold night under a half-moon outdoors at Selhurst Park, a proper fight of pride. Not a bad Saturday night in south London.