Two fighters from the same gym, at different stages of their careers, are both looking to establish their credentials for world level title fights in 2023.
Chris Billam-Smith is now a veteran who’s won British, Commonwealth and European titles. The accolade he is yet to win is a world championship belt. Standing between him and that ultimate title shot is Armend Xhoxhaj.
To keep the dream alive Billam-Smith must win when, in his hometown, he fights Xhoxhaj on Saturday night at the Bournemouth International Centre.
His stablemate Caroline Dubois boxes on the same bill, live on Sky Sports.
At only 21 years old, she is more than a decade younger than Billam-Smith. She’s been a professional boxer for less than a year.
But such is her talent and ambition, if she can deliver the performance she wants against Sofi Rodriguez, Dubois will consider the apprenticeship phase of her career complete.
This time next year she wants to be pressing for a title shot herself.
Shane McGuigan trains both fighters. McGuigan hasn’t been in a losing corner this year and is confident that both Billam-Smith and Dubois will prevail.
“I register the losses, I don’t necessarily register the wins. That’s a pessimistic way of looking at it but it keeps you on your toes,” McGuigan said.
“Chris has got a potential banana skin because he’s ready to fight for the IBF world title with Jai Opetaia and if Jai Opetaia isn’t ready in time there’s also Arsen Goulamirian, the WBA champion that’s looking for a fight.
“So whatever the case, we’ll have a world title fight next.”
Xhoxhaj has lost twice but McGuigan considers him a dangerous puncher. His father, boxing legend Barry McGuigan has concerns about the threat Xhoxhaj could pose.
“My dad rang me the other day and was like, ‘Who picked this lad?'” the trainer revealed. “We had a discussion because he said there’s no upside.
“[Xhoxhaj] is also dangerous. He hurt [Mateusz] Masternak early in the fight. Tony Bellew went 12 rounds with Masternak and he never hurt him at all and Tony Bellew’s a big puncher.
“I know what Chris is capable of doing, especially back in Bournemouth, it gives him that little edge.”
In contrast Dubois is fighting an opponent in Rodriguez who does have a few losses on her record but is durable. It will be a test of how ruthless a finisher Dubois can really be.
McGuigan expects this to be Dubois’ last scheduled six-round bout.
“We’ll have one or two eight rounders and then we’ll go straight into title fights. It’s been a really good developing year. She’s come straight from the Olympics into boxing five times and changing the style up,” he said.
“The professional game’s different. It’s a hurt business,” he continued.
“It’s the manner of victory. To build a star you have to have that X factor. She’s got the punching power, she’s got the reflexes, she’s got balance, she’s got everything. It’s just the intent. We have to get that intent across. I think there’s been a massive change in her mindset.
“If you want those headline slots you have to be able to excel.”
McGuigan is confident Dubois will continue that rapid learning curve. “We’re going to have to make those attributes tell at world level,” he said.
“She’s one of the best body punchers I’ve seen and I think she will be one of the best finishers.”
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He will be guiding Dubois from her first pro bout to the next stage of her career. He did just that for Billam-Smith, taking him from his professional debut to where he is now, on the verge of world level competition.
“Chris was an out-and-out boxer in the amateurs, now he’s an out-and-out attacking fighter. It’s probably why he’s a better pro than he was an amateur. He was fighting the wrong way,” McGuigan said.
“It’s going to be an entertaining fight and that’s always the worry for me. He fights too aggressively.
“For the fans it’s going to be amazing, for the TV it’s going to be great, for me it’s going to be heart-in-the-mouth stuff because we need to get ourselves to fight for a world title. That was always the goal.”
Billam-Smith has found the style that works for him. It also usually makes for exciting fights. His last bout against Isaac Chamberlain was a thriller.
He can’t guarantee this fight with Xhoxhaj will quite reach that level. “In that sense, there’s only so much entertainment you can cram into say half the fight, which is what I want to do – get it done inside the first six rounds,” Billam-Smith said.
“I don’t think you can fit that much excitement which it had in the last fight into six rounds.”
He wants to go for that early knockout to demonstrate that not only can he get a world title shot, but that he can win one as well when it does come.
“I have to look good,” Billam-Smith said. “I have to really put on a good display.”
Watch Chris Billam-Smith vs Armend Xhoxhaj live on Saturday night on Sky Sports Mix from 7pm and Sky Sports Main Event from 7.30pm