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Billam-Smith vs. Riakporhe and the perks of being a football fan | Boxing News

ONE of the stranger tasks I took on while working as press officer for a world heavyweight champion was having to educate the boxer in question on Millwall FC’s starting 11 ahead of an appearance on now-defunct Sky Sports show Soccer AM circa 2010.

As well as the starting 11, player names and positions, I would also provide them with the name of the manager, the results of their last three fixtures, and remind them of their position in the league and what could still be achieved that season. Only then could we both be sure that during the few minutes on the show set aside to discuss football, and not a fight, the boxer’s response would neither cause embarrassment nor expose the fact he did not really support Millwall, or, for that matter, care for football at all.

It was, you see, like most things in high-level sport, an exercise in manipulation and deception. Pull it off and, by aligning with a football club, you stood every chance of finding your tribe and capitalising, financially, on an in-built fanbase ready to follow you up and down the country to watch you fight. Get it wrong, however, which was always the danger when appearing on Soccer AM with absolutely zero knowledge of football, and you could find yourself the butt of a joke or, worse, called a charlatan; a snake oil salesman.

As it happened, the presenters’ sensitivity and foresight ensured it was, for this boxer, never really an issue. Time and time again, in fact, this boxer would appear on the show and proclaim to be a Millwall fan all the while repeating to himself the name “Neil Harris” as though it was the name not of a centre-forward but the man who had kidnapped his child. He survived, in other words, and became popular on the show. There were even occasionally Millwall fans at his fights, though nowhere near enough to justify having gone to such lengths to secure their presence.

Others, the kind more sincere, fared better. Ricky Hatton, for instance, had scores of Manchester City fans follow him to Las Vegas and more recently we have seen cruiserweight Chris Billam-Smith box and win at the home of his beloved AFC Bournemouth, whom he has supported since he was a boy. Indeed, because of that relationship, Billam-Smith has become one of the surprising success stories in British boxing, his rise reminiscent of a time when genuine ticket-sellers were not only commonplace but the products of their local community and often connected in some way to the nearest football club.

Billam-Smith’s next fight, by the way, will again see the ring positioned in the centre of a football pitch, albeit this time in south London rather than the south coast. His opponent, meanwhile, will be Richard Riakporhe, a man local to south London, who will be challenging for Billam-Smith’s WBO cruiserweight belt at Selhurst Park and doing so as a Crystal Palace fan. He, like Billam-Smith, is a genuine fan, too, you see, and when speaking about Palace requires no prompts. If in doubt, consider the response Riakporhe offered when, on Sky Sports this week, he was asked to name the two Palace players he felt would make the best boxers. His answer: “Joachim Andersen or Daniel Muñoz.” Suffice it to say, this was an answer only a true Palace fan could give and Billam-Smith, likewise, is someone whose love for Bournemouth not only predates his boxing career but sometimes appears to be even stronger than his love for boxing.

Riakporhe (L) and Billam-Smith (R) in action five years ago (Dan Istitene/Getty Images)

This, then, is no manufactured ploy on the part of Riakporhe and Billam-Smith. Their love for football is instead absolutely genuine and something by which they are, as boxers, defined at this stage in their respective careers. For Billam-Smith, his greatest night came at home, when winning his world title on his favourite football pitch, while for Riakporhe the sound of “Glad All Over” has soundtracked more than one of his knockout wins and, on June 15, he gets the chance to box for a world title in front of Palace fans at Selhurst Park.

Without this support, the two cruiserweights would likely find it trickier to (a) get fights and (b) find relevance in a division notoriously easy to ignore. But that’s the thing about football’s tribalism: not only is it unique, it can, if done right, offer boxers the kind of loyalty they cannot find in their own sport.

Only the smart ones realise this. The others, in all their ambition and arrogance, aim considerably higher and wider and invariably fall short. They target the world without first focusing on a club, or a community, thinking that the only way to succeed is to be known to the largest number of people possible.

Yet that is where they are wrong. Many, in fact, have confused numbers on social media with numbers at the gate, or the number of subscriptions or pay-per-view buys, and are now struggling to understand why the two simply don’t correlate. But here’s why: in a lawless world, where most things are free if you know where to look, you must nowadays rely not so much on drumming up interest for a fight, or a fighter, but buying from your audience their loyalty, their trust, and, in the end, their generosity.

Some boxers, it’s true, will grift and grind every day on social media in an effort to generate interest in their name and their fights and yet, come fight night, all you see, with them in the ring, are empty seats. Why? Because, although these boxers have cultivated an audience of sorts, the audience they have cultivated is one chronically online; that is, the kind likely to be watching the fight but doing so at home, on their laptop or phone, via an illegal stream. Choose to mix with that sort of crowd and that’s the price you will ultimately pay. On the other hand, touch grass, as they say, and set foot in the real world and there is a far greater chance that your personality – your true personality – actually connects with real, living, breathing human beings who may, you never know, actually part with real money to watch you fight. You may even one day find yourself walking across the grass of a football pitch roared on by stands full of fans, at which point you know then that you have scored.

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