Billam-Smith defends title after Masternak exits

Boxing

Chris Billam-Smith came from a losing position to win a first defense of his WBO world cruiserweight title when Mateusz Masternak pulled out with a rib injury at the start of the eighth round on Sunday.

Masternak (46-6, 31 KOs) was ahead on two of the three judges’ scorecards when he decided not to fight on, after Billam-Smith (19-1, 13 KOs) had targeted his right rib cage in the seventh round. It was a surprising and unexpected end to the fight in front of Billam-Smith’s hometown fans at the Bournemouth International Centre on the English south coast.

Billam-Smith, 33, from Bournemouth, England, has had a slow-burning boxing career. But with this hard-fought win, he stays at the top end of his division. A title unification fight against one of the other champions at 200 pounds, perhaps versus Australia’s Jai Opetaia (23-0, 18 KOs), would give Billam-Smith the opportunity to be recognized as No. 1 at cruiserweight.

But rematches against English rivals Lawrence Okolie or Richard Riakporhe would attract more interest for Billam-Smith, who outpointed Okolie in a much more impressive performance to win the title in May. Riakporhe is the No. 1 challenger for Billam-Smith’s WBO belt and beat him on a split decision in 2019.

“I was trying too hard to land the big shot,” Billam-Smith said in the ring afterward. “The finishing shot to the rib was the right hook, I knew it hurt him because he slowed down, I heard he had a problem with the right rib. He pulled out at the end, which is a shame because I believe I would have showed maturity and adapted. I made it tough on myself.

“I believe there’s another vacant title and if I can fight that I would be keen for that.”

Masternak, 36, from Wroclaw, Poland, took former world heavyweight champion Yuniel Dorticos to points in 2018, and his only stoppage in a long career before facing Billam-Smith was in 2013 against Grigory Drozd, who won the world title a year later.

Masternak had not boxed for 13 months but was full of determination in the first world title fight in his 17-year professional career.

Billam-Smith was the busier fighter in the first round, but Masternak landed some solid jabs in the second round, which seemed to jolt the champion.

Masternak was better in third when he opened up with a combination, with many of the punches landing.

The Pole sensed he was hurting Billam-Smith in the fourth round, as he increased his punch rate with the fight firmly in his grip by the halfway point.

Billam-Smith, who had to contend with a nasty cut above his left eye from early in the fight, rallied late in the seventh round and put together a series of attacks to interrupt Masternak’s rhythm.

It was the first period of success Billam-Smith had enjoyed for a while in a fight that Masternak was dominating. But it was enough to inflict some decisive damage, as Masternak stayed on his stool at the end of the seventh round.

On the undercard, Ben Whittaker (5-0, 4 KOs) produced a vicious left-hook finish against Stiven Dredhaj (11-3-1, 3 KOs) to register his fifth professional victory.

Whittaker, 28, from West Bromwich, England, dropped Dredhaj in the third round before finishing off his opponent a round later with a stiff right hand, followed by a great left hook.

Whittaker, whose ring entrance included a ballet dancer, hopes to be more active in 2024 after injuries limited him to three appearances this year.

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