Chris Billam-Smith (13-1, 10 KOs) withstood a late fightback from Tommy McCarthy (18-3, 9 KOs) to eek out a narrow split points decision to add the British and European cruiserweight titles to the Commonwealth one he already held in an epic battle on the opening night of Fight Camp.
It was seldom pretty but the pair fought themselves to a standstill, before Billam-Smith’s hand was raised. The Englishman seemed to build a lead in the middle rounds, but McCarthy, from Belfast, finished the better to put the fight on a knife-edge.
One judge, John Latham, scored it 115-114 to McCarthy, but Mark Lyson and Ian John Lewis had it to Billam-Smith by 115-114 and 116-112 respectively.
“I’m elated, it has been a hard camp but it was worth it; it was attritional,” Billam-Smith said.
“He caught me with a good shot in the first round, but I caught him with some good punches too and I could feel him breathing hard.”
“I’ll be surprised if he wants a rematch, but I’m up for it. There are other opportunities for me too.”
The pair had seemed fairly cordial until McCarthy took got annoyed at an interview with Billam-Smith’s trainer, Shane McGuigan, that seemed to disrespect McCarthy.
That temperature was ramped up this week as Carl Frampton, who was best man at McGuigan’s wedding before an almighty fall-out with McGuigan’s father, Barry, who decided to volunteer for bucket carrying duties in the Belfast boxer’s corner.
A messy opening round turned decisively McCarthy’s way when he caught Billam-Smith with a big overhand right that wobbled the Englishman’s legs and brought a smile to his face, although there was no time left in the round to press his advantage.
The second was another close round, Billam-Smith having his best moment when he caught McCarthy with a body shot on the ropes.
The third was more open, as both looked keener to stand off, Billiam-Smith having success when forcing McCarthy to miss, but the Northern Irishman had a good fourth as he found his range better.
Things swung in Billam-Smith’s way in the fifth, though, when the two looked to exchange in centre ring and Billiam-Smith threw three left hooks, the last of which seemed to land clean and hurt McCarthy. Suddenly the Irishman was backed into a corner and under serious pressure as the energy seemed to drain from him.
McCarthy stuck his tongue out to supporters at ringside to show he was OK, but relief only really cam when Billam-Smith eased off so not to punch himself out.
The sixth was closer, but Billam-Smith was the aggressor and McCarthy ended the round cut beside his right eye, the result of a clash of heads, and he stumbled to the floor on the bell.
Billam-Smith dominated most of the seventh from behind his jab, but as he got more ambitious, McCarthy fired back, replying to a body shot with a left that stunner Billiam-Smith and then landing a good right.
The eighth was a tough one for McCarthy as he tried to battle his way back in but walked into trouble. Coming off the ropes, Billam-Smith landed a hard right and then a left hook that stunned McCarthy, then getting through with another right for good measure. The Irishman’s output was slowing now too.
But Billam-Smith was feeling the pace too, as McCarthy did his best to wing in some big rights in the ninth. At the end of the round, both looked exhausted and both were missing more and more.
McCarthy summoned up an effort from somewhere to win the tenth round, more through sheer determination than any real plan, but it raised his spirits and he started the 11th on his toes as he moved, jabbed and made Billam-Smith lunge in. As Billam-Smith fell in, McCarthy caught him with a right uppercut, his best punch for several rounds.
Both looked out on their feet at the start of the 12th, but after McCarthy missed with a wild hook, the pair battled to the finish at close quarters, embracing at the final bell.
McGuigan said after that Billam-Smith had not sparred for four weeks after suffering a shoulder injury.
The referee was Victor Loughlin.
Ron Lewis is a senior writer for BoxingScene. He was Boxing Correspondent for The Times, where he worked from 2001-2019 - covering four Olympic Games and numerous world title fights across the globe. He has written about boxing for a wide variety of publications worldwide since the 1980s.