The former gym-mates took to the ring in front of 15,000 fans at the Vitality Stadium, with Okolie agreeing to defend his WBO cruiserweight title in Billam-Smith’s hometown just 63 days after his last fight.
Okolie was dropped three times in the fight, the first coming from a clean left hook in the fifth round before two questionable knockdowns late in the bout, and he also had two pounds taken off for excessive holding.
That left the previously unbeaten fighter far too much to do on the cards, as Billam-Smith got a majority decision after one judge, somehow, scored it 112-112 while the other two gave it to the home favourite 116-107 and 115-108.
“I was sick in bed all week,” Billam-Smith told Sky Sports.
“I didn’t eat from Tuesday to Thursday. It was easy making weight! I had no energy, I managed to put a brave face on for the workout on Wednesday and the presser on Thursday.”
He added: “I’ve pictured me dropping Lawrence with that left hook all camp. That first knockdown was exactly what I’ve envisioned.”
Okolie said: “He was doing a lot of good stuff. He got a good knockdown which changed the momentum of the fight. From there he was putting in some really good work and I was struggling to get my foothold back in the fight.
“I’ve got to take my hat off to him. He did very good work and we’re going to run it back anyway.”
Elsewhere on a busy night of boxing in the UK, Leigh Wood became a two-time world champion with a points victory over Mauricio Lara, who had been stripped of his featherweight belt on Friday. The Mexican came in nearly four points over the limit, after it emerged that the British Boxing Board of Control had deemed it would be unsafe for him to make weight after a routine check earlier in the week.
Wood put that to one side as the judges scored it 118-109, 116-111 and 118-109 in his favour, giving him revenge for the defeat to Lara he suffered earlier this year.
Michael Conlan was unable to become world champion in front of his home fans in Belfast, as he was stopped in the fifth round. A ferocious pace was set in the early stages and the raucous crowd were left stunned as an uppercut dropped Conlan and his corner immediately threw in the towel.
In Bournemouth, the pattern of the fight was clear from the opening moments of the first round. Okolie looked to land a jab or a big right hand and then immediately lunge in to hold, with Shane McGuigan in Billam-Smith’s corner screaming at the referee to take a point off his former fighter.
He was made to wait for that, as Okolie continued to smother Billam-Smith and prevent any consistent exchanges from taking place. That scrappy style suited him and he was relatively in control until the fourth round, when he was caught as he turned away by a left hook that left him in huge trouble. Okolie staggered around for the final minute of the round, holding even more and he somehow made it to the bell on unsteady legs.
The referee lost his patience in the fifth, deducting a point from Okolie for the constant holding, and another one went two rounds later as the tactic persisted. An exasperated referee continued to pull the fighters apart, his appeals to Okolie landing on deaf ears.
Okolie still carried a threat heading into the final rounds, with the wrestling seemingly having more of an impact on Billam-Smith and the home favourite began to look tired as the draining nature of the bout took its toll. He was lifted in the tenth though, Okolie falling to the canvas and the referee began counting, despite replays showing no clean shots had landed.
That left him with six minutes to save his world title and he came flying out of his corner, looking to land the big shot he needed to and there was some encouragement through a nasty cut on Billam-Smith left’s eye. That swiftly faded though in the penultimate round, as a third knockdown came, again perhaps harshly, and from there Okolie had no choice but to throw the kitchen sink at the situation.
He was unable to do so in the final round, a fittingly scrappy one, as Billam-Smith made it to the final bell and, despite some woeful scoring from one judge to have it level, got the perfect ending to his big night in Bournemouth.