CHRIS Billam-Smith returns to the ring in Bournemouth this weekend, defending his WBO cruiserweight title against Mateusz Masternak.

We have spoken with some of the people who know Billam-Smith best, to give us an insight into the man behind the belt.

In the final piece of this three-part series, Billam-Smith’s coach as an amateur, Neal Partridge, a trainer at Poole ABC for 30 years, has shared his stories since the pair first met.

Bournemouth Echo:

He first came to our club when he was 16. It was the first time he had entered a boxing gym.

In the early days, he was no different to anyone else really. He was just the same as all the other lads that came through the door at 16 years old, wanting to learn. He was relatively fit, he played a bit of football.

But nothing standout, nothing special about him, nothing different to anyone else that was there.

But he listened and learned and blended in. He was with us for a little bit and then he went with his brother to a different club for a while and had a few bouts with them at the beginning of his career.

Then he came back and boxed for us after he had had about a dozen bouts. He gradually worked his way and we trained him up.

He was always a nice lad to train. He was always there for the sessions.

Sometimes people use the word talent as a shortcut and think it’s okay for him because he’s talented, but it’s not like that at all. Everything Chris has achieved and everything he can do, he’s had to work really hard for. None of it came easy to him. None of it was really simple and natural to him.

His determination to get there has been quite phenomenal. You need a bit of luck on your side as well, to get over injuries and such like. But he surprised me with his determination to keep going, even with his knockbacks, either through injury or losses. It would have probably been career-ending for a lot of people, because this is an amateur sport and you’re not getting paid for it.

He could’ve finished boxing and gone and made a career in a job earning better money. But he carried on. I think he probably pushed his car further than he drove it, it was breaking down so many times, because he wanted to work in a gym and he wanted to be there. He struggled with it, but he kept going. There’s never been any shortcut with him.

Seeing some of his earlier bouts, it was a pleasure to be in his corner and see his resilience. You see how much people can take, stand their ground and come back. You know then he’s got a heart in there.

We spent many hours driving on the motorway. I used to take him up to Western Counties squad training in Bristol on Sundays and he would train with us during the week at the club.

Then when he was boxing, we’d travel all over – Cornwall, Birmingham, London. It was hours and hours sat in the van.

Because of the weight he boxed at, he would often be late on the shows, so there was a lot of time sat around in changing rooms. It is a very unglamorous sport in some aspects. You could have to wait until midnight to step in the ring and we’d drop him back at four o’clock in the morning. He would then say ‘what am I doing tomorrow?’. I’d tell him to have a rest!

Win or lose, it was always, what is the next step now?

As a coach, if someone shows you that enthusiasm, you will put the effort and time into them.

Bournemouth Echo:

He was going to GB camps, but I feel they missed a trick with him. He is a boxer you can do something with. Chris is very easy to train. I don’t think they realised what they could’ve done with him. Look what Shane McGuigan has been able to do with him and the success they’ve had. Half of it is Shane’s ability as a great coach and half is Chris, being able to be trained.

As an amateur, life goes on outside of boxing – your job, your work, your home and personal life, your relationships. So to keep the constant with the boxing, whilst all this is going on around you is a difficult thing to do, but he managed to do it.

He’s developed immensely since turning pro. He went from being an amateur heavyweight to a professional cruiserweight. It’s a different sport. There is a slower pace and different dynamics to it.

But I think you could’ve turned him into whatever boxer you wanted to.

What is still there is his ability and discipline to listen and carry out the instructions of the coach. It takes quite a lot of discipline to carry something out in the heat of battle.

I was absolutely made up for him to win that world title fight. From travelling around to all of these shows in the early days, from boxing in tents to the little town halls and working man clubs all over the country. Nobody there knew him. His family always travelled to watch, but other than that.

In his amateur career, when he first won the novice championship, that was a really special moment.

Bournemouth Echo:

I was already made up with what he’d done, but when I came to see the weigh-in on Bournemouth Pier and the circus that was going on around him and for him to keep his composure, I was thinking, where has all this come from? I’d been a little bit distant from it, because I’ve always stayed just with the amateurs, I don’t follow the professional game much. Just the enormity of it was huge.

Then that night, I know that was his dream for a long time to win the belt at Bournemouth’s stadium. I was lucky, my two sons came with me as well. I thought I’d just hang around and we’d maybe catch him afterwards and we did. I was really pleased to have that moment and congratulate him.

I was so pleased for him and so proud of him, having known what he had been through in the early days.

I’m honoured to consider him a friend, not just someone I trained. I’m proud to have been a part of that.

Bournemouth Echo:

Some of these stars and people you see on TV, just become unreachable. Whereas the kids at Poole ABC know Chris, because he comes through the door.

To feel he is a part of this club and this area is really inspirational. It's helped the youngsters and the professional game as well. It’s opened up opportunities for them. It needed that kick-start and I really think he’s helped revive that.