By Daniel Gilfillan
Nottingham’s Motorpoint Arena will host the tantalising featherweight world title bout between hometown hero and defending champion Leigh Wood and Belfast’s undefeated challenger Michael Conlan, live on DAZN on March 12th. There was a stage in Leigh Wood’s career when even his most ardent of supporters would have struggled to envisage the now 33-year-old reaching this level. After losing what was deemed a crossroads fight with former world title challenger James ‘Jazza’ Dickens, it was difficult to conceive Wood challenging at the upper stratum of the division. Even after an excellent bounce back stoppage win against Reece Mould for the British title, there were few in the trade who held the view that Wood was capable of making the jump from domestic to world level.
However, an unlikely opportunity would present itself on the second instalment of Matchroom’s Fight Camp. A fight was agreed with WBA world featherweight champion Can Xu, who had been previously scheduled to face Josh Warrington six months prior. After the Fuzhou native pulled out due to injury and Warrington went on to suffer a shock KO defeat to unknown replacement Mauricio Lara, Leigh Wood got the nod to face Xu in August 2021.
The fight appeared to be a huge step up in class for Wood. Despite being out of the ring for 18 months, Xu had made two successful defences of his title and was considered by many to be emerging as one of the big beasts at 126lbs. Having only captured the British title a few months earlier, it was no surprise that Wood went into the fight as a sizeable betting underdog.
In spite of being unfancied by bookmakers, fans and pundits alike, the Phoenix ABC graduate rose to the occasion. Wood was able to negate the constant foot pressure of the somewhat one-dimensional Xu through the deployment of a disciplined yet punishing backfoot strategy. A performance littered with shrewd use of the jab, elusive movement and spiteful combination punching had the Nottingham challenger clear on the cards going into the final round. Far from resting on his laurels, Wood put the icing on the cake in devastating fashion. He was able to floor the rallying Xu in the final minute, walking him onto a crushing right hook. Xu bravely rose to his feet and managed to beat the count, though Wood was in no mood for mercy and clinically ended proceedings seconds later.
The stoppage victory over Xu was a breakthrough moment for Leigh Wood. It was also a huge accreditation for the man responsible for the game plan that night, trainer Ben Davison. Question marks had been raised over Davison’s credentials after his split from heavyweight champion Tyson Fury, with the former personal trainer being dubbed ‘Boxercise Ben’ by pockets of fans on social media. Through guiding Wood to the British title and a version of the world title in just two fights, Davison had made steps towards silencing his critics.
A stiffer test altogether now lies in front of Wood and Davison. Whilst Wood unquestionably delivered a career best performance in the Matchroom garden, Can Xu was an inactive and underwhelming champion, whose reputation and nickname (‘The Monster’) perhaps proceeded him. By contrast, there is no overestimating the test facing Wood on March 12th, in the shape of Ireland’s once decorated amateur Michael Conlan.
Contrary to Leigh Wood’s journey to the big stage, which was a surprising one in the eyes of many, Conlan was tipped for the top from the get-go. With pedigree that few fighters from the British Isles can rival, the now 30-year-old entered the professional game with a remarkable amateur record of 82 wins and 20 losses – including a victory over unified super bantamweight world champion Murodjon Akhmaladiev.
Conlan’s early ventures in the paid ranks confirmed what few doubted – he was a supremely skilled fighter. He hardly dropped a round in his first 12 fights, collecting inter-continental trinkets with both the WBA and the WBO along the way. Amongst those the switch-hitter defeated was Olympic foe Vladimir Nikitin, who was controversially awarded a victory over Conlan in their quarter final bout at the Rio 2016 games
Whilst the natural boxing ability on display in Conlan’s early career was undeniable, question marks regarding other facets of his game did begin to arise. A perceived lack of power was most often touted as one of the Irishman’s shortcomings, alongside debate over whether or not he would be able to bite down on his gumshield and outfight a high-level opponent when pure pugilism wouldn’t suffice.
In his next two outings, Conlan would make inroads towards answering these criticisms. In April 2021, he faced rugged Romanian Ionut Baluta at the York Hall in Bethnall Green. Baluta, fresh off a third-round stoppage of another esteemed Irish amateur in David Oliver Joyce, would prove to be Conlan’s toughest test to date. Baluta applied persistent pressure for the duration of the contest, forcing Conlan to stand toe to toe him for large parts of the later rounds. The Belfast boxer was able to remain calm in the storm, matching Baluta physically and maintaining the composure to land crisp counters on his relentless opponent. In what was later said to be a coming-of-age fight for Conlan, he was awarded a majority decision victory, a verdict which was perhaps slightly generous to the man on the wrong side of it.
Not one for inactivity, Conlan would return to the ring less than four months later. Back on home soil at Belfast’s Falls Park, he faced former IBF world super bantamweight champion and fellow countryman TJ Doheny. With the WBA interim world championship up for grabs and Conlan fast approaching 30, victory was paramount if he was to go on to have the career his achievements as an amateur had promised.
Conlan, far from being overawed, delivered a career best performance in front of the cacophonous Irish crowd. He showed there was a degree of spite to accompany his skills, sending the game Doheny to the canvas in the 5th round with a sickening body shot. The Portlaois man dug deep to survive the rest of the round and indeed the remainder of the fight, but his efforts were to be in vain. Conlan barely dropped another round as he cruised to a unanimous decision victory, securing the interim world title and the promise of a big 2022 to go with it.
Thus, the stars aligned for Leigh Wood vs Michael Conlan. Whilst both fighters had successful years in 2021, there are still boxes to be ticked before either can be considered a truly world class featherweight. As impressive a performance as Wood delivered in the Matchroom garden, Can Xu was, in retrospect, a weak world champion and certainly did not deserve to be mentioned alongside the likes of Josh Warrington and Emmanuel Navarrete as the elite of the division. Similarly, the version of TJ Doheny bested by Michael Conlan had his best years well behind him and was a far cry from the world champion who took Daniel Roman to hell and back in a unification battle in early 2019.
In the ring, the two men will pose a challenge the other has yet to face. Wood is undoubtedly the hardest puncher Conlan will have come up against as a pro, but can he find a way to counteract the Irishman’s spritely, slippery style to land those meaningful shots? Correspondingly, how will Conlan react if Wood does land flush? Can he dig deep, as he did against Baluta, and grind his way to victory should it be necessary?
This contrast in styles, with the added spice of the entertaining back and forth emerging between Wood and Conlan’s respective teams, makes for an enthralling clash at the Metropoint.
Although the fight is technically only for the WBA regular title, super champion Leo Santa Cruz has not fought at featherweight for over 3 years, making the idea that the victor on March 12th would not go on to be elevated somewhat farcical. Regardless, it seems certain that bigger nights (and bigger paydays) await whoever emerges triumphant. With Josh Warrington and Kiko Martinez locking horns for the IBF featherweight title just two weeks later, a blockbuster unification at the end of 2022 looks to be an inevitability.
With both now in their thirties, it is difficult to see how the loser returns to this level. Should Wood be unsuccessful, he will perhaps harshly be remembered as a decent British level fighter who was in the right place at the right time to dethrone a subpar world champion. If it is Conlan who fails to get his hand raised, he risks being consigned to the echelons of promising amateurs who simply couldn’t cut the mustard when the headguards came off.
Wood vs Conlan Prediction Video