Leigh Wood: Michael Conlan thinks he’s going to take over, that’s not going to happen
In 2021, featherweight Leigh Wood jumped from British level to world level in two fights. It was a breakout year that has changed his life forever.
Wood, who is rated No. 7 by The Ring at 126 pounds, claimed the British title by stopping Reece Mould (TKO 9), then dazzled in a 12th-round stoppage of the highly touted Xu Can (TKO 12) last summer.
The 33-year-old is now ready to prove that his recent success was not an aberration when he faces hugely popular former amateur standout Michael Conlan at the Nottingham Arena in Nottingham, England, on Saturday.
“A lot of people don’t know me on a personal level,” Wood (25-2, 15 knockouts) told The Ring. “They don’t see what I do, how hard I work, how resilient I am, how dedicated I am.
“Even the British title fight, a lot of people were sat on the fence. It was quite split between who they thought was going to win. It was an even bigger jump to Xu Can for the world title. I was hell-bent, 100-percent no doubt, I was going to get it done.”
Although Wood’s day-to-day routine is much the same, beating Xu has significantly improved his status and bank balance. He will receive a career-high purse of $825,000 to face Conlan.
“When I go back to Nottingham it is different, I get recognized everywhere,” said Wood, who trains 130 miles south of his Nottingham base in Harlow, Essex, under the watchful eye of Ben Davison. “Financially this fight will secure my future. I’ve never boxed for that amount of money before, so on that side of things it’s different.
“The biggest change is probably the respect I get for the [Xu] win. A lot of people wrote me off. I was getting messages saying I was going to get flattened and get my head used as a speedball. I’ve got a great team around me, I punch extremely hard, I had a great game plan, and I’m extremely dedicated. I dedicate my life to boxing.”
Wood is relishing his big homecoming, but he was cagey about what he expects from his opponent on fight night.
“Obviously, I can’t give too much away,” he said. “I could point to numerous things, but I like to keep my cards close to my chest at this point of preparation. There’s a number of things he does well and that he’s got away with in previous fights which I would not let him get away with.
“I’m bang up for it. It’s a new challenge, new style, different approach to my last few fights. We approach every fight different. All fights bring new challenges, but it’s one I embrace and, like my last two fights, I’ll rise to the occasion and get the job done.
“On paper, he’s one of the best Irish amateurs ever. He comes with a fairly good record. He’s probably not going to bring the physical challenges of my other fights, but he brings new ones: skill set and amateur pedigree.”
However, the Nottingham puncher believes that despite his recent success, people are still downplaying his chances against Conlan.
“I am champion, but I think I’m getting written off,” Wood said. “Bookies have got him favorite. Critics are swaying toward a Conlan victory. I’m in my hometown, and I have home advantage, but I do have a little bit of the underdog feeling, which is quite strange being that I’m the champion.
“I’m going to get the job done and it’s going to be a great name on my resume, moving forward to fights like the Leo Santa Cruz fight.”
This fight will also allow Wood to achieve a long-standing dream in front of what is expected to be a lively, sell-out crowd of 9,000 partisan fans.
“Carl Froch boxed at this arena numerous times, and I was there every time,” recalled Wood. “I was watching it as a young lad in the stands thinking, ‘I can’t wait to do this one day.’ Now I’m here defending my world title in front of the same crowd. It’s going to be special.
“He thinks he’s going to come over to Nottingham, bring a lot of Irish fans and take over. That’s not going to happen. That’s ridiculous to even think that.
“The amount of tickets I’ve done is crazy. I could have done three times [as many]. The support has been unreal. The atmosphere is going to be absolutely rocking. He’s going to be up against it with the crowd; something he’s not used to. He’s always been the ‘A’ side, always had home advantage, always had everyone clapping when he talks. Same at the press conference when he came to Nottingham, there wasn’t many here for him and he didn’t like it. He unraveled a little bit, doing things out of character. Then when we went back to Ireland, he seemed to be comfortable again. [He’s up against it on] fight night because the crowd is going to be 80/90-percent for me.”
This fight isn’t the height of Wood’s ambitions. He holds an even loftier goal for the not-too-distant future.
“I feel like the [Nottingham] Forest [soccer] ground is going to be my thing,” he said. “That’s the dream of mine – the first person to headline at the Forest ground and I need my belt to do that. I need to come through this fight, which I’m confident of doing, to set up a massive fight for myself this summer.”
Conlan turned professional in 2017 after a decorated amateur career. The 30-year-old Irishman has since beaten old amateur rival Vladimir Nikitin (UD 10), seasoned veteran Ionut Baluta (MD 12) and, most recently, former IBF junior featherweight titlist TJ Doheny (UD 12). Conlan sports an unbeaten 16-0 (8 KOs) record.
Wood-Conlan, plus supporting undercard action, will be broadcast exclusively by DAZN in the U.S. and in the U.K.
Editor’s Note: The WBA regular title, which will be on the line, is not recognized by The Ring. Leo Santa Cruz is the reigning WBA 126-pound titleholder.