Gray Matter: Leigh Wood-Michael Conlan and their awe-inspiring near-tragedy
I spoke with The Ring editor-in-chief Doug Fischer during Leigh Wood-Michael Conlan fight week and predicted that we could see something very special in Nottingham, England, on Saturday past.
Doug was surprised by my call and thought it more likely that Conlan would keep his distance and the fight would lack any kind of serious drama or excitement. However, my hunch was that Wood would force his opponent to fight, and that the style confrontation, juxtaposed alongside the opposing fan affection from the Nottingham faithful and Conlan’s Irish army, would lead to mayhem.
I’ve had worse predictions.
When Conlan timed a beautiful left-hand knockdown at the end of Round 1, I thought the fight was over. Wood’s back leg gave out and his head bounced off the canvas – hard. When he rose to his feet, Wood had the kind of meek look that a damaged fighter has when they react to questions on instinct but all cognizance and sense of self-protection is gone.
The bell saved him, but make no mistake – Wood fought the majority of this fight with a serious concussion. The Englishman’s movement and reflexes were dulled, and his coordination seemed off throughout most of the first half. It’s a testament to Wood’s fighting guts, and the calming influence of trainer Ben Davison in the corner, that he made it through.
I was concerned for Wood in those subsequent rounds, but slowly there was a subtle shift. Then the shift was more obvious. Then the entire fight was turned upside down and thrown into Fight of the Year territory and, moreover, into the rarified atmosphere of modern-day classic.
The 10th round was frenetic with both men snatching at the other’s organs with brutal body shots. It’s almost impossible to overstate what’s required of a fighter during the later stages of a high-contact fight: soldier-like courage, the engine of an Iron Man contestant, and the mindset of the crazy brave. Fighters are just different.
The 11th-round knockdown, which I’ve watched at least half a dozen times now, looks bogus and legitimate in equal measure. Wood was releasing punch after punch, and the final left hand appeared to land as Conlan slipped on a wet patch near his own corner. Would he have slipped had the punch not landed? It became a moot point.
Michael Conlan is a lovely kid. He’s fun-loving, mischievous, personable, wonderfully talented, and he possesses an innate desire to succeed in the sport he loves. He’s a winner. However, the Belfast star had never fought a pro fight at this pace before and his energy bar was almost depleted.
By contrast, Wood is battle-hardened as a pro, and entering the 12th round, he was on the ascent and looking for the finish. The knockdown in the penultimate session would have given his energy bar a much needed power-up, and he also had the pre-requisite experience to know that a knockout win was critical.
The first minute of the final round was all Wood again. The gallant Conlan was on fumes, and when a right-hand temple shot caught him near the ropes, the Irishman was knocked out upon impact. A quick blizzard of lefts and rights compounded the damage, but it was what happened next that was terrifying.
An unconscious Conlan flew threw the ropes at speed, his limp body barely touching the ring apron during his descent, and he crashed head-first on to a solid floor. I wasn’t there. I was 265 miles away, in Scotland, but you didn’t need a ringside position to know that the former amateur standout was hurt. Badly hurt. All I could say, or scream, was “Holy shit!” and right on top of that was the word “No!” I blurted out the former because Wood had pulled a miracle and I was in awe of his achievement. I said the latter, less than two seconds later, because I feared for Conlan and felt sick to my stomach.
No other sport can do that to you!
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