Tuesday, January 31, 2023  |

By Paul D Gibson

Fight of the Year

Leigh Wood vs. Michael Conlan

Photo above by Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing

There exists a wide range of criteria by which a boxing match is judged when it comes to Fight of the Year awards. Some of us like to have the star appeal of our sport’s bigger names involved. For others, the height of the stakes in play is vital and deeds done in world title bouts carry more weight than when there is less on the line. The setting and atmosphere can also sway a voter. Boxing is the most emotive of sports and, in the absence of a team dynamic, we can often be drawn in by the occasion alone. 

Many of these elements are in place before the first bell has even tolled, but it is of course the physical interaction itself which must deliver. We want action and quality throughout. We want frequent flurries of fury and the blood, knockdowns and near misses those punches provoke. We want to be kept on edge with a narrative arc that shocks, surprises and sometimes appals. An ebb and a flow, an unexpected twist, an ending for the ages. Basically, we want the impossible. We want a Hollywood movie script. And on March 12 of 2022, Leigh Wood and Michael Conlan blessed us with exactly that.



Wood (left) and Conlan were more than eager to get at each other in the ring. (Photos by Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing)

Two very distinct paths had led the pair to contest the WBA featherweight title in Nottingham Arena that night. The challenger, Conlan, boasted a flawless professional record, built on the foundations of a truly elite amateur career and the backing of a promotional giant. The champion, Wood, three years the elder, had served a more traditional British apprenticeship and taken his licks in two defeats along the way. Some mistakenly thought he’d found his level when Jazza Dickens edged a tight decision in 2020, but a year later Wood battered the previously relentless Can Xu around the ring before stopping the Chinese star in the final round. The Englishman had accomplished one dream in winning a world title; now it was time to fulfil a second by proudly defending it in his hometown, in front of his own people.

Plenty traveled from Belfast in support of their son, Conlan, as well. The Celts are accustomed to crossing the Irish Sea in their thousands when an encounter with Anglo Saxons awaits. They tend to enter into battle against the English with a chip on their shoulder, etched into Gaelic bone by 800 years of oppression. Conlan gleefully fed into and off of that emotion throughout fight week, and every Irish hair stood up from every Irish neck when the heart-wrenching lyrics of “Grace” drew him from his dressing room. Wood answered in kind with “The Mull of Kintyre,” an anthem of his city’s football team. It stirred an atavistic passion deep within the natives in attendance and contributed to an atmosphere as charged as any I’ve witnessed first-hand at a prizefight.

Spite between the camps had grown as the night had approached. Leigh and Michael are both good, decent family men, but an imminent war taps into a darker element of a fighter’s soul. There had been a coming together at the previous day’s post weigh-in head-to-head in which the needle was moved much closer to genuine animosity than forced promotion. “You look like a skinny little rat,” Wood taunted Conlan. “I’m going to destroy you,” Conlan fired back before security stepped in to ensure it was saved for the ring. The enmity hung heavy in the air.

(Photos by Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing)

The anticipation for this fight was heightened by the fact there was no clear favorite. A coherent case was easily made for either side emerging victorious. There was a greater degree of consensus, however, when it came to the manner in which each man could win. Conlan, the Olympian, the more skilled and sophisticated operator, would be victorious on points. Or Wood, the banger who had stopped his man in all of his previous six victories, would prevail by knockout. But in Ben Davison and Adam Booth, both champ and challenger were fortunate to count upon coaches who are meticulous in how they ready their charges. Both camps would have been attuned to the many nuances within this particular puncher-versus-boxer matchup. Both would have prepared for every eventuality. Every eventuality, that is, other than what transpired at the end of Round 1.

The opening exchanges did not disappoint. Wood, broad-backed and long-armed, took the center and moved outward towards his quarry, his right hand always cocked, always thrown with a determination to hurt whatever had the misfortune to stand in its path. Conlan, legs forged by over two decades of plyometric training, maintained a rhythm of constant, small movements. With a dynamic defense that permits the low hands and relaxed shoulders necessary to spring lightning counter attacks, he was always just within or just without range as he looked to time his foe. The tone set was as most had predicted, but that made it no less fascinating to watch. Then, with seconds until the bell, the night changed.

(Photo by Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing)

Conlan had been looking for his spot. A dip in the southpaw stance to feint a jab to the body, only to throw a lead left instead. It’s a safer shot when aimed at your opponent’s body, but seconds earlier Wood had only just managed to block a looping one headed for his jaw, so Conlan knew it was on and worth the additional risk. He threw it again and this time it landed flush. The champion went down hard. From flat on his back, Wood was up around the count of four, but his legs were still having second thoughts. Amidst the bedlam a bell presumably rang, but sitting a foot away from the ring, I certainly didn’t hear it. The referee reached his mandatory eight count before shepherding the Englishman back to his stool.

(Photo by Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing)

It was the one circumstance nobody had anticipated. Conlan and Booth had no more prepared for flattening Wood inside three minutes than Wood and Davison had devised a response to that unlikely scenario. In a perverse way, it was simpler for Wood. All he could do was focus on surviving the storm he now found himself cast adrift in and wait for the squall and swell to die down. Conlan, on the other hand, had a decision to make. Consolidate the gains he’d made or go all out to send Wood sinking to the depths of the ocean.

Conlan’s innate fighting spirit made the decision for him. He went for it. And there were moments in Rounds 2 and 3 when he was probably a clean punch away from victory. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but when Conlan was searching for that one conclusive blow, nobody was screaming for him to calm down and conserve his energy for later rounds. Every stimulus in the arena was urging him on. To everyone looking on, Wood was gone.

The terrible beauty of what Wood achieved is that he survived by fighting back. He didn’t run, didn’t hide, didn’t grab hold for dear life and pray for the end of each round. He stood, and he fought. And as he stood and fought it became clear he had been blessed, or cursed, with a rare talent. The more he got hit, the greater his punch resistance grew. Conlan was landing shots as hard or harder than that which felled Wood so heavily in the first, but as if by some mystical hypertrophic process, they now merely served to strengthen the champion’s jaw.

(Photo by Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing)

There was nothing definitive from either man in the fourth, but the sight of the champion competing rather than simply surviving was perhaps enough for two of the judges to award him the round. Conlan sensed that seedling of resurgence attempting to break ground and sought to bury it back down deep into the earth by opening the fifth with a series of left-hand leads. It was another Irish round, and when Conlan took the next as well it left him a commanding five points up on two of the scorecards.

Wood had a mountain to climb whatever way you looked at it. But even the steepest ascents begin with a single step forward, and Wood took his near the end of the seventh. An unruly tangle out of which Conlan was spun and sent backwards into the ropes stirred a sneer on Wood’s lips. The English masses roared approval and elicited the desired response from Conlan. The challenger wasn’t to be bullied. Fearless, he stood and traded. And although Conlan didn’t lose that 10-second shootout, that wasn’t his fight. That wasn’t how he would win. The fact Conlan fought it at all sent Wood back to his stool grasping that ultimate double-edged sword in a fight you’re losing. Hope.

(Photo by Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing)

Whether Wood would cut or be cut with that hope would be determined in the final five rounds of what was now officially a war. He had reached a physical and mental state in which he could absorb the same degree of hurt that had almost rendered him unconscious 25 minutes earlier. Wood wasn’t getting stopped. The febrile atmosphere that rolled down the steep stands and invaded the ring was an additional energy source that impelled him forward, minute after minute, attack after attack.

The champion’s issue now was that the challenger wasn’t yet flagging. It may no longer have been one-way traffic from Belfast to Nottingham, but Conlan’s tank was still far from empty. He was getting caught more, and at times his upper body movement on the ropes was not deft enough to avoid every blow, but he knew from the first day he entered a boxing gym that you must suffer to fulfil a destiny. Conlan lost a close eighth but got that point back in the ninth to enter the championship rounds as high as six points up on one of the cards.

Midway through the 10th, they stood in the heart of the ring and took turns unleashing 10-shot volleys at one another. Both sets of fans stood and roared once more. It hadn’t seemed possible that the noise from the crowd could get any louder. Then, with half a minute to go in the round, Conlan was backed into a neutral corner and a right hand rattled him. For the first time in the fight, the challenger held on like he meant it. Twenty seconds later, he was holding on again, this time even tighter. The Irish fighter’s breaths were deep as he walked to his stool, and I doubt the 60 seconds of sanctuary he was afforded when he reached his corner had ever felt so fleeting.

(Photo by Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing)

It made it all the more remarkable when Conlan stood up and won the first half of Round 11. But Wood was impervious to pain now. Conlan could have taken a hurl to his head and he would have kept coming. As the clock ticked down on the penultimate session, the champion gladly took two solid shots to land one of his own. Then he did it again. And again. From Eddie Hearn sitting front and center to those in the cheap seats up in the gods, everyone was on their feet. The fighters clinched, mercifully, giving everyone a chance to catch their breath. Then they went again. Feet planted, hips rotating, hooks flying with reckless abandon. With a couple of seconds to go, one from Wood landed at the precise moment Conlan placed the sole of his boot on a slick piece of canvas floor. He was up immediately, shaking his head. A slip, said Team Conlan. A punch, said Team Wood. The ref concurred with the latter.

Someone once told me that no matter how physically tired any of us have been in our lives, were a hungry tiger on a six-foot chain to suddenly appear next to us it is certain we’d muster up the energy to move the seven feet to safety. But none of us have ever been through the 11 rounds Conlan and Wood shared that night. And how many of us have ever pushed ourselves to the point of exhaustion in which both our bodies and minds are in agreement that, regardless of the danger being faced, they ain’t moving? Conlan couldn’t have ridden his metaphorical bicycle for that final three minutes even had he wanted to. And as the scorecards later revealed, sacrificing the round to Wood would only have resulted in the belt going nowhere anyway.

(Photo by Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing)

So, Mick fought. And so did Leigh. It’s what they do. The entire arena now seethed in a frenzy of emotions far more intense than any sporting spectacle should elicit. The end was so near, but still no one knew what it would bring. Wood was pressuring, but Conlan looked determined and destined to see the final bell. Then, with just 90 seconds left, he could no longer move away from the tiger. It was then that Wood struck.

Slumped, as if dead from the waist up, like a puppet when the puppeteer slackens the strings, Conlan slid unconscious through the second and third rope. Jamie Conlan lunged forward and did enough to break his younger brother’s fall to the concrete floor. The referee leaned over the ropes and one look at the eyes rolling back in the stricken fighter’s head told him it was over. Leigh Wood had retained his world title in the most extraordinary of circumstances. And there was pandemonium in Nottingham.

***

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Wood, alongside trainer Ben Davison, was overcome with emotion after emerging victorious from the epic battle with Conlan. (Photo by Matthew Pover/Matchroom Boxing)

 

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