World Boxing Association featherweight title: Leigh Wood (25-2) v Michael Conlan (16-0) (tonight, Nottingham Arena, live on DAZN)
TRYING to keep an open mind on this fight has been difficult. Of course, you’re rooting for the Irish man but from the day this match was made, the feeling was that Michael Conlan at his best would beat Leigh Wood at his best.
Nothing that has happened this week has been enough to change that opinion and there were even signs yesterday that Wood’s composed façade was cracking a little as the fight of his life looms large.
Of course, that might well have just been a blip and there’s no doubt that Wood will throw everything he has at Conlan who is bidding to add a professional world title to the amateur world title he won in 2015.
Will that be enough for him to hold onto his belt? Wood has some advantages: He’s the home fighter, he’s the defending champion with a career-best win over China’s Can Xu behind him and he is the bigger man and the harder hitter.
The first two of those will mean little or nothing to Conlan. He has gone through the gears this week from looking totally relaxed at Wednesday’s public to workout to producing some fire and brimstone at yesterday’s weigh-in when he pledged to “destroy Leigh Wood”.
Saying isn’t doing of course and that’s where Wood’s size and firepower come in. Wood wasn’t expected to beat Xu last summer but he absolutely blew the reigning champion away and stopped him in the final round.
He showed impressive punch variety throughout almost 12 rounds but it must be said that the under-cooked champion offered very little.
Wood’s jab to the body kept him at bay and Can followed him around the ring all night and stood in front of him as ‘Lethal’ teed off with uppercuts and left hooks. The underdog was way ahead on the scorecards before he finished it in the final round.
That victory was the crowning achievement of a career that was going nowhere for years until he hooked up with coach Ben Davison. Wood started out with the Dublin-born, Sheffield-based fight guru Brendan Ingle but after Ingle’s death he found himself in the boxing wilderness.
Around the time Connor McGregor was leading Conlan in to headline the Theatre at Madison Square Garden for his debut, Wood was opening a small hall show at Bingham Leisure Centre in Birmingham.
So these two have made contrasting journeys to the stage they will share and Wood has shown massive reserves of dedication and self-belief to reach this level. He won’t give up his belt without throwing everything he has at Conlan tonight.
Conlan has thoroughbred pedigree and the highlights of a stellar amateur career included Commonwealth Games gold, Olympic Games bronze and European and World titles.
Since he turned pro in 2016 his progress has frustrated some onlookers but he has shown steady improvement and beaten some quality performers including Ionut Baluta and Sofiane Takoucht.
Last August’s win at Falls Park against former world champion TJ Doheny was his best performance so far and Doheny predicts a straightforward victory for his old adversary tonight.
“I think it’s going to be a walk in the park,” he said.
“Wood got a big win against Can Xu but Michael is a far superior fighter. Michael won’t be there for Wood to hit and I know that from being in the ring with him – he’s so elusive and so hard to hit.
“The only advantage that Leigh Wood might have is he’s a big lad. Michael hasn’t been in with anyone as big as Wood but other than that Michael is going to be far too skilful for him and he’s going to take all that size and power away from him.
“Michael is so clever, he’s a very, very hard fighter to beat.”
Conlan isn’t regarded as a puncher but he had Doheny on the canvas at Falls Park and Doheny says it was Conlan’s pin-point accuracy that made the difference. Conlan knows exactly where and how to hit his opponents and the Laois native was softened up with body shots and finally dropped.
“He can hit you in the right spots,” he says.
“He hasn’t got that one-punch power – I was never buzzed in the fight from a headshot – but it’s a power that chips away at you and he’s very accurate to the body. I went down to a bodyshot from him and it wasn’t just that shot – he had caught me two or three times before with the same shot.
“It all comes from his amateur days and his background – he knows where to place the shots and he slowly just chips away at you and as the fight goes on he pulls away.
“He’s very precise with the punches and sometimes that’s a bigger attribute to have than the one-punch power because then you’re not relying on it.”
There are upsets in sport and the Conlan team will be prepared for a spanner being thrown into the works at any time. If their man loses concentration and Wood tags him with a right hook it could be a game-changer but if Conlan produces the goods, like he has so many times before as an amateur and a pro, then there can only be one winner.
And the new…
THIS fight has been billed as a 50-50 affair between the big-punching champion (Wood) and the slick-boxing challenger (Conlan). But is it really?
Yes, Wood will have the majority of the crowd behind him but that will not rattle Conlan at all, in fact it could have the opposite effect because the Belfast man seems to be relishing the first chance to play the villain.
Yes, Wood is the bigger puncher and the naturally bigger man and if he lands clean, he will rattle Conlan who has looked hittable at times. But his defence has improved and if Wood does land a big shot he may be surprised to see that Conlan is going nowhere because the Belfast fighter has shown that he has a very good chin.
Wood has looked at his best when he is allowed to box off the back foot – like he did when he won the WBA title – and he can land his big counters. So if he gets it right early he will bank on Conlan coming after him and walking him onto a right hand.
But you would expect Conlan to be the sharper fighter early on. He has much more experience at this level, he won’t stand in front of Wood and he’ll fire in shots from all sorts of angles. His superior boxing ability should allow him to build a lead over the first half of the fight and if he begins to pull away, Wood will have to chase him and Conlan can make things very awkward for the home town favourite.
He’ll dip low and twist and switch and fire in counters to frustrate Wood and stop him from setting up attacks and he’ll use his speed and ring craft to outwork his opponent. Conlan will want to use every inch of the canvas and force Wood to try and cut off space and come after him.
If Conlan boxes at his best, there can only be one winner. Wood could end up being broken down and stopped in the final third of the fight but a Conlan win on points looks the best bet.