WHEN Michael Conlan made his professional debut as the headline attraction at the Theater at Madison Square Garden back in March 2017, amid much fanfare and cheered on from ringside by Conor McGregor, Leigh Wood was 16-1 and half way through a 15-month injury lay-off. Back then, this seemed like an unlikely collision course but it is one which has gathered pace over the past couple of years. Conlan, one of the Ireland’s greatest amateurs, was tipped for the top of the professional game when he turned over with Top Rank. He received the big push from the outset but, despite currently sitting at 16-0, it has not quite been the searing romp to the top expected by many.

Indeed it has taken him more than five years to reach that number and since December 2019 he has boxed just three times. But in the latest of those, against TJ Doheny at Falls Park in August, it felt like the 30-year-old came of age as he turned in the best performance of his career to date.
And it could not have been timed better as he bids to put a line through one of British boxing’s best success stories of recent years.

When Wood was beaten by Jazza Dickens back in February 2020 it was unclear where he would turn next, with personal issues outside the ring affecting his performances inside it. But he decided to link up with Ben Davison and try to win the British title at the second attempt. He nearly came unstuck against Reece Mould in the third round but he clung on to hear the bell and never looked back. Mould was brutally knocked out in the ninth.

But even better was to come just five months later when Wood was handed a shock chance to face China’s Can Xu on a Matchroom Fight Camp show. Despite being written off by just about everyone, he totally nullified the noted pressure fighter before stopping him in the 12th.

His reward for that was this big homecoming show at the Nottingham Arena but Wood has assumed the role of underdog for this one. “I’ll just keep beating the kid they put in front of me,” He said, non-plussed.

“I respect him as a fighter. He’s not a fighter I’ve ever watched and thought he does anything special. He is quite tricky. We’ve looked at him in great detail.”

That ‘we’, of course, is he and Davison and the rest of his backroom team. Since his infamous outburst about the laziness of other boxing trainers, Davison has become someone that many boxing fans love to hate. Indeed, he came under fire when his charge Josh Taylor appeared to come unstuck against Jack Catterall only to win a controversial decision.

Wood paid tribute to Davison in the wake of his victories over both Mould and Xu and the young trainer will step back into the firing line this time around. “Michael is a great fighter who has had some big wins,” Wood added. “He’s a really big challenge but I know what I need to do on fight night. He’s never been in a 50-50 fight. There will be a lot of pressure but I thrive on pressure.”

Conlan, despite being the challenger for Wood’s belt and the visitor to his opponent’s city, is a reasonably wide favourite. All things considered it looks more like a 50-50 fight.

“I see the ending,” Conlan said. “I see the people going mental. You’ve got to visualise the end then create the path to there and that’s what I’ve always done.

“Leigh has showed that he’s the biggest puncher in the division in his last performance, but I’ve been in with big punchers my whole life. I’ve had over 250 fights in the amateurs. Óscar Valdez is a bigger puncher than Wood, I’ve been sparring him for ages.

“I have answers for anything that anybody does. I have the utmost respect for him as a person and as a fighter but fuck all that until after the fight.”

Wood clearly has the power to win this inside the distance but the Belfast man’s ability to ‘answer’ those questions, even operating from both stances if needed, means this looks like a distance fight. With that in mind, a Conlan points win is the pick but don’t rule out a draw.

Elsewhere, Gary Cully gets the chance to add to his burgeoning reputation as one of Ireland’s next stars when he takes on Miguel Vázquez. The Naas man has impressed since stepping up to 10-rounders, stopping Joe Fitzpatrick in the first of their clash for the Irish lightweight title in 2020 then finishing Viktor Kotochigov (2/10) and Viorel Simion (3/10) early too. It would be a huge statement if he could do the same to Vázquez, who has emerged as a high-level gatekeeper in Britain in recent years. They brought him over to test the likes of Josh Taylor, Ohara Davies and Lewis Ritson. He lost all of those on paper but, in October 2020 he suffered one of the worst robberies on these shores for some time in his fight against the latter.

The point is, the 54-fight Mexican, known as ‘the Puppet’, remains a handful for anyone and Cully will have to be at his best. But the southpaw’s rise is an exciting one and his explosive momentum means he can join Taylor and Thulani Mbenge on the short list of people to have stopped Vázquez.

Another Mexican who will be in some serious danger on the night is Juan Carlos Rubio, who faces 10-0 ‘Black Thunder’ Caoimhin Agyarko in another 10-rounder. It is unlikely to take that long.

Conlan’s Belfast neighbour Agyarko is on a run of six inside-distance wins in a row while Rubio, coming in on short notice, has not boxed since he was stopped inside three rounds by Charles Conwell at light-middleweight in August. If middleweight Agyarko’s potential is as big as it seems, he should get the job done somewhere around the middle rounds.

Meanwhile, Terri Harper returns for the first time since she was viciously stopped by Alycia Baumgardner inside four rounds last November. Now up at lightweight, the 25-year-old faces Argentina’s Yamila Belen Abellaneda over 10. The visitor has not lost since 2019 and has never been stopped, so a revitalised Harper should win wide on points.

Sandy Ryan might also need all 10 rounds to beat Abellaneda’s tough compatriot Érica Anabella Farías. The Argentinean has gone the distance with Jessica McCaskill twice and Mikaela Mayer so this will be a useful yard stick when it comes to measuring Ryan’s world title potential. The Derby puncher is 3-0, after two six rounders and an eight, so she is certainly being moved quickly. A points win here looks likely.

There are also a trio of six-rounders early on in the card with Thomas Carty facing Michal Boloz, Nico Leivars taking on Jose Hernandez and Thomas Whittaker Hart also in action. There looks a very good chance that all three of them will go the distance.

DAZN televise.

The Verdict A terrific main event with decent supporting cast.