BOTH known for their involvement in unpredictable fights and upsets, perhaps in the end the only predictable thing about featherweights Leigh Wood and Josh Warrington is that they would one day cross paths and meet in the ring, which is precisely what they’ll do this Saturday (October 7) in Sheffield.
For whatever reason there is and always has been a feeling that they belong together, these two. Whether that’s due to their styles, which will surely blend well, or their personalities, which are both no-nonsense and direct, you just forever had a sense that their paths, regardless of whoever else emerged along them, would ultimately lead here. It is rather refreshing, too, that both are intent on fighting one another, if only because in the past we have often seen high-achieving British boxers inhabit the same weight class yet do all they can to avoid one another, seemingly of the view that it is preferable to jump a level and maybe lose there than it is to lose against a domestic rival.
Wood and Warrington buck the trend in that sense. Then again, it could also be argued that were it not for Warrington’s recent loss, which he suffered against Luis Alberto Lopez in December, these two would not be fighting at all; that is, there would be fewer reasons for it to happen now and more reasons to delay it until it becomes bigger and bigger (and then of course implodes when one loses). That tends to be the way things go in boxing, we know that by now, but one would still like to think these two, given they compete in the same division and appear to be cut from the same fighting cloth, would have at some stage found each other at the right time.
As it is, that Warrington defeat has certainly moved things along, of that there can be no doubt. Before that, after all, he was being built as a star in Leeds – indeed, he is one of the few pure ticket-sellers we have left in the UK – and was being built as a potential force on the world stage, this despite already being stopped in nine rounds by Mauricio Lara in 2021. Likely, his backers knew of his limitations, of course they did, but with the power of his Leeds support and the fact he was able to pack out either the First Direct Arena or Headingley Rugby Stadium, or even Elland Road, made him quite the marketable proposition in the Yorkshire area. It was imperative, then, that he kept winning and that he remained in position to be the A-side in any fight in which he was involved. It was important, moreover, that his success enabled him to remain at home.
That he now finds himself fighting Wood in Sheffield, as the challenger, suggests Warrington, 31-2-1 (8), is in a role different from normal. It suggests he has had to make certain allowances and that, in accepting this challenge following a loss, he has realised he is in some ways fortunate to have been granted this opportunity at all. That’s true to some extent as well. Typically, when a boxer suffers a defeat, even a close one, as was the case with Warrington against Lopez, what they must do is rebuild, if not start again completely. They must restore their confidence, if needed, and they must, more importantly, work their way back up the rankings to earn a second or, in Warrington’s case, third shot at gold.
To be spared all that says a lot about Warrington’s marketability – even now, coming off a defeat. It says he will still shift tickets and attract eyeballs, despite his recent form. More than that, though, it says a lot, again, for the inevitability of a fight between Warrington and Wood. Because in the end so good is the fight on paper, it hardly matters that one of the two had a struggle and came up short in their last fight. Provided, of course, they weren’t beaten out of sight, brutally knocked out, or showed signs of deterioration, there was always going to be a possibility these two nine-stone fighters would meet in 2023, irrespective of what belt was on line or whose form was better.
Also, while not as sexy as it would have been with both on equal footing, Warrington and his team will argue that he has never been hungrier and that desperation (for a big comeback win) makes him more dangerous than usual. There could be some truth to that, too. Certainly, given his recent form, which has been patchy to say the least (two defeats in his last four, as well as a technical draw), there will be a great effort on the part of Warrington to convince his doubters that he is not on the slide and that he still has plenty to offer at a higher level than even this. At 32, and when taking into account his recent results, it would be easy to write Warrington off and consider his prime years to have already passed, yet, on the other hand, he will be quick to point out that Wood, the favourite this weekend, is three years his senior at 35.
Wood, however, in contrast to Warrington, shows no signs of slowing down or struggling at this kind of level. In fact, there’s every chance he is better now than he has ever been and that the many years he spent toiling on the domestic scene, winning some and losing some, could have aided him during what has become an Indian Summer in his professional career. Clearly, he has evolved over the years and has grown from some of those experiences he went through early on; when, for example, he was stopped in six rounds by Gavin McDonnell in 2014 or, six years later, outpointed by Jazza Dickens over 10.
Since that loss against Dickens in 2020, Wood has been almost unrecognisable, both in terms of attitude and self-belief. Helped no doubt by the upset win against Can Xu in 2021, he has moved up several levels in just two years and now carries the look of someone who believes he belongs in the upper echelons of the featherweight division.
If it’s primarily self-belief that has got him here, it would make complete sense. After all, what allowed Wood to pull out that win against Xu was self-belief, and this also happened to be a factor in his next fight against Michael Conlan, a fight in which Wood was dropped heavily in the first round yet still believed he would work his way back into the fight and eventually grind his Irish opponent down and stop him. This he did, too, quite spectacularly in the dying embers of the 12th.
That, for obvious reasons, ended up being the 2022 “Fight of the Year” and made Wood, 27-3 (16), a must-see fighter from then on. Not only that, it set him on a collision course with the fearsome Mexican Mauricio Lara, against whom Warrington suffered his first pro loss in 2021. By now known in the UK as a dangerous, relentless and powerful featherweight, Lara sought to do to Wood what he had previously done to Warrington and managed it as well, despite the fight being closer than the one he had against Warrington.
The stoppage happened this time in round seven, as opposed to the ninth, and it was no less brutal, either. Wood, like Warrington, just couldn’t handle the firepower and ferocity of the man from Mexico City, and yet, crucially, though knocked out that night in Nottingham, Wood still took enough confidence from his performance to entertain the idea of an immediate rematch. This, quite naturally, would have been a fight many other fighters would have shirked, but seemingly Wood knew enough about Lara now to consider his seventh-round stoppage at his hands to be the result of a mistake on his part rather than anything Lara did particularly well on the night.
So it proved too. Second time around, with Wood still full of belief, the Nottingham man stuck to his game plan, avoided engaging too much with Lara, and ultimately made the bigger man pay; not only for beating him five months prior but also for missing weight, which meant his WBA featherweight belt was vacant. It was, on reflection, yet another turning point in the career of Wood. For aside from the simple fact he outpointed Lara and gained revenge, he was able to do so in a way that was mature and intelligent, exhibiting new dimensions to his game and new ways of being able to win.
Indeed, it is this realisation, coupled with Warrington’s recent form, that will have many believing Wood has to be backed to retain his belt this coming Saturday. Of the two, it is no doubt Wood who has displayed the growth in recent years and it is Wood, moreover, whose longer levers and straighter punches one would assume will play havoc on Warrington’s messier, if still intense, attacks.
That’s not to say Warrington can’t or won’t have success against Wood, particularly with how physical he likes to get, but it is hard to see a scenario in which Wood finds Warrington a harder man to control than, say, Lara, who was all wild elbows and forearms, or even Conlan, whose technique and counterpunching was something to which Wood had to quickly get accustomed having been floored in round one. Warrington, in comparison to those, should be a more straightforward beast to tame, yet that doesn’t mean it will be a fight any less violent or difficult in terms of what it takes from Wood and what it gives to the fans. Nor does that mean winning a decision against Warrington, which is the pick, will leave Wood feeling remotely fresh or even dominant. Because, whatever the outcome, this will be tough – for both.
On the Sheffield undercard, there is a decent all-British middleweight fight between Kieron Conway, 19-3-1 (4), and Linus Udofia, 18-1 (9), who will meet over 12 rounds, as well as a step up for featherweight Hopey Price, 11-0 (4), against Connor Coghill, also unbeaten at 14-0 (1). Meanwhile, in the women’s super-welterweight division, Terri Harper, 14-1-1 (6), and Cecilia Braekhus, 37-2 (9), finally meet following the last-minute postponement of their original fight back in May (scrapped due to an illness suffered by Braekhus).