THE domestic boxing calendar again gathers pace this weekend when Mexican Mauricio Lara, the number one-ranked featherweight on the planet, takes on Leigh Wood, ranked fourth and the WBA belt-holder. The sumptuous contest, which surely can’t fail to catch fire, takes place on Saturday night (February 18) inside the same Nottingham Arena where Wood defeated Michael Conlan last March in the best fight of 2022.

Wood’s progress in the last two years is unrivalled in British boxing. In three fights, after losing a close 10-rounder to “Jazza” Dickens in February 2020, he’s halted Reece Mould in a ‘pick-em’ bout for vacant British title (February 2021), stunned the favoured Can Xu five months later and then survived a heavy opening round knockdown against Conlan before knocking him out – of both his senses and the ring – in the final session. Given that trajectory, it’s a little surprisng that Lara, 25-2-1 (18), is the favourite here.

The 24-year-old’s visitor’ lofty status can be explained by a solitary performance. Two years ago, almost to the day, the hard-hitting Lara stunned then-division leader Josh Warrington behind closed doors at Wembley Arena. The Leeds favourite, who admits he badly underestimated Lara, took quite the pounding that night after being hurt early and dropped heavily in the fourth before he was rescued in the ninth. As with all shocks that big, the possibility that it was a fluke – alongside Warrington’s gutsy decision to gain immediate revenge – led to a rematch that was curtailed in round two when a clash of heads left Lara bleeding heavily and the bout called a technical draw.

In truth, though only a fool would underestimate Lara, the oddsmakers are putting their faith in the Mexican, priced at 4/9, purely solely because of that first effort against Warrington. Other than that bombastic outing, he remains a largely unproven quantity – at least in terms of his true potential to be an all-conquering division leader. Though he’s recorded two third round KOs (versus the unheralded Emilio Sanchez and Jose Sanmartin) since the anticlimactic return with Josh, he still has some way to go to prove himself.

What can’t be denied is Lara’s ability to damage his opponents and we’ve seen Wood get hit, hurt, dropped and cut in recent outings. It’s easy, therefore, to foresee a scenario where the Nottingham titlist gets stung and then stopped as Lara, something of a demonic presence inside the squared circle, presses forward with his arms ablaze. But Lara, at least on all the evidence we have, is far from a cultured finisher and, even when in full flow, can appear crude and all too hittable himself. And it’s those rough edges that Wood, 26-2 (16), and his trainer Ben Davison have been studiously examining throughout the build-up to this contest.

“Winning fuels me,” Woods explained. “Lara has a style that suits me. Conlan was all wrong for me stylistically, but styles make fights and I’m confident in my ability.

“If I approach this fight wrong, it could be brutal. Lara is good and we saw that in the first fight with Josh Warrington, but if I do as I plan, this fight won’t reach halfway – I’m going to get Lara out of there.”

It should be noted that this is a contest that Wood didn’t have to take, not to keep his sanctioning body belt at least. But victory here will enhance his reputation enormously and, win or lose, the 34-year-old deserves only kudos for accepting such a difficult assignment.

Lara has labelled Wood a “chicken” and accused him of faking an injury that saw this bout postponed at the end of last year. Neither insult has any substance, however, particularly when one considers that the Mexican is making them now the contest has been rearranged. If he’s running scared from Lara, Wood is going in precisely the wrong direction.

Inside the ring Wood will have nowhere to run, either. Lara will come looking for the belt-holder; he aims to cut off the ring with a claustrophobic approach and make his prey pay in close. But it’s the manner in which he seems to put his punches together that Wood will believe he can exploit. Lara likes to get leverage in his punches with wide swings, strikes that gather pace and power while in flight but blows that nonetheless leave his chin wide open in the process. Logically, if Wood can keep his guard high and be quick to fire counters down the pipe, Lara could soon unravel.

We don’t know what happens if Lara gets repeatedly stung himself. Whether that bully-like mindset will start to falter or if his chin is equipped to withstand the kind of power we know Wood has in abundance. Similarly, though Wood regained his footing against Conlan, we can’t be sure he will do so if Lara – a more potent banger than the Northern Irishman – is the one who put him there. We should also be careful not to get too carried away with Lara’s demolition of Warrington (his sole victory at the highest level) when we consider that, with Josh reeling and barely in charge of his senses, it took Lara several rounds to apply the finishing touches.

It’s a truly fascinating bout and without question one that can’t be called without any degree of certainty. Lara is now two years older than his breakout showing against Warrington and could indeed be on the brink of morphing into the more complete fighter he promises he already is. Ten years his opponent’s senior, and after the most gruelling of encounters against Conlan possibly adding miles to his clock, Wood may already have peaked.

In a call that may not age well should Lara indeed go on to become the force many in the trade believe he will, we go for Wood to again prove the bookmakers wrong and grind out victory. Though this bout has every single ingredient required for a stoppage, this one might go the full 12, as Wood proves too cultured and disciplined when it really matters the most.

On the undercard, Sheffield’s Dalton Smith, 13-0 (10), makes the second defence of his British super-lightweight title against Egham’s Billy Allington, 10-1-4. It looks like a routine outing for the revered champion.

Smith drew some unwarranted criticism in his previous outing as he outpointed the talented Kaisee Benjamin over 12 rounds in November. It was likely exactly the kind of exam Smith needed to sit in order to graduate to the next level. And that’s a level that Allington looks a long way below.

The 28-year-old challenger is a former English and Southern Area titlist, but in his most taxing outings, against second and third tier domestic opposition, he’s been forced to dig deep to get a result. Last time out, in November, he was held to a six-round draw by the rough and tough but beatable Ben Fields. To go from that to toppling Smith is surely a leap too far. We expect Dalton, 26, to retain around the halfway mark.

Promising Irish southpaw, Garry Cully from Daas, gets another opportunity to highlight his promise in a 10-rounder with Puerto Rican-born Wilfredo Flores, 10-0-1 (5). Cully, 15-0 (9) and 27 years old, has impressed in nearly every outing but Flores, though six years older, is a decent import and will be coming to win.

But the almost impossibly tall lightweight (6ft 2ins) is the 1/12 favourite for good reason. This may not be all one-way traffic but, regardless, an upset seems incredibly unlikely. Cully to win a lopsided decision.

Also on the card is Birmingham’s Gamal Yafai (who should be too clever for Argentina’s Diego Alberto Ruiz in their super-bantamweight 10-rounder), Northampton’s Kieron Conway (expected to repel Portugal veteran Jorge Silva in a super-middleweight eight) and cruiserweight prospect, Cheavon Clarke.

THE VERDICT – Unmissable fare atop the bill in which the winner sees their reputation at featherweight soar.