ONE of British boxing’s great late bloomers, Nottingham featherweight Leigh Wood turns 34 years of age today, yet, 28 fights into his professional career, feels like he is only just getting started.
He has every right to feel this way, too, given both the run of form he is currently enjoying and the setbacks from which he has successfully bounced back. At 34, Wood is in fact better than he has ever been, enhanced by those aforementioned setbacks and the lessons they taught him. At 34, he is today on the cusp of big fights, big opportunities, and big, potentially life-changing paydays.
It could be said Wood, 26-2 (16), has reached this position due to sheer determination, something evident throughout his career and something he demonstrated in spades back on March 12. That was the night Wood recovered from a heavy first-round knockdown against Ireland’s Michael Conlan to gradually drag himself back into the fight and ultimately knock Conlan out in the 12th and final round. Every bit as dramatic and chaotic as it sounds, Wood had to suffer for his success that night, though looking back now, almost five months on, wouldn’t change a second of it.
“I felt fine afterwards,” he told Boxing News. “Obviously when you’ve won you forget about all the aches and pains. When you’ve won, it’s all worth it. I think it’s only when you lose that you start to think, Well, I’ve got all this (pain) for nothing. It probably does hurt a little bit more.
“Straight after the fight I couldn’t really celebrate. I wanted to make sure Mick was okay first. I got a little bit of an update to say he was conscious and all right, but I waited for news of his scan the next morning and felt a lot better after that.
“I wasn’t in too much pain in the days after the fight. I was just proud of myself. I was proud of myself for getting the win, but also for going through the camp I went through. I had a lot of private issues, my shoulder operation was closer to the fight than I would have wanted, and I wasn’t punching until the very last minute. Also, when I was punching, I got a cut while body sparring. That pushed my sparring back even more. I was proud of myself getting through all that and not pulling out. That’s why I was quite emotional after the fight.”
Given all he had to endure that night at the Motorpoint Arena, Wood would perhaps be forgiven for never again wanting to revisit the fight, either on video or, for that matter, in a rematch. Yet, because in the end he prevailed, and because he has every intention of improving on that performance going forward, he couldn’t wait to relive a fight many are saying is the best of 2022.
“My mum was watching it about three days later and that’s when I watched it,” Wood said. “When I got put down in that first round, I thought it was just a flash knockdown. It wasn’t until after the fight Barry Smith (one of Wood’s trainers) said, ‘That was a heavy knockdown,’ and I thought, Eh? Was it? He said, ‘Yeah, your head bounced off the canvas.’ I thought he was winding me up. But when I watched it three days later, I saw that it was quite a heavy knockdown. It took me three or four rounds to get my legs back.”
Once his legs were back, Wood was able to start thinking straight again and remembering, piece by piece, the game plan he and his coach, Ben Davison, had earlier created. He was also, not long after getting his legs back, starting to feel as though he was making an impression on Conlan, someone whose earlier adrenaline rush – when decking Wood and appearing on the brink of a quick knockout victory – was in danger of becoming an adrenaline dump.
“It was when I started doing an ‘arm pump’ at the end of the round – either six or seven – that I had seen the tide change,” Wood recalled. “I had started to impose myself on him and the game plan started to work.
“If you look at round one, I came out and pushed him back. I got a bit relaxed because it got a bit too easy pushing him back. Then I got caught by that daft shot.
“When I finally got back to my game plan, though, he was very easy to push back again. He wasn’t a big puncher and he didn’t have much to keep me off. He didn’t want to be anywhere near me. When he went to the ropes, he’d either hold or duck down really low.
“I stuck to the body work more, which was part of the game plan, and those big body shots were just chipping away. Eventually he was trying to hold after taking them. If the head’s not there, you just hit the body, and that’s what I did.
“I should have done that from the start but obviously I had to take a few rounds to get my legs back after that first-round knockdown. I had to make sure I wasn’t taking too much and I had to be a bit smarter. Then, once I started to get my bearings back, it was all about getting back to the game plan.
“That started to work around six or seven and at the end of the round I thought, Right, it’s time to turn it on now. I had started to make him work and I was starting to land. Round by round, the game plan was in full flow.
“By round 10, he was not only holding on but planting his hands behind my back and I was trying to shake him off. There was a moment in the 10th or 11th when the referee said, ‘Stop, come here,’ and he talked to us and I thought, He’s getting a good 20 seconds break here. But it just prolonged the inevitable.”
When Leigh Wood talks about the “inevitable” what he means is the stunning final-round finish he produced with his right hand. More specifically, though, the “inevitable” to which he refers has everything to do with the power Wood possesses and has exhibited late on in recent fights.
“It was a shot we drilled,” he said. “When Mick goes to the ropes, he does this old-school guard where he goes right to left with his glove, trying to block stuff. So I flicked it away with my left hand, then nailed him with my right hand once he stopped.
“We literally drilled that hundreds of times. Ben was screaming that to me two rounds before then. If you look at Ben when Mick’s holding me, he’s gesturing for me to do that when he’s against the ropes.
“I was pushing him back and he was very fatigued, which was down to the body work. I feinted, which was all part of the drill, flicked that left up top, he stopped moving, and then I nailed him.”
A fight better to win than lose, just as it was a fight better to watch than endure, it will be interesting now to see whether Wood and Conlan meet again for seconds at some stage in the future. Of the two, Conlan, for obvious reasons, seems the more eager to make the rematch happen, and soon rather than later, whereas Wood, the man in the driver’s seat, appears content to first assess his options, yet remains open to the idea of facing Conlan next year.
“When you come through a fight like that – a real test of endurance, character, heart, guts – there’s no better feeling,” he said. “It’s the best feeling.
“I couldn’t have got off to a worse start, so I’m confident I would do a better job in the rematch. I’m also confident the rematch will happen in a few fights’ time. It depends what else is available. I want to get this (WBA ‘regular’ featherweight) belt situation sorted, and also there is the possibility of some other fights. But then, who knows? We’ll take it from there.”