Michael Conlan and Leigh Wood have both found themselves at the centre of moments that have shocked the world. For Conlan, it was the shameful decision awarded to Olympic quarter-final opponent Vladimir Nitikin against him in 2016. A result so egregious, the Russian’s own grandmother would have struggled to turn in a scorecard so biased. Wood’s moment came when he upset Xu Can, and won the WBA featherweight championship of the world in July 2011. Now, the two men meet to try and not just shock the world, but prove that they are the man to rule it.
Belfast switch-hitter Michael Conlan was always supposed to be a world champion one day. A European and world champion in the amateurs, with a 2012 Olympic bronze to boot, the 30-year-old ticked every box in the unpaid code. He has answered every challenge so far in the pros too. The controversial Irishman has gone 16-0, decorating a shelf with various interim, intercontinental and international baubles along the way. Now there is a feeling of destiny about what comes next, as the next in line for the throne has his opportunity to become a featherweight king.
Standing in his way is Leigh Wood, the likable Nottinghamshire lad who until last year had lost whenever stepping up against a big name fighter. There is no shame in losses to Jazza Dickens and Gavin McDonnell, but those reverses felt like the installation of a glass ceiling. This was Leigh Wood finding out he was a good domestic fighter, rather than a world level one.
Then came Xu Can and his black and gold belt, during that wonderfully weird period where Matchroom hosted shows in Eddie Hearn’s back garden. There hadn’t been such a televisual feast broadcast from a millionaire’s house on a Saturday night since Noel’s House Party. And on one night last summer, not even Mr Blobby could have stopped Leigh Wood.
Despite being an 11/4 underdog, ‘Leigh-thal’ boxed beautifully to take the crown from the highly-rated Can. Punctuating a career display, Wood sent the Chinese fighter to the canvas with a crushing right hand to end matters in the final round. Domestic level no more, Leigh Wood was ready to take on the world.
Taking on the world is exactly what Wood is doing in his next fight, as he meets a truly world class competitor in Conlan. Once again he comes into a major fight as the underdog. But the difference here is he is the champion. Strapping the belt around your waist changes you as a fighter. For some it is the culmination of a life’s work, and they are never the same hungry warrior that fought so hard to win it. But others are elevated by carrying the weight of championship gold. British fighters like Clinton Woods, Johnny Nelson and Steve Robinson came from humble beginnings and thrived on the world stage as champions. Wood could be the latest fighter to shock the world, then prove he belongs on top of it.
Wood got his moment of cathartic redemption in beating Can. Conlan still awaits his. There has been the rotten stench of Olympic corruption to deal with, as well as repercussions for his conduct afterwards, where he held a middle finger up at the judges. Conlan has also raised the ire of boxing and political figures alike for entering a previous fight to Celtic Symphony by Irish rebel band The Wolfe Tones. A prodigious talent, now is his chance to put outside of the ring issues aside and prove he is more fighter than firebrand. A loss here could end his world title ambitions, but a victory would open up a raft of super-fights.
The long-awaited professional crowning of an amateur superstar, or the latest chapter in the Leigh Wood underdog story? This is a fight with interwoven narratives and ridiculously high-stakes. Watching it play out in the ring will no doubt be captivating.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject To Change