What a difference 14 months can make. In March 2022, Leigh Wood knocked out Michael Conlan in the 12th round of an incredibly dramatic and exciting battle for the WBA featherweight championship. Fast forward to May 2023 and both men have taken diverging paths since. Conlan picked himself up, dusted himself off and racked up a pair of victories. Those wins have put him in the path of IBF featherweight champion Luis Alberto Lopez, who he boxes this weekend in Belfast.
On the same night in Manchester, Wood will look to reclaim the WBA title he retained against Conlan against the man he lost it to in his next bout, Mauricio Lara. Since scoring his greatest career victory last year, he now finds himself on the comeback trail. Meanwhile, the man he beat to seal that victory is on a fine run of form. In professional boxing, your fortunes can change in a heartbeat.
The two men who fought an intense and close fight in Nottingham last year now find themselves facing very similar challenges a year on. Each is looking to win a version of the world featherweight title. Both are fighting on the same night and each are taking on men who have beaten two-time world champion Josh Warrington. A money-spinning bout with ‘The Leeds Warrior’ surely beckons for one or both of the men, whether they are victorious or not at the weekend. Featherweight is a stacked division in Britain, but all roads still lead through Warrington due to his status as a proven money draw.
As harsh as it feels to say it, there is a feeling that the balance is being redressed between these two wonderfully brave fighters. Conlan has long been tapped for professional glory. Robbed in the quarter-finals of the Rio 2016 Olympics, pundits were sure he would take the paid ranks by storm. He did exactly that for his first 16 fights, going unbeaten and earning a shot at Wood’s WBA championship. Now, with that all-time classic defeat behind him, Conlan is on the verge of a course-correcting world title fight.
While Conlan was your stereotypical amateur standout destined for big things, Wood has had a different road to arena-headlining fame. A British title loss to Gavin McDonnell early in his career and a points reverse to Jazza Dickens in 2020 looked set to confine him to domestic level. But a shock stoppage win as an 11/4 underdog against feared WBA champion Xu Can set him on a path of redemption. The Conlan victory ranked high on 2022 Fight of the Year lists, including coming second on ours. But the fight that looked set to propel Wood into the stratosphere may end up being as good as it gets. After losing to Lara by seventh-round TKO last time out, now the likable Nottingham man must try and find a way to win in the rematch.
As much as Conlan and Wood are at a crossroads, this fight is not yet do-or-die. As touched upon earlier, a fight with Warrington would be an easy sell for either man. As would fights with their opposite number’s opponents. No matter what happens, Lopez vs Wood or Conlan vs Lara would likely sell tickets. There are also wild card propositions out there, like former champion Kiko Martinez, who always has an upset in his back pocket.
Perhaps the most likely bout coming out of this weekend though will be a rematch between our subjects. Far worse fights than the electric Wood vs Conlan scrap have been gifted rematches in the past. This absorbing battle would seem to demand one, such was the white-knuckle savagery of their first meeting. If one of the two fighters emerges from this weekend with a world title then the rematch will be an easy sell. If Conlan leaves with the IBF strap and Wood reclaims his WBA gong, then a unification fight would be one of this year’s most anticipated events.
But that’s for the future. This Saturday the two old rivals must expel thoughts of the other from their minds. They each face a worthy and talented champion determined to scupper their future plans. After putting on one of 2022’s greatest bouts, now it’s time to see what each man has left on the big stage. If it’s enough, we just might get a rematch to savour.
*18+ | BeGambleAware | Odds Subject To Change