It had the makings of something special, but fight fans had no right to expect the absolute classic that Leigh Wood and Michael Conlan have bestowed upon us. It’s only March, but Wood vs Conlan may well prove to be 2022’s Fight of the Year; yes, it was that exciting, that violent, dramatic and shocking. Say what you want about where Conlan and Wood deserve to be ranked in the featherweight division, and few have either in their top five: if ever two boxers gave us championship performances and a battle worthy of its stakes, it was the undefeated Briton and Irishman who went to war yesterday for a “regular” world title strap in Nottingham. But if the belt up for grabs was “regular,” the fight would be anything but.
A huge part of what made Wood vs Conlan so remarkable was the performance of Michael Conlan, a boxer who, for some at least, enjoys notoriety and success not entirely justified by his talents. But that was not the case last night. In the build-up to the clash the Irishman had been fury and passion personified, exhibiting nothing but extreme eagerness to unleash his fists on his British rival, and Conlan proved his pre-fight fury was no act to sell tickets. From the opening bell the southpaw was loading up and firing huge left hands, one putting Wood down hard at the end of round one, and in the second Conlan capitalized, landing more big lefts, plus some heavy body shots, his attack buckling the Englishman’s legs more than once. All the while Wood was fighting back as best he could and the action was astonishingly fast and furious.
Wood raised his game in round three to keep himself in the fight, but Conlan again hurt him in the fourth and then swept the next three rounds, rocking Leigh repeatedly with heavy blows. That’s not to say the Briton wasn’t holding his own; he too was letting his hands go and connecting with solid punches, but his defensive lapses meant his head was often an easy target and the clean, more eye-catching shots were coming the other way.
However, if anyone thought Wood might be fading, round eight put the lie to that as he got the better of some furious two-way action, driving the challenger backwards with the fury of his attack. Even so, it was clear to all that Conlan had to have a commanding lead on the scorecards, and after he won round nine with a busy jab and some well-timed left hands, it seemed evident that Wood needed a knockout, or at least something very dramatic, to pull out the victory.
An action-packed tenth round was the harbinger as Wood came on in its second half to assert himself just as his opponent’s engine showed signs of slowing down, and in round eleven fatigue was clearly a factor for Conlan. His punches were lacking the snap of the earlier rounds, not to mention missing the target, and his legs appeared gone, a fact confirmed when he hit the canvas at round’s end. He insisted it was a slip, and the replay shows he has a case, but a clean blow landed just as he lost his footing and the damage was done. Despite this, the match appeared Conlan’s to lose. Soon enough we would learn that, surprisingly, two of the three judges had him leading by just a single point at this juncture, but otherwise the widespread perception was that the Irishman only had to survive the final three minutes and a decision victory was his.
But it was not to be. A desperate Wood let it all hang out in the final round, and while Conlan gave as good as he got for the most part, he was the one now giving ground as the defending champion just kept coming, punching non-stop, looking for the big shot that could steal victory from the jaws of defeat. Incredibly, he would find it, his determination and persistence rewarded as the exhausted Irishman retreated to the ropes and Wood then bounced a short right hand off Conlan’s temple that instantly rendered him unconscious; Wood’s follow-up flurry propelled Conlan through the ropes and out of the ring and the referee immediately stopped the fight. Shocking and thrilling stuff, and a conclusive end to an amazing war.
It’s too early to draw any definite conclusions as to where either fighter goes from here, especially as Conlan had to be taken from the ring on a stretcher and transported to hospital. All were relieved to soon learn that he was fully conscious and responsive, and hours later he was on social media, reassuring everyone he was fine and expressing eagerness for a rematch. Wood vs Conlan II should happen at some point, the sooner the better, but when it does we’ll all be very lucky fight fans indeed if it’s half as exciting as yesterday’s incredible war. — Neil Crane