THE day before featherweights Leigh Wood and Mauricio Lara went to war in a Nottingham boxing ring, they both hit the scales at a pre-fight weigh-in, as is customary before a fight, and stared each other down for the benefit of the cameras, hoping to gain some sort of psychological edge both knew, in their heart of hearts, would mean very little once the first bell sounded.
Interestingly, it was during this moment, with the language barrier one of many obstacles between them, Wood could be heard saying to Lara, “You’ll have to kill me, you’ll have to kill me,” and did so as he shook his head in steely defiance. Hearing this, of course, the sense was that Wood was simply stressing to Lara that the only possible way he would lose on fight night, in front of his home fans no less, was if Lara managed to finish him decisively, with Wood therefore given no choice but to concede defeat.
At the time, these words were innocuous; no different than anything else you might hear during a face-off and certainly not to be taken literally (for a fighter’s safety is after all paramount and no fight should ever be “to the death” even if some, regrettably, play out that way). However, shortly after Leigh Wood found himself stopped by Mauricio Lara tonight (February 18) in the seventh round of a competitive, back-and-forth fight, these words returned with a greater relevance and newfound context and explained to some extent the reaction of Wood to being stopped in the manner in which he was stopped.
Because, unfortunately for Wood, rather than go out on his shield – which, I suppose, is the technical term for what he implied at the weigh-in – he was instead knocked down in the seventh round and then, without being given an opportunity to try to survive, removed from the contest by the waving white flag of his coach, Ben Davison. It was, in other words, the ending Wood had feared; the ending he promised Lara would not be his.
Not unlike what Anthony Yarde experienced three weeks ago in London, Wood will now have to come to terms with the fact his cornerman made the decision to end a fight only he, the fighter, was able to control inside the ring. Like Yarde, he will balance his natural anger at being told “no” with, one hopes, a realisation that Davison, like Tunde Ajayi, was looking out for him and his wellbeing and essentially predicting what was going to happen next, based on both his knowledge of Wood and his knowledge of Lara.
For Lara, in much the same way as Artur Beterbiev, is not a man against whom many survive when put in the position in which Wood found himself tonight. He is an all-or-nothing maniac of a featherweight and had for six rounds been waiting for his moment to strike and put Wood in a state of disarray, as he did in the seventh. Time and time again, in fact, Lara could during exchanges be seen loading up on that left hook – the finishing blow – and getting closer and closer to landing it as Wood’s own work lost its snap and the blood from his left eye continued to cover his face.
It was, on reflection, the sort of finish to which the fight had been building during its first half. With neither man willing to take a backwards step, it could surely only end one way. The more they traded, the bloodier Wood became (the result of a head clash in round one), and the more it seemed probable that one shot from either of them would change the flow of the fight emphatically.
Until then, they had taken turns, both to punch and win rounds. In the first it was Wood, 33-8 (16), who came out with conviction and purpose, taking the centre of the ring and firing sharp straight punches, whereas in the second it was Lara, 26-2-1 (19), who was the more aggressive, attacking well to the body.
It was also in the second round that Wood landed his first good right hand, which would become a key punch for him throughout and in the second backed Lara up to a corner, after which the Nottingham fans could be heard roaring in anticipation. Premature, maybe, Lara wasn’t done yet, as he showed when landing a right of his own which staggered Wood with thirty seconds left in the round and motivated the Mexican to follow it with a further flurry of hurtful shots.
By the fourth, meanwhile, rather than simply taking turns to trade moments, they were trading blows in vicious exchanges. A right-hand-left-hook combination from Lara stunned Wood in one instance, yet a solid right hand from Wood in return immediately regained the respect of his opponent.
In addition to that, Wood, in the fifth, troubled Lara with a body shot Lara believed was low. He then went after him and traded with Lara as Lara first shook his head, perplexed as to how the low blow wasn’t called, before instinctively swinging his left hook, testing out terrain he would properly explore in the seventh.
At times, when throwing this shot, Lara appeared desperate, frustrated even. Of the two, it was clearly Wood who seemed the more measured, the neater, and the more accurate. His straight shots, particularly the right cross, had helped to tame Lara in the fifth round and also the sixth, a round in which Lara could be seen smiling, though only ever in frustration.
It was then of course a different kind of smile we saw on the face of Lara in the seventh. Still trading, the only language the Mexican knows, Lara this time, with 24 seconds remaining in the round, cracked his left hook against the chin of Wood to leave the home fighter flat on his back and scrambling to get back to his feet in time.
Wood managed it, rising on “five”, yet, much to his annoyance, it was once he was upright and asked to raise his gloves by the referee, Michael Alexander, that Wood’s mission was determined to be over; determined not by Lara, who was revving up to have his own say in the matter, nor even Wood himself, who said his opponent would have to kill him to beat him. It was instead determined by the tossing of a white towel and the call of a trainer who, while he himself has never taken a punch in a professional ring, felt he knew enough and had seen enough to prevent a professional fighter, a man he trains and cares about, from taking any more.
It goes without saying that there is no exact science to stopping a fight. That is precisely why no stoppage is ever widely celebrated by fans, reporters and fighters alike. Each brings to every stoppage a different perspective, with the fans often wanting more action and more blood, the reporters often wanting to err on the side of caution for fear of repeating something they have previously witnessed, and the fighters – be it the fighter involved or fellow fighters – often wanting to uphold the so-called “warrior’s code” and go out on their shield, knowing, beyond any doubt, they could not do anything to prevent defeat.
Furthermore, you find today, thanks to the power social media has granted billions of people unwilling to think before they comment, that there are plenty keen to make knee-jerk comments in the aftermath of a stoppage all the while never taking the time to explore any sort of nuance or grey area. To do so, after all, would cause only confusion, or shrugs of agreement, whereas, in contrast, to nail one of the extremes – “Worst stoppage ever!” or “Greatest stoppage ever!” – is more of a guarantee that their comment will be seen and either argued or backed up.
Likewise, because the name of the game is these days attention, there tends to be a newfound scepticism regarding the decision of a coach to intervene and make the moment all about them. This, whether fair or not, is another symptom of the social media age and is not exactly helped by certain coaches going out of their way to put themselves front and centre, be it on social media or during fight week.
Ultimately, though, when assessing a stoppage, there doesn’t have to be a right or wrong answer. A stoppage can, as with most things in life, and depending on your perspective, be both: both right and wrong. Tonight’s, for example, can be considered a good thing in light of the fact it saved Leigh Wood from further punishment in an already punishing contest, and it can, equally, be considered bad for it never gave that same fighter, winning at the time of the stoppage, the benefit of the doubt in terms of surviving the final seconds of that seventh round.
Sixteen years ago, remember, Graham Earl endured a torrid first and second round against Australia’s Michael Katsidis and appeared in need of rescuing, only his corner’s attempt to save him in the second, by throwing in the towel, was dismissed by referee Mickey Vann, who launched the towel out of the ring no sooner than it had arrived. A wildly brave decision at the time, one that could have so easily backfired, Vann believed, given his experience and vantage point, that Earl still had some fight left in him and that his corner, in acting the way they had, were operating more on emotion than anything else.
Initially, too, Vann was proven correct. Earl, having weathered the Katsidis storm, somehow came rallying back to drop Katsidis seconds later and briefly swing the momentum back in his favour. Yet, alas, the Luton man, despite his stay of execution, was still stopped after five rounds.
Ben Davison, no better than anyone else, cannot predict the future, so therefore could not be sure tonight whether Leigh Wood would indeed survive the seventh round and recuperate in the eighth or whether, as seemed more likely, Mauricio Lara’s left hook signalled merely the beginning of the end.
If pre-emptive, then, Davison’s decision was sharp, shrewd, and compassionate. It went against everything Leigh Wood, his fighter, believes in and wants from a fight, as he made clear at the weigh-in, but it defined what we ask for from cornermen and trainers: to be the eyes and ears of a fighter who, in the midst of battle, has become numb to just about everything except the need to punch, damage and render unconscious another human being similarly ignorant.