LEIGH WOOD is not the first fighter to suddenly start to look and sound like a world champion. The transition is certainly smoother when you get the title you have always believed you will win. Wood has been preparing for his glory for a long, long time. It is still hard to keep that mindset when time is slipping away.
In Nottingham on day one of promoting his first defence, Wood took the microphone from Eddie Hearn and led a secret choir of his gathered fans in song. The conference was open to the public; the Forest faithful sang wonderfully.
There have been few champagne moments in the life and fighting times of Wood before his dismantling of Can Xu last summer. He was 52/1 for a stoppage in round 12. That might sound harsh of a man with a British title and some good wins, but it’s true. Now, even before a defence of the title, he sounds like he was made for the limelight. He has, he insists, always known he would be a world champion. A common dream, but perhaps as few as one per cent of all active boxers see it happen. The figure is probably less if you have been raised on the wrong side of the boxing-business tracks. Less again if you are not fancied.
Michael Conlan was made for the limelight; the loved and adored Belfast Boy, the kid from the Rio Games with a broken heart and a special message for the men who denied him Olympic glory.
Conlan and Wood are opposites in the same game.
And now the pair will fight in Nottingham, two men on different paths, but connected by their weight, their profession and their fighting desires. And that drive is clear to see.
“He’s never been in a 50/50 fight, I’ve been in fights where they were 70/30 against me,” Wood told me. “He’s had it all so easy, so easy; I’ve had to work for everything I’ve got in boxing.”
It’s true in many ways; Conlan walked to his first professional fight in the slipstream of Conor McGregor’s fur coat. It was Madison Square Garden, people were delirious; Conlan was certainly an idol long before throwing a single punch as a professional.
Wood made his debut at the Clifton Leisure Centre, beating Chuck Jones on points over four rounds; Jones lost for the fifth time and had never won. It was a grass-roots start, that’s for sure. It was in October 2011, and at that time Conlan was getting ready for the London Olympics, where he won a bronze medal. In the same month that Wood beat Jones at a leisure centre, Conlan won three times and lost in the quarter-finals at the World Championships in Baku. They were on very different boxing roads.
“What does he think I was doing when I was having hundreds of fights all over the world?” Conlan asked. “I was in hard places, fighting the best in the world and not getting any favours. None, not one favour. If he thinks I’ve had it easy, then he’s crazy.”
That is how you set-up a big fight. The day after Nottingham, the pair went to Belfast; at the end of that second day over 7,000 tickets had been shifted. Two fighters, different directions, same journey and one job.
Conlan seemed genuinely shocked at the notion that his boxing life has been so easy and that Wood will simply be too strong on the night. “Do you really think it’s that simple?” he asked. It’s a decent question.
Wood was meant to have his fourth fight at the Nottingham Arena on the night Carl Froch stopped Lucian Bute in 2012. It never happened, he was the swing fight, sold 40,000 pounds worth of tickets, was gloved and ready. In the end, Carl Frampton went the full 12 and Wood went home without a fight. A few months later, he did fight at the venue when Froch beat Yusuf Mack. These raw facts delighted his fans last week. Conlan was already an Olympic medal winner at that point and over the next few years would win the World, the European and the Commonwealth titles as an amateur. His love affair with that code ended in shame at the Rio Olympics when he lost to Vladimir Nikitin. Last year it was revealed that his fight was on a list of fixed results; in late 2019, as a pro, Conlan boxed Nikitin’s ears off.
After Rio, it was time for Bob Arum, The Garden and a ringwalk with McGregor.
At the time of Conlan’s debut, Wood was getting ready for his 19th fight; he beat Simon Volosinas over four rounds on points. Volosinas lost for the 61st time in 68 fights. Wood was going nowhere fast. Conlan was an international star, one fight, one win, one mission.
A few months later in 2017, Wood won on points over six rounds at the Harvey Hadden Sports Village in Nottingham against Reynaldo Mora, who lost for the 29th time. Conlan fought a week or so later, his fifth of the year, and won on the Vasiliy Lomachenko and Guillermo Rigondeaux undercard at Madison Square Garden. They were barely on the same boxing planet.
But Wood just refused to give up on that dream. And last summer he got the call, he got the win and he got the title. It was 10 years in the making, most of those years under radars, in shadows, in the opposite corner and on the short-end money. That is a life – Wood is right – Conlan has never lived. However, it is a life that Conlan fully understands and that is what made every moment they spent together last week so fascinating. Two men, two wildly different backgrounds and just the one fight.
There is another really important sign in the Wood journey; on the Froch vs Mack undercard, when Wood had his fifth fight, it was also fight number five for Khalid Yafai. When the curtain went up, Wood went back to waiting and dreaming and Yafai moved fast; he won a world title belt, held it four years, made five defences, in three countries and bought a house that he can’t see from parts of his garden. I like that image. Anyway, two roads, baby.