SUCH is both Leigh Wood’s punch power and ambition, all he requires is a chance, an opening, just one. Grant him that, either when negotiating a fight or during a fight, and he will typically grab it with both hands, more so to today than ever before.
His career, after all, has been a tough one, with no favours given and early setbacks making the eventual glory all the sweeter. Now, at 33, and in the best form of his life, the Nottingham featherweight is on the cusp of establishing himself at a world-class level, if only he is given the chance.
“It’s been extremely frustrating,” he told Boxing News, explaining his recent mood, “but it’s just one of those things, the politics of boxing. It’s not something I haven’t seen before. I’ve had it throughout my whole career. I’m kind of used to it.”
The cause of Wood’s frustration, of course, has had everything to do with the World Boxing Association (WBA) and the status of their featherweight belt, currently held by Leo Santa Cruz. Unsure whether Santa Cruz would return to featherweight, or seek additional opportunities at super-featherweight, Wood, the next man in line to challenge the Mexican, was left in a kind of no man’s land.
“I think he’s willing to fight and we’re entering a negotiation period,” he said, “so it looks like it’s now moving in the right direction. Hopefully we’ll have more news in the coming weeks.
“I said I want to fight someone in that top six or seven and Santa Cruz is a great name. He’s a name familiar with UK fans because of his fights with (Carl) Frampton and in recent times he’s moved up in weight and come up short against a very big puncher (Gervonta Davis) at lightweight (albeit fought at 130 pounds). Hopefully it comes off and I get the chance to rightfully take my place amongst those guys. It would be nice to get that scalp. It’s one I 100% believe I can get.”
Also 33, Santa Cruz is a veteran of 41 professional fights and was last seen outpointing Keenan Carbajal in a 10-round super-featherweight bout in February. Before that, he had been knocked out rather violently in the sixth round of a 2020 fight against Gervonta Davis, the WBA lightweight belt-holder who agreed to fight Santa Cruz, the WBA super-featherweight belt-holder, at 130 pounds (the super-featherweight limit).
His last fight at featherweight, in fact, was a defence of his WBA belt against Rafael Rivera all the way back in February 2019, making Wood’s uncertainty regarding both his future and Santa Cruz’s future completely understandable.
“He’s been on my radar for the last year and a bit,” said Wood. “But when he moved up, I thought he might not come back down. I’m actually surprised he has.
“I used to watch him in those fights with Frampton. We weren’t on each other’s radars then but I would still look and see who was at the top of the tree and he was definitely up there at the time.
“It’s not surreal (to fight someone of Santa Cruz’s calibre), but there were obviously times in my career when I didn’t feel I would get the opportunity to prove myself at this level. Thankfully, the Golden Contract came up and that opened a lot of doors for me. Then I made the move to Ben (Davison, his trainer) and he got the best out of me.
“I always knew I had the ability to get to that next level but I just didn’t know whether those doors would open for me. They have now, though. It’s come at the end of my career, but that’s okay. I’ve still got lots of time to get those big fights, hopefully.”
The idea of putting together two aggressive, relentless featherweights like Santa Cruz and Wood seems about as responsible, on the face of it, as letting two dangerous dogs go at it in a confined space. It becomes all the more frightening, too, this prospect, when one considers it was only in March Wood was combining with Ireland’s Michael Conlan to produce arguably the best and certainly most dramatic fight of 2022.
“From the outside looking in, it looks like it will be similar to my last fight,” said Wood, laughing. “But I’ve got a great team and we break down fights well and know exactly what we need to do. We’ve been looking at this fight since my last one because we knew the situation might come up where the belt situation needs to be sorted. We looked at him straight away, so we’ve already gone through game plans and an analysis. It looks like it will be a fight similar to my last one, but it’s going to more favoured to myself than the last one.”
In terms of executing this game plan, Wood will no doubt have to rely on a number of attributes he possesses, some of which he used against Conlan to secure the finish in the 12th round, while others, for reasons only he knows, were neglected.
“I punch harder (than Santa Cruz) for a start,” Wood said. “But the main thing is that I’m adaptable to a game plan. If you look at my last three fights, I didn’t box the same way in any of them. That’s because I had to adapt and adjust to win the fight.
“That’s what I’ll do against Santa Cruz. I’ll have to adapt and the game plan will be different yet again. I’ll be making sure I get off what I’m good at and preventing him doing what he’s good at.”