THERE is a moment in the career of every so-called golden boy when the constant adulation, the sounds of the home crowd, and walking to the ring second become somewhat old hat. It normally coincides with calls for the golden boy to step up, get a move on, or fight better opposition, and often results in the golden boy crossing the tracks and exploring terrain without home comforts or any sort of protection. In the case of featherweight star-in-the-making Michael Conlan, this moment arrives on March 12, when he fights Leigh Wood – an opponent plenty will still pick him to beat – in Nottingham, Wood’s home city.
For a man like Conlan, someone used to the roar of his Irish crowd, it will be a new experience, at least in the context of his pro career, as well as a much-needed one.
“Once it was announced, the buzz I experienced was unbelievable and it’s just been running through me ever since,” he said. “People will say, ‘He’s never fought in someone’s back garden,’ but I had almost 350 amateur fights and fought in many people’s back gardens and won many titles in those gardens. It’s nothing new to me. It will be the first time I walk to the ring first as a pro but that’s something I’m really looking forward to and something I have gone through in my head many times.
“The big difference between us two is that I have fought in front of massive crowds, at home, and know the pressure that brings. This is all new to him, though.
“I’m fully focused on what I have to do. There’s no pressure on me. I just have to go in there and perform.”
Tellingly, Conlan, 16-0 (8), was never forced to fight Wood on Wood’s patch. It was instead, following weeks of back-and-forth negotiation, something Conlan in the end wanted to do.
“With the money that was bid for the fight, Eddie [Hearn, promoter] had plans to take the fight to New York, but I don’t think got the right guarantee from the [Madison Square] Garden,” Conlan said. “Leigh has a good fanbase but it’s not the biggest of fanbases. I think if I was fighting a bigger name I probably would have sold the Garden out quickly. I don’t know if Leigh could have helped do that with the travelling fans but, either way, I thought it was going to be in New York and was then told it would more likely end up in the UK or Ireland.
“I thought it was next going to be in Manchester but again I don’t think Eddie had the belief that Leigh could sell in Manchester. I know I could do 10,000 there, but it wasn’t to be.
“It was then brought to us, the idea of fighting in Belfast, but Leigh is the [WBA secondary] champion and I accepted that he deserved the fight in his back garden. They offered to pay me a lump sum for this to happen and I said, ‘No problem.’
“What they don’t know is that I would have fought him in Nottingham without the lump sum. In fact, when we were talking about it going to New York, my father said to me, ‘No, don’t do it there, do it in his back garden. It makes it more meaningful and worthwhile. It makes for more of a story.’
“Once he said that, I was kind of like, ‘You’re right, Dad. That would be f**king unbelievable.’ By then I was sold on the idea and they really didn’t need to offer me that lump sum to go there. I already had my heart set on going there for free.”
Seemingly, for as much as Conlan is going to Nottingham for the victory and Wood’s title, he is also embarking on the mission for the experience he is likely to gain along the way. An ambitious man, he sees Wood in Nottingham not as his Everest moment but rather phase two of what he hopes will be a long, challenging and fruitful career.
“It’s not even about Leigh Wood for me,” Conlan, 30, said. “It’s about the opportunity and taking the next step to becoming the best in the division and the best fighter I can be. Leigh Wood at the moment holds the WBA ‘regular’ title, but I think the fight could end up being for the ‘super’ title, so this is just another step for me, in fulfilling the potential I know I have.
“I’m looking at this being the first of many. I don’t want to be a one-hit wonder. My goal is to be a multiple world champion and Leigh Wood is the first step on that ladder. His belt is one I want and beating him moves me closer to proving I’m the best in the division.”
As for Wood, the respect Conlan has for the 33-year-old is usurped, ultimately, by his need to swat him aside. “He has a lot to offer and he also still has a lot to prove,” Conlan said. “But I’m expecting the best Leigh Wood there has ever been. When you win a title, you have that extra hype and belief in yourself and I’m sure he has got that. I know this will be a tough, tough fight, but I also know if I stick to what I do best I can win it comfortably.
“And who’s to say I can’t stop Leigh Wood? I know I’m not the biggest puncher in the world but he’s been stopped by a lesser puncher than me in Gavin McDonnell and was hurt by a lesser puncher than me in Jazza Dickens. It’s not like he’s Rocky Balboa with a chin of iron. I have the utmost respect for the man, and think he’s due a big night in Nottingham, but I know what I have to do to beat him.”