Sunday, March 13, 2022

Opinions and Observations: Wood-Conlan

As late as the 11th round in Saturday's fight, Leigh Wood was in danger of being knocked out. Throughout the bout Michael Conlan had repeatedly landed punishing rear left hooks from the southpaw position, one of which led to a knockdown in the first round. In the 11th Conlan was now pasting Wood with sharp lead right hooks. Wood took big punch after big punch, yet somehow, he stayed on his feet. 

Despite being battered through large portions of the match, Wood kept coming forward. He was able to land a flash knockdown on Conlan at the end of the 11th to tighten up the scorecards, but going into the last round he was behind in the fight.

A minute into the 12th he backed up Conlan to the ropes. He threw a combination to keep Conlan busy. Conlan turned his head to slip one of the shots and that moment provided Wood with the opportunity he was looking for. Conlan's arms were not in a defensively responsible position leaving his head unguarded and exposed. Wood saw the opening and threw a short, devastating right hand on Conlan's temple; the shot made Conlan's body go limp. With two additional shots Wood knocked Conlan through the ropes and out of the ring. And just like that, with a quick flurry that lasted no more than a few seconds, the fight was over! It was a remarkable comeback from Wood and a performance that exemplified what top-level boxing can offer. 

Conlan (right) with the 1st-round knockdown
Photo courtesy of Mark Robinson

Although the finale of the fight was shocking and unexpected, the conclusion didn't occur in a vacuum. Perhaps most importantly, let's remember where that final knockout sequence happened: the ropes. As early as the first half of the fight, Conlan's trainer, Adam Booth, beseeched his fighter to stay off the ropes. Yet, as the fight progressed, Conlan spent more and more time there, some of it his own preference, but Wood's pressure also was a significant factor in Conlan's decision making. 

Throughout his professional career Conlan has usually fought as a classic boxer, employing his jab, angles and quick combinations to better his opponents. Conlan possesses fancy footwork, the ability to switch hit and a high Ring IQ. But on Saturday, Conlan started the fight as the hunter. Throwing big left hand after big left hand, Conlan put everything into his shots. Wood was vulnerable and Conlan went for the stoppage. Conlan had the element of surprise in his favor and Wood just couldn't adjust to that rear left hook. 

The fight reminded me of Froch-Groves 1, where Groves, the supposed boxer, immediately started with power shots and scored an early knockdown. Groves landed dozens of punishing blows, but eventually, he lost steam and his opponent wisely kept going to the body. Groves would lose that fight by a controversial stoppage, but there was no doubt that Froch was ascendent as the bout was called off by the referee. 

On Saturday, Conlan's unfamiliarity with the role of Destroyer took its toll. Despite his success, the energy required for his big shots was depleting him. He unloaded his entire holster, yet Wood was still standing. Through stretches of many rounds in the second half of the fight, Conlan would either go to the ropes voluntarily or he would acquiesce to Wood's desire to press the action. And while Conlan's reliance on the ropes helped him temporarily stave off exhaustion, Wood was able to have success in several exchanges in close quarters. 

Conlan sent through the ropes in the 12th
Photo courtesy of Mark Robinson

Conlan's insistence on fighting along the ropes showed a lack of tools at his disposal. There are other ways to slow down the action of a fight. He could have tied up more in the center of the ring. He could have tried to backfoot Wood for a round or two with just his jab. Yet Conlan kept going back to the ropes, even though he was warned that by doing so he would give Wood his best chance of success. 

I don't want to sound too harsh on Conlan. In many respects this was his best performance as a professional fighter. Offensively, he displayed several gifts. He showed an improvisational ability that is beyond many top fighters. Switching stances, Conlan was able to discover that rear hook opening not four or five rounds into the fight, but almost immediately. Furthermore, Conlan was far from a one-trick pony. Once Wood was more conscious of the left hand, Conlan went to work at close range with right hooks. At points his jab was very effective as well. Despite possessing the ability to do so, Conlan didn't try to stink out the fight for a win; he wanted to make a grand statement on the biggest stage of his career. His approach and temperament were laudable. 

However, at the very top of the sport there are fine margins that separate winning and losing. And unfortunately for Conlan, he went to the same well too many times (the ropes). There are very few fighters who can consistently get the better of their opponents with their back on the ropes. Many try; few succeed.  

Wood celebrates his victory
Photo courtesy of Mark Robinson

Conlan did many things well against Wood, but a fight is 12 rounds, and only one boxer was left standing on Saturday. Conlan will need to learn how to pace himself better, to navigate 12-round fights against real threats. There are times to step on and off the gas and hopefully he will perform better in similar circumstances in the future. 

As for Wood, what more can be said? His comeback was out of a dream. It was a testament to the code of the professional prizefighter. You never know what the other guy is feeling. As bad as it may be for you, maybe it's worse for the guy in the other corner. Wood's performance highlighted the beauty, ferocity and dread of an attritional sport. During 12 grueling rounds, he was the one who could endure more. It wasn't about his jab or a defensive adjustment or a clever corner instruction. It was his will, his self-belief. Leigh Wood would not yield. He would be knocked down and beaten up. But that wouldn't be enough. He would keep coming. He would persevere. And I'm sure it will be months before his feet touch the ground again. 

Adam Abramowitz is the founder and head writer of saturdaynightboxing.comHe's a member of Ring Magazine's Ring Ratings Panel and a Board Member for the Transnational Boxing Rankings Board. 
snboxing on twitter. SN Boxing on Facebook.  

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