“Winning a world title is hard, but keeping one is harder, so you need to make sure you rise to the challenge.”
THE words of the late Brendan Ingle remain in the thoughts of Leigh Wood. The venerable Dubliner guided the fortunes of many champions and contenders: from Herol Graham to Johnny Nelson, ‘Prince’ Naseem Hamed to Junior Whitter and then Kell Brook to name a few.
Wood was another product of that famous Wincobank Gym, learning the trade under Ingle who was always much more than just a trainer to his fighters, acting as a counsellor, a father figure and boxing coach all rolled into one.
After the passing of Ingle in 2018, aged 77, things were never the same as Wood reflected on his “lowest point” when he felt like quitting the sport, living on £50 per week from a sponsor, but the Nottingham man would go onto fulfil the promise his old mentor had in him with victory over Can Xu last summer to claim the WBA featherweight title.
On Saturday in Nottingham, Wood makes the first defence of the belt against Michael Conlan and while Ben Davison is the man in the corner, it’s the above words that have been foremost on his mind as he prepares for battle.
“He was a massive influence,” said Wood of the legendary Ingle.
“Brendan got me into the Ingle gym and used to say to me that I could win the British, Commonwealth and European titles and that he hoped to God he would be there to see it. I believed in him, but when he passed away the gym changed.
“He used to drill things into me and when I arrived at the gym, he would say the same thing over and over and over. I was always thinking why was he saying that so many times, but since he passed, all the little things he would say to me have stuck and I still think of them today. I could talk all day about Brendan because he was a very special man and his method of teaching will probably never be replicated. There will never ever be another Brendan Ingle.”
𝗡𝗢𝗧𝗧𝗜𝗡𝗚𝗛𝗔𝗠 𝗙𝗜𝗚𝗛𝗧 𝗪𝗘𝗘𝗞! 🔥@itsLeighWood @mickconlan11 @TerriHarper96 @caoimhinagyarko @sandyryan93 @BoxerCully @thomashart1995 @nico_leivars @thomas_carty #WoodConlan | @DAZNBoxing pic.twitter.com/uNT8pU55IB
— Matchroom Boxing (@MatchroomBoxing) March 7, 2022
It was tough to leave such a set-up, but there was really no option after one let-down too many and after managing to get on the undercard of his friend Jordan Gill, a shot at the Commonwealth title came up and Wood would seize his opportunity. It was a microcosm of his career, battling against the odds and bouncing back from adversity.
A defeat to Gavin McDonnell in 2014 on a Matchroom card, broadcast on Sky Sports would send him back to rebuild in the leisure centres, fighting for area titles and sometimes for little or no money before his career turned a corner in 2019 with that Commonwealth title win over Abraham Osei Bonsu.
“When I say the hard way, it’s not just been the fights,” the 33-year-old says when reflecting on his career.
“I’ve had to go through a lot in my career: broke for ten years, having to scrimp and scrape to get where I am; I’ve boxed for free maybe three times; I’ve boxed on away bills where I have been the underdog and come through the other side.
“It’s not just fight-night, but lots of things I’ve gone through and it’s been extremely hard to get to this position, so I’m not prepared to let it slip and have to climb that ladder to go back down that road again.”
Getting to the top of the sport has been tough and the terrain rocky, but after another setback, this time losing to Jazza Dickens, it would be a year before he returned to the ring, but again took his chance with a British title win over Reece Mould that would earn him a crack at Can Xu and the WBA title.
The Nottingham man would rip up the script, out-boxing Xu and then stopping him in the final round to get his hands on the title.
“I thought I was winning on points regardless, but the stoppage was just the icing on the cake.
“I only had six weeks’ notice for that fight – five weeks to train having been ticking over in the gym and got the job done. This time I’ve got a lot more notice and I’m going to look even better.”
That is fair warning to Conlan whose rise to world level has been much more predictable as he entered the professional arena having secured world honours as an amateur, gold medals at European and Commonwealth Games, plus an Olympic bronze.
The Belfast man was snapped up by promotional behemoth Top Rank, headlining in Madison Square Garden, fighting on undercards of boxing royalty in Manny Pacquiao and Vasyl Lomachenko, plus in front of huge crowds in his home city.
Conlan has worked just as hard as Wood, but is perhaps better used to the big occasions, but the champion is not fazed by the anticipated cauldron at Nottingham Arena on Saturday when the lights will shine that little bit brighter on both men.
“It’s definitely the biggest fight that I’ve headlined,” he concedes.
“I’ve been on (Carl) Froch undercards in the same arena with the same capacity, but it’s not the same when they are all there for you. There will be added pressure, but I’m going to rise to the occasion.
“He’s got to rise the occasion just as I have. I’ve had challenges in the ring where I wasn’t expected to win and was forced to dig deep, and I’ve been in fights where my opponent has the same desire as me.
“The challenges I’ve got to face are: the pressure of the fans; the noise that goes around the fight; his style that I haven’t seen before, but he has got everything to do on the night.”
If Wood is Conlan’s toughest test to date, then the opposite is also true.
Saturday’s fight is much more than a battle between the puncher in Wood and stylist in Conlan.
The Nottingham man can crack hard, but he also has good skills with a solid jab, good engine and varies his work.
In his win over Xu, Wood proved he is much more than a one-trick pony, varying his work to body and head with combinations that gradually broke the champion down.
He is not underestimating Conlan’s power either, but insists he has more ways to win.
“He can definitely crack, but I can win this fight without my power.
“The strategy we’ve got and the way we’re working on this fight, I can win without the power, but it’s a great asset to have.”
It has been “sheer resilience” to negotiate the roadblocks in his career and sticking it out when it looked as though things had hit an impasse.
Last summer, he took his chance and has no intention of relinquishing his title in the first defence having worked so hard to get where he is. With the words of Brendan Ingle fresh in his memory, the champion feels he is ready for what is coming his way.
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