It is not lost on Leigh Wood that when he steps into the ring against Xu Can for the WBA “regular” featherweight title this weekend, he will be challenging for a world title a week before two of his biggest rivals.
Wood was surprised when he was hand-picked as the opponent for Xu, but hopes to make the most of his opportunity. At 32, there might not be too many remaining.
In February last year he lost a split decision to Jazza Dickens, a defeat that seemed to permanently restrict Wood to the second tier of the sport, especially as the pandemic soon shut the sport down.
When Eddie Hearn announced his latest Fight Camp, the vacant IBF featherweight title fight between Dickens and Kid Galahad, Wood’s old gym-mate, was announced on Week 2. It will mean something extra to Wood if he can get his hands on a world title before those two.
“Everything happens for a reason and I am sure [Dickens] will be fuming at that,” Wood said. “It’s the same with Kid Galahad. We were at the same gym and the Ingles invested a lot of time and effort into Galahad, for a long time and I could never understand why I wasn’t getting opportunities.
“I was boxing on his undercards and others kids’ undercards and never being pushed for titles. I could never wrap my head around it because if I didn’t make money, they didn’t make money. But I left the gym in less than three years I have really stepped up and now I’m fighting for a world title and to win one before him would really be icing on the cake.”
Wood fulfilled a big ambition when he stopped Reece Mould to claim the British title in February, showing in the process the improvement he has made since teaming up with trainer Ben Davison.
“I always knew I was good enough to win the British title outright and if you look at my first attempt (against Gavin McDonnell in 2014), for the first five or six rounds skill wise we were miles apart, it was a breeze,” Wood said. “But I was at the wrong weight, a lot of things happened, but it was more of a case of when rather than if.
“I was waiting for opportunities, I was supposed to box Ryan Walsh at the end of 2018 when I was with the Ingles, it fell through and that was the final straw of why I left. It wasn’t really a confidence thing, I knew I would win it one day, it was just a matter of when and I went out and did what I needed to do. So, I thought that box is ticked now, let’s move on.”
One of the downsides about if he wins on Saturday is that it would prevent him from winning the Lonsdale Belt outright. A boxer must successfully defend the British title three times to win the belt outright, but a British champion cannot hold a world title at the same time.
“That belt has been everywhere, schools, clubs,” he said. “It is a belt that I wanted to win outright and keep in my family, but opportunity came calling and hopefully I win on Saturday and have to give the British title up.”
Working with Davison and Lee Wylie, who works on video analysis with him has, he believes, improved him greatly.
“Lee Wylie is our secret little weapon. His input and minor detail makes a big difference,” Wood said.
“You may think on the night that Can Xu is not having a good night, but what I am stopping him from doing or making him do is the key. A lot of people won’t see that.
“The closest I have fought to someone like him – sustained pressure, tucks up a tight like to throw a lot of punches – is Josh Wale. I was told not to throw power shots, touch him a lot. Move. I was in the Ingle gym, but the gameplan and how I approach it will be totally different.
“I take away the belt, I take away the money, I take away the status of what it is for, and I concentrate on my opponent and focus on what I need to do to beat them. If you are good enough, you will do it. No pressure.”
Boxing for the WBA’s “regular” title might take some gloss off this being a world title fight, but with the WBA’s super champion, Leo Santa Cruz, having not defended his title since February 2019, Wood believes there is a good chance he will be upgraded of he wins on Saturday.
“I’m a boxing purist and feel there should be one belt for each organization,” Wood said. “I am getting a shot at the “regular” world title, but I see it as a world title fight because the super champion has moved up and hasn’t boxed at the weight for a long time, so the winner may be upgraded anyway.
“But I think there should be fewer belts and super champions and diamond belts just complicates things.”
Wood’s life and career will change if he wins on Saturday. The opportunity for big fights opens up too. A fight with the Dickens-Galahad winner would be an obvious one.
“That’s a massive fight but I can’t look past Saturday,” Wood said. “There are some great fights there for me. We were going to go the WBO route and pursue [Emanuel] Navarrete. That is a really good fight in my opinion. He has long arms and is powerful, but he has bad feet and makes a lot of mistakes.
“There are massive fights out there, but they can all dissolve into the abyss if I don’t win.”
Ron Lewis is a senior writer for BoxingScene. He was Boxing Correspondent for The Times, where he worked from 2001-2019 - covering four Olympic Games and numerous world title fights across the globe. He has written about boxing for a wide variety of publications worldwide since the 1980s.