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Leigh Wood vs The Featherweight Elite

Following WBA featherweight champion Leigh Wood’s thrilling last-round stoppage over the touted Michael Conlan at the weekend, IBHOF inductee Graham Houston looks at the options for the in-form Nottingham man.

Leigh Wood will need some time to rest after his sensational featherweight championship win over Michael Conlan, but when he’s ready to return to action some intriguing fights await Nottingham’s late-bloomer.

The 126-pound division is rich in talent. Promotional affiliations might get in the way of some potential barnburners but there is no shortage of worthy opponents.

But first, a word about Wood. He is 33 but arguably at his peak. 

Wood seemed to be going nowhere in particular after his loss to Jazza Dickens. But he’s upset the odds twice in a  row, stopping China’s Xu Can to become WBA champion, then making the dramatic title defence against Conlan, each time winning in the last round.

Wood was dominant against Xu but had to come from behind against Conlan. It looked all over for Wood in the first round of last weekend’s thriller but by the fourth he was fighting his way back into the bout. I haven’t seen a fight-back quite like that since Juan Manuel Marquez recovered from three first-round knockdowns to battle Manny Pacquiao to a draw. 

But, come to think of it, Wood has never been in a bad fight. Everyone who saw him overcome adversity last weekend will surely want to see him again. But who is likely to be in the opposite corner? Let’s take a look at the featherweight division’s leading players, including some potential opponents for Wood.

Emanuel Navarrete 

Two-weight champion Navarrete has the relentless, high-volume, switch-hitting style that makes him very hard to beat. He’s the No. 1 featherweight in the world. Wood has shown he deserves to be ranked among the very best at 126 pounds, but he would be a clear underdog against Navarrete and, in any case, the fight might be difficult to make, with Navarrete one of the stars in the Top Rank stable and Wood in the Matchroom fold. 

Leo Santa Cruz

Santa Cruz is 33, the same age as Wood. He’s had 41 fights, though, and this includes some wars, plus a KO defeat at 130 pounds against Tank Davis, although he didn’t seem to have lost anything when cruising to a decision over Keenan Carbajal last month. Santa Cruz is an excellent fighter with a high punch-output and he’s the WBA’s “Super” champion — but Wood would be the puncher in the fight. It’s a fight Wood could win, but as Premier Boxing Champions promotes Santa Cruz it’s unlikely to happen: PBC tends to keep things in-house.

Mark Magsayo

Undefeated Filipino Magsayo pulled off an upset when he outfought Gary Russell Jr to win the WBC title. Magsayo has an exciting style and a bout between him and Wood would be a treat for the fans. But, alas, Magsayo is with PBC so the fight likely won’t be happening.

Winner out of Josh Warrington vs Kiko Martinez II

Now we’re talking. Whoever wins out of Warrington and Kiko would be a perfect opponent for Wood. The styles would gel. And all three boxers are promoted by Matchroom. Although Warrington is favoured to defeat Kiko it’s far from a sure thing that he’ll repeat his 2017 win over the revitalised Spanish veteran.

Michael Conlan 

When both men have recovered, who wouldn’t want to see them do it all over again? Conlan, though, might want to ease back into action with a fairly undemanding bout. No one could blame him for that.

Mauricio Lara

Lara would be a dangerous opponent for Wood. Goodness, he’s a dangerous opponent for anyone. Just ask Josh Warrington. But while Lara is tough and heavy-handed he’s not invulnerable — Emilio Sanchez had him looking a bit wobbly in their wild three-round shootout earlier this month.

Luis Alberto Lopez

Lopez is on a roll after losing to smart southpaw Ruben Villa three years ago. He’s an aggressive, slightly unorthodox and at times somewhat wild fighter, full of confidence, and he has that Mexican trademark left hook to the body. Lopez is known to British fans, too, after his KO win over Isaac Lowe.

Brandon Figueroa

Texas firebrand Figueroa has been boxing at 122 pounds but he’s ranked No. 2 featherweight contender in the latest WBA rankings. A switch-hitter with an all-out, pressure-fighter style, Figueroa’s “Heartbreaker” nickname has a double meaning: he’s a handsome devil but in the ring he breaks opponents’ hearts with his doesn’t-let-you-breathe style. Figueroa is with PBC but if the WBA makes him the mandatory challenger a Wood fight could happen under the purse-bids system. And what a fight it would be.

Anselmo Moreno

Former bantam champion Moreno is 36, so he’s getting up there in age, but he’s on a nice run of five wins in a row. Moreno is a tricky, southpaw veteran, a sneaky-hard puncher, and he’s No. 3 in the WBA rankings. Seeing as Moreno is Panamanian, and the WBA is based in Panama, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him elevated to mandatory-challenger status.

Joet Gonzalez

Gonzalez’ only two losses came against elite-level fighters, Emanuel Navarrete and Shakur Stevenson. He has a pleasing style with his educated pressure and excellent punch-variety to head and body. Gonzalez vs Wood would be an attractive match-up. Although Gonzalez is with Top Rank I don’t think his promoter would stand in the way of him getting a title opportunity against Wood.

Main image: Mark Robinson/Matchroom Boxing.