One Step Forwards, Two Steps Backwards: How Boxing Shot Itself In The Foot On Saturday Night
I expressed to a friend after the events of Saturday night that nothing else could replicate this feeling. When this sport gets it right, it’s truly unparalleled. The recent boxing weekend was simply amazing, with Leigh Wood dominating Mauricio Lara, Chris Billam-Smith snatching the world title from Lawrence Okolie in a rugged performance, and the intense five-round battle between Luis Alberto Lopez and Michael Conlan.
There’s a certain inexplicable numbness that arises from the monumental moments in this sport. Examples like the Fury Wilder trilogy, Joshua Klitschko, and Wood Conlan come to mind.
Last night, after witnessing the world title action on British shores, I experienced that same feeling. The SSE Arena in Belfast set the stage for what would be a thrilling fight. The atmosphere was electric, with the sold-out crowd passionately singing Grace during Conlan’s ring walk. While many believed Conlan needed to stay on the defensive against the Mexican road warrior, he defied expectations and engaged in a phone booth-style fight with ‘Vernado.’ Although it may not have been the best strategy for Conlan, it made for an exhilarating spectacle for neutral viewers.
During the intense exchanges of the first round, I voiced my concerns for Conlan. It was clear that he couldn’t expect to survive while trading blows with Lopez in close quarters. Despite winning the first two rounds decisively, Conlan was eventually hurt in the third and couldn’t recover. He suffered a brutal knockout from a right uppercut in the fifth round. It was an incredible firefight between two featherweight warriors. Lopez will now set his sights on a highly anticipated unification contest with Robeisy Ramirez, a clash of styles that will determine the number one featherweight in the world.
In the featherweight division, Leigh Wood delivered a rather uneventful yet undeniably impressive performance. He thoroughly schooled Mauricio Lara and reclaimed his WBA title. Wood won nearly every round and even dropped Lara, who had brutally defeated him just 14 weeks prior.
However, this fight will always be marred by the absurdity of the weigh-in procedure. The British Boxing Board of Control deemed Lara unsafe to make the 126lbs limit after he missed the 3% check weight on Wednesday of fight week. In isolation, this precaution might not have been a bad thing, as it ensured the fighters’ safety in making weight. But what followed was simply ludicrous: a minimum weight requirement of 128.5 lbs with no apparent upper limit, while Wood successfully weighed in at 126 lbs to remain eligible for the vacant title.
As a result, Wood entered the fight day 4lbs lighter, while Lara came in at 129.8lbs. All this was justified in the name of “fighter safety,” but it was a dangerous and unfair situation. Although Wood’s masterclass performance stands out, the fight should not have proceeded under these circumstances. Weight and hydration should never be toyed with when two explosive punchers are involved, especially while hiding behind the guise of fighter safety. If the relevant authorities truly cared, they would have cancelled the fight.
Wood’s next move will likely be headlining at Nottingham Forest’s City Ground, possibly against Josh Warrington. It’s perplexing why this fight is even being discussed, considering Warrington’s lacklustre record since 2019 and his recent loss, and the fact that Wood has a mandatory challenger in Otabek Kholmatov. Even in a sport full of cash grabs, this particular scenario seems outrageously unfair.
In Bournemouth, Billam-Smith defied expectations and tore up the script in his fight against his former gym mate Okolie. In his dream homecoming, the Bournemouth man knocked down the former WBO champion three times and secured a majority decision victory to claim the world cruiserweight title.
It was an enthralling but visually challenging bout, as both fighters unleashed heavy punches throughout. Okolie finally faced proper penalties for his persistent holding, which had been a recurring issue throughout his career. Referee Marcus McDonnell deducted points from Okolie in the 5th and 7th rounds. Combined with the three knockdowns, it became nearly impossible for Okolie to win the fight on the scorecards, despite winning several rounds.
As the new champion, Billam-Smith’s first task will likely be a rematch against Okolie, as the contract for this title bout included a dreaded rematch clause. However, in this case, I don’t mind seeing the fight again; it deserves a rematch. It was a captivating spectacle, and even though it’s not a fight I would rush to rewatch, it was impossible to take your eyes off it when watching it live.
This leads me to my main point: British boxing needs to improve its scheduling. Promoters going head-to-head to prove a point does more harm than good for the sport and the fighters. Why were three world title fights scheduled for the same night? In May alone, there were two TV shows under the BBBoC’s supervision before Saturday night. One took place on the 12th (Zorro vs. Burton), and the other on the 6th (Buatsi vs. Stepien).
So, with three free Saturdays (or two, if you count the Taylor vs. Cameron fight in Ireland), why were all these events scheduled for the same date? It might seem like the UK boxing schedule is packed, but two out of the next three Saturdays are actually free from televised boxing in the UK.
Considering that there have been five male world title fights in the UK within the first four months and 26 days of this year, with two of them taking place on the same card (Beterbiev vs. Yarde and Dalakian vs. Jiminez), why did we increase the number by 60% on the same night?
This is simply disrespectful to the most important people in the sport: the fighters. How many articles have you seen about Leigh Wood’s dominant display or Conlan and Lopez’s thrilling five-round war? The UK doesn’t have an abundance of title bouts every week. We are not America; we simply cannot repeat what happened on Saturday.
The UK currently has six world champions, one of whom will be fighting in New York next month (Josh Taylor), and another who is expected to fight in Saudi Arabia soon (Tyson Fury). The talent pool is not extensive enough to accommodate three world title fights in different cities, on different channels, all on the same night.
Another aspect that hasn’t received much attention from the media is how this affects the sport’s ability to attract more fans. How can we expect to grow the fanbase on nights like Saturday? Four men claiming to fight for the Featherweight Championship of the World in two different cities, on two different broadcasters, simultaneously—it’s bewildering for casual fans. Boxing can already be confusing at the best of times; we need to do better.
It’s unfortunate to be negative about this weekend, as all three title fights in the country were remarkable in their own ways. Whether it was an incredible underdog story, redemption after a devastating loss, or a war with the road warrior emerging victorious, each fight had its merits. Unfortunately, it seems that in the world of boxing, we can never have a flawless week—something always has to go wrong.