Leigh Wood knows, better than most, about the impact of a late-fight knockout in a world championship bout. On March 12, 2022, in Nottingham, England, Wood was making the first defense of his WBA featherweight title against two-time Olympian Michael Conlan.
The fight hit the 12th and Conlan was ahead on the cards, seemingly on the way to a life-altering victory. Then, with less than two minutes remaining and the two trading blows in dramatic fashion, Wood caught Conlan with a right hand. Conlan's arms dropped limply to his side and one more right sent him through the ropes and out of the ring. The fight was stopped and Wood had completed a dramatic rally to save his belt.
There was a cruel irony on Saturday, a little less than a year later. Wood was again defending his featherweight title and through six-plus rounds, he was putting on a masterclass against Mauricio Lara in Nottingham, England. Late in the seventh, Wood threw a left hook at Lara, just as Lara whipped a hook at him.
Lara's hook got there first and landed perfectly on the chin and with 20 seconds left in the round, Wood was down. He got up, but his equilibrium was off and he couldn't steady himself. First he moved backward, then walked toward Lara, waiting in the neutral corner as referee Michael Alexander counted. He stopped with his back toward his corner and lifted his arms in an instinctual attempt to show Alexander he was alright.
Alexander was looking closely at him, though he appeared to be prepared to allow Wood to continue. As this was occurring, Wood trainer Ben Davison climbed the steps behind Wood. Just as it appeared Alexander would allow the fight to continue, Davison climbed up one more step and threw the towel in to signify he wanted the bout to be stopped.
That caused both the crowd in Nottingham and social media to erupt, creating a controversy: Should Davison have stopped the bout without giving Wood a chance to try to make it to the end of the round and recover?
It's a challenge that faces every trainer in every fight: When is the right time to say enough is enough?
Though Davison has trained world champions such as Wood, lineal heavyweight champion Tyson Fury and one-time undisputed super lightweight champion Josh Taylor, he's only 30 and not the most experienced trainer. Freddie Roach, for instance, started training fighters under the legendary Eddie Futch in 1986, or six years before Davison was born.
There were only six seconds left in the bout when Alexander caught the towel thrown by Davison, ending the fight. But Lara had left the neutral corner and was only a foot or so behind Alexander. If the referee hadn't caught the towel, it would have hit Lara.
Since Alexander appeared to be prepared to allow the fight to continue, that creates an unknown. Had he called for the fight to resume, would he have done anything about Lara standing directly behind him? When a fighter scores a knockdown, he/she is by rule required to wait in a neutral corner until summoned by the referee and told to continue. The rule, though, is not always fully enforced.
Lara clearly knew time was running out in the seventh and wanted to get the job done without allowing Wood the benefit of the one-minute break. If Alexander hadn't ushered him back, Lara was close enough that he could have landed another significant shot to Wood's head. Had Alexander, though, pushed him back before allowing the fight to resume, the clock would have run out and Wood would have had the chance to recover.
The choice is a difficult one. By throwing the towel in, Davison was also in essence handing the title belt to Lara. Wood worked his entire life to put himself into championship position and no one wants to give it up easily. And Wood seemed in the immediate aftermath to be upset with Davison by saying, "I'm a fighter. I'm not going to say anything more." Wood later tweeted support for Davison's move:
Also I stand by my coaches decision I know he cares about me.
Boxers sometimes have to be saved by themselves, I have more big nights ahead.
It was painful at the time but with my kids today smile on my face knowing ill be back better than before like always 👊🏼❤️
— Leigh Wood (@itsLeighWood) February 19, 2023
If Davison had let the fight go and Lara didn't land another punch, it appears that Wood would have had a chance to recover and go on in an attempt to defend his belt.
Boxing fans are unforgiving in these situations. Richard Steele is a Hall of Fame referee and one of the greatest referees who ever stepped into a ring. Steele, though, still is jeered by fans 33 years after he stopped a bout between Meldrick Taylor and the then-unbeaten Julio Cesar Chavez Sr. with two seconds left. Steele knew that Taylor couldn't take one more blow and that if he did, the possibility of a significant injury greatly increased. He knew the fight was nearing the end, but still knew he needed to protect the fighter, who clearly wanted to go on.
The thing is, they all want to go on. They're fighters because they're the toughest among us. They put themselves through hell to get ready for fights and walk through punches with no expression change that would cause the rest of us to run for cover.
It's in those few seconds, when one more punch can make the difference not between winning and losing but between life and death, when a trainer or a referee earns his money. The trainer always — always — has to have his fighter's best interests at heart and his No. 1 job is to protect his fighter from a disastrous outcome.
Hall of Famer Carl Froch, who was initially critical of the stoppage, changed his mind a day later.
"My initial response to the towel coming in was that it was too early," Froch said in a video he released on Instagram. "There were like six seconds left in that round. If [Davison] didn't throw the towel in, [Wood] would have survived the six seconds and had a minute rest and then the fight could have gone on. But after speaking to Leigh Wood [Sunday], earlier [Sunday], he said, 'Look, I was gone. My legs were gone.' Ben Davison knows Leigh Wood better than any of us. He was in training camp with him. It was a compassionate move by him. I initially thought it was hasty, but looking back on it, listening to Leigh, it was the right thing to do."
Davison took a lot of heat, and there may be fighters who don't want to work with him as a direct result of this stoppage.
But if that's the case, it's their loss.
Davison has been considered an elite trainer for several years, but he erased all doubt on Saturday when he moved decisively to protect his fighter when he knew he'd be in for perhaps years of heat and criticism.
He did the right thing, though, despite knowing there would be torrent of critics who would call for his scalp as a result.
That's the kind of trainer any parent would want training his/her child.