Streaming services, subscription sports channels, and YouTube offering any and all fights on-demand provide boxing fans with no shortage of visual treats. This may seem like a silly question with all these options, but I will ask it anyway – when was the last time you listened to a fight on the radio? It had been a while for me, but this past Saturday, circumstances conspired, and the BBC Radio 5 Live broadcast was how I took in the Leigh Wood-Michael Conlan featherweight title fight.
The matchup had me intrigued. WBA ‘regular' 126lb champion Leigh Wood (25-2, heading into the fight) of Nottingham, England, making the first defence of his belt against Irishman Michael Conlan (16-0, 8KOs). The fight would unfold in front of a sold-out crowd at the Motorpoint Arena in Wood's home city.
Coming into the fight, Wood was regarded as the bigger puncher, while Conlan, with plenty references towards his impressive amateur career, was seen as the superior boxer. It would be Conlan's first attempt at a professional world title since turning over in 2017. A classic boxer vs. puncher clash was on the cards. Wood's home advantage was diluted somewhat by a massive Irish presence in the arena to support Conlan. A hard to predict fight in a red-hot atmosphere – what could be better?
Saturday was a bit of a struggle for me. Feeling under the weather since the early hours of the morning, all I was fit for by 10 pm local time was taking to my bed and switching on the radio. I hoped I would be able to stay awake to take in the details of the broadcast.
This is where the BBC Radio commentary team deserves major praise. Blow-by-blow man Ronald McIntosh was joined by experienced journalist/broadcaster Steve Bunce and recently turned professional Skye Nicolson. The trio grabbed my attention instantly with their informative fight build-up mixed with some friendly banter. Information on both boxers was provided, while Nicolson could not give an opinion for a minute or two as Bunce informed the listeners she was indulging in a quick pre-fight snack.
I was getting drawn in – the noise in the arena was building as the crowd anticipated both fighters making their ring-walks. My fever was jumping from hot to cold as the shivers and sweats competed for domination of my body temperature. Like the fans in the arena, though, I was fully focused on the battle that was about to commence.
The broadcast-quality was crystal clear as a couple of Irish folk tunes gave way to The Jimi Hendrix Experience blasting out their version of All Along The Watchtower as the challenger made his way to the ring. It was the only moment of the evening I wanted the commentators to keep quiet so that I could hear Jimi's soaring solos better.
From signature Hendrix guitar work to some fine bagpipe playing. Mull of Kintyre by Paul McCartney and Wings signaled the champion's ring walk. McCartney soon gave way to Labi Siffre as Something Inside So Strong played out to complete Wood's entrance.
I felt a connection with previous eras – years gone by where perhaps the only option for boxing fans would have been to listen to the fights on the radio. Master of ceremonies David Diamante was on duty to introduce the fighters, and his presence further enhanced the old-fashioned feeling of the evening for me. Diamante is well known for repeating the second name of each fighter during introductions, something he does as a mark of respect to the ring announcers of long ago. Apparently, it was a common custom in the 1930s and 40s to make sure the fans in the arenas and those listening on radio knew who both fighters were. This aspect of Diamante's delivery certainly enhanced things for me on Saturday. It made me briefly think about radio audiences of past generations enjoying their favourite fighters via the wireless medium.
My mind was quickly brought back to the here and now as the opening round was underway. McIntosh began his fast-paced commentary. As it turned out, he would be required to maintain this style of delivery for the duration of the bout. The end of the opening session brought a major moment as Conlan scored a knockdown in the final second of the round. “A thunderbolt of a left hook out of the southpaw stance from Michael Conlan has deposited Leigh Wood flat on his back,” McIntosh described the challenger's early breakthrough. Wood was able to beat the count, but he was on unsteady legs. “If we'd had another twenty seconds, this fight might have been over,” Bunce informed the audience during his round summary while Nicolson backed this up, simply saying “saved by the bell.”
The action resumed, and the commentary described Wood having to survive early in the second round and a cut appearing near Conlan's left eye after a head clash. McIntosh described his proximity to the ring, “the action is in the red corner, I could reach up and touch the boxers,” as another three-minute session where it seemed like he didn't have a chance to take a breath came to an end.
As the early stages continued, Wood was doing all he could to remain in the contest. The broadcast gave the impression that southpaw Conlan was boxing so well and landing power shots he would be taking command on the scorecards, although at this point, it seemed like Conlan by stoppage was a real possibility. “There's absolutely no question about the grit and toughness of Leigh Wood, but the amateur pedigree is just shining through in Michael Conlan,” Nicolson opined at the conclusion of round three.
Wood's supporters were chanting to encourage their man as round four unfolded. It sounded as if Wood was clawing his way back slightly, but Conlan was catching the eye – mixing up his tactics between luring Wood towards the ropes and taking control in the center of the ring. The radio microphones were in Wood's corner before the fifth round began, and we heard trainer Ben Davison instructing his fighter to hit Conlan with anything during the moments the Irishman was backing up against the ropes.
At a number of times during the bout, McIntosh described Conlan as landing a looping left hook, and this was how round five began. Again, Wood was tough enough to withstand the attack, and he began to land some body shots on Conlan in retaliation. “Trench warfare at center ring” was how McIntosh explained the majority of the fifth session. I wondered if we were being treated to an early contender for fight of the year.
Conlan began round six on the attack – the volume rising in the arena and at ringside as the commentators perhaps sensed another knockdown coming. It didn't happen, but Conlan's body shots and counter-punches were being mentioned often enough to indicate it would be another round in favour of the challenger. “Conlan is getting the better of it, but Wood is still there. He's getting his legs lifted by the body shots; he's having his head spun round by the headshots, he's bleeding from his nose and his mouth, and yet he's still coming forward,” Bunce remarked. He then checked with Nicolson as to whether or not the champion could work his way back into the contest. “I honestly didn't think Wood was getting past round three, but he's still in the fight, and anything can happen in boxing,” was the reply. The drama was building.
A big right hook from Wood was roared by the home fans at the beginning of round seven; Wood turned southpaw in the eighth and had success landing body shots as Conlan tried to take a break on the ropes. “All of a sudden, Leigh Wood looks an entirely different boxer, more dynamic, more focused as he edges forward out of that southpaw stance,” McIntosh informed us. Combinations were landing from Wood, and it sounded like the fight would be up for grabs in the final four rounds. There was no chance of me drifting off to sleep now.
“This is ebbing and flowing and fluctuating,” said Bunce before asking Nicolson again if she thought Wood could fully turn the fight around. “Leigh Wood is convincing me that he could turn this around,” answered the Australian professional.
The next nine minutes flew by with the commentary crew describing everything from the ring positioning of both fighters to the different approaches employed by them. Conlan's boxing skills were lauded while Wood's aggression and never say die attitude drew admiring remarks from the ringside team. Conlan continued to enjoy success with the looping left hand in the ninth, while the Irishman's footwork and counter-punching was complimented in the tenth. Wood was fighting furiously to retain his title and was having small moments of success. “Leigh Wood could turn this around,” emphasised Nicolson as the bell rang to start round eleven. McIntosh reminded the listeners that Wood had a recent history of scoring late knockouts during an eleventh round that the champion got the better of. He got the better of it to the tune of 10-8 as he scored a knockdown towards the end of the session—one knockdown each heading into round twelve.
The stage was set for the final three minutes. It had been a pulsating contest and a breathless broadcast. I was totally immersed. Based on the commentators' observations, I imagined Conlan to be handily up; Wood would require a knockout. “We are in for 180 crazy seconds here,” Bunce said just before the twelfth commenced.
The frantic action of the final round was captured perfectly by the broadcasters as the roar of the crowd grew louder and louder around them. “Cacophonous atmosphere here at the Motorpoint Arena. Leigh Woods turns southpaw, both men trading,” roared McIntosh into his microphone. The finish was only seconds away.
The noise of the crowd rose to new decibels. Simultaneously McIntosh announced, “Leigh Wood comes back, backing up Michael Conlan to the ropes on the far side of the ring, and a knockout right hand from Leigh Wood has sent Michael Conlan clean out of the ring, and this contest is over.” The blow-by-blow man had to yell to be heard over the long roar of Wood's fans. It was yet another late knockout for Leigh Wood. He had retained his portion of the 126lb world title.
Very quickly, attention turned to the wellbeing of Michael Conlan. McIntosh informed the radio audience that Wood was pleading with the fans to hold back their celebrations while the ringside medical staff attended Conlan. It was a truly sporting moment instantly recognised on the broadcast and by the fans in attendance.
Thankfully Conlan was alright after the knockout and his fall from the ring. Before going off the air, Steve Bunce was able to inform the listeners that he received a thumbs-up gesture from members of Conlan's team after he had been looked over in the dressing room by the medics. Conlan was taken to a local hospital and discharged several hours later after receiving a clean bill of health following a CT scan.
It was a sombre and serious way for what had been a loud, exciting, and breath-taking transmission to end. The on-air crew professionally handled it and added yet another layer of excellence to their night's work. I'm not sure if such a thing as ‘Sports Broadcast of the Year' exists but if it does, this one should be in the running to win.
Fight of the Year certainly does exist, and although I have yet to cast my eyes over Wood vs. Conlan, it certainly sounded like an early contender for 2022's award. Despite the fever, I loved my step back to a bygone age on Saturday night. While visual technology offers us endless replays from every angle imaginable on ultra-high-definition screens the same size as the side of a house, I learned on Saturday night that a great fight covered by skilled broadcasters can be enjoyed just as much on a humble old radio.
Saturday's broadcast of Wood vs. Conlan is available to listen to via the BBC Sounds app.