Eight years ago, Zou Shiming turned pro and immediately began stoking visions of a Chinese crossover star who could pack arenas and casinos in Macau while earning respect, attention and profits — never forget the profits — by handling his business on boxing’s competitive world stage.
Zou was sent to work at Freddie Roach’s Wild Card Gym, was tossed an exorbitant $300,000 sum for his debut fight and quickly landed a high-profile slot on the undercard of a Manny Pacquiao show — a challenge for a flyweight title, which Zou won, in just his fifth fight. Despite all those gifts, the greatest three- and four-round fighter in Chinese history simply wasn’t built for the pro game. The pocket-sized, pillow-fisted Zou was already 31 by the time he turned pro, so perhaps we shouldn’t have expected more than a single successful title defense and a 9-2 record against expertly curated opposition before his career wound down. But sure enough, in 2017, after Zou suffered multiple orbital fractures and a loss of vision in his left eye in a stoppage at the hands of ho-hum Sho Kimura, that was it.
Is it fair that my thoughts immediately turned to Zou after Can Xu, his countryman, fell a little too easily to unheralded Englishman Leigh Wood in a 12th-round stoppage Saturday in Brentwood, England? Maybe not. Hell, it might even make me vaguely #MAGA. (Yeesh.) Enough obvious parallels exist, however, that I don’t think I’ll have to start stumping against voting rights just yet.
Can (18-2, 3 KOs) is another light-hitting former amateur standout who, along with Zou, went on to become one of only three Chinese men to ever hold a professional world title. But there the similarities end. There was no grand plan to turn Can, 27, into an international cash cow, and his path to contender status was hard-earned (two losses in his first five fights) and satisfyingly legitimate. Coming off three respectable wins in 2019 — including a decision over titleholder Jesus Rojas — Can had been lined up to fight Josh Warrington (before Warrington’s loss to Mauricio Lara) and, before Saturday, was ranked as high as #2 in some featherweight rankings.
All of which made Can’s performance against Wood, whose previous best showing was last year’s loss in a majority decision against Jazza Dickens, seem inexplicable. Can’s m.o. is unrelenting, balls-to-the-wall activity. Against Rojas, Can uncorked 1,245 punches. Most recently, he threw 1,562 shots at Manny Robles — the sixth-most punches ever recorded by CompuBox. No matter the outcome against Wood, a guarded, Barney Fife-ian approach from Can would have been the least predictable.
But there it was. Whether it was ring rust — Can’s previous fight, against Robles, came in November 2019 — or a concerted decision to become more methodical, Can all but closed up shop from the opening round. Wood began by fighting up on his toes, poking cautious shots and clinching at every opportunity – until he realized he had nothing to fear from Can. By the 2nd round, Wood was loading up on his uppercut, winging body shots and throwing his weight behind his overhand right, landing through Can’s high guard to toss his head back like a tether ball.
Can showed more activity in the 3rd, leading with his jab and throwing more combinations to force Wood to move around the ring. Still, something was off. Wood would stab a left hand into Can’s body, change levels and pace, switch up stances from orthodox to southpaw. Cause and effect in the ring are damn near impossible to determine for an outside observer, but Can never felt comfortable letting his hands go — and when he did take aim with a big right hand, he’d miss by a Beijing mile.
By the second half of the fight, Wood had not only gained full control of the action — he was toying with Can. He would stiff-arm his left glove to Can’s head and self-blinding high guard to fire heavy right hands to the ribs. He’d wind up with bolo punches and time uppercuts to land at a time of his own designation. By the second half of the fight, Wood was fighting flat-footed and hands down, picking his punches with roughly the level of angst and concern of Bob Ross brushing out a mountain landscape.
The irony is that it’s something of a tradition around TQBR headquarters to make sport of U.K. fighters and their fans, who frequently prove themselves to be — and here I’ll use a term the demographic can easily understand — absolutely mental. But Wood was undeniably brilliant, controlling distance and routinely upsetting Can’s rhythm, often beating the Chinese fighter at his own game; according to CompuBox guru Dan Cannobio, Wood averaged 90 punches over the fight’s final four rounds.
Yet he saved the best for last. Despite having clearly outboxed and outlanded Can over the course of the fight (I had it 106-103 for Wood through 11 rounds), Wood didn’t hesitate to finish when he got his chance. Can, sensing the need for a knockout, pulled out the stops in the 12th. He even landed a few clean shots that, had they come rounds earlier, might have helped him write another story. But when he got sloppy throwing an arcing right hand, he walked into a Wood right cross that put him down. Can rose quickly enough, but he was exhausted and disoriented, and Wood — god bless him — wouldn’t settle for scorecards. The Englishman swarmed Can, again buried behind that high guard, until referee Marcus McDonnell called him off at 2:43, awarding Wood the stoppage and (for whatever it’s worth) the belt.
There’s now a Wood-Warrington matchup that Eddie Hearn probably can’t wait to line up, although Kid Galahad and Lara may also be in the mix for Wood. As for Can, he may need a get-well bout to prove this performance was a fluke and to get his mind right for another climb up the featherweight ladder. Having proved vulnerable, Can may suddenly become more attractive to Gary Russell and Emanuel Navarette. But no one is holding their breath waiting for those fighters to cut through their promotional ties to turn the 126-pound division into a winner-takes-all Thunderdome.
Jesus, that sounds like fun. But you know the drill, friendo: Around these parts, fun simply won’t do.
(Photo: Leigh Wood celebrates his win; Ian Walton, Matchroom)