Before Saturday night’s fight between Leigh Wood and Michael Conlan, trainer Ben Davison described Wood as “one of the best human beings (he’d) ever met.” Watching how Wood comported himself during a nuanced, emotional situation at the end of the fight, one can understand how he arrived at that conclusion.

Wood scored one of the most breathtaking, dramatic comeback knockout wins in recent memory, stopping Conlan in the waning minutes of a savage fight that was nonetheless out of reach for him on the scorecards. Heading into the 12th round, Wood was in need of a knockout and acted accordingly, desperately chasing Conlan around the ring with the energy he somehow had in reserve. With Conlan bobbing and weaving along the ropes, which he’d done to great success most of the fight, Wood caught Conland on the temple with a right hand. Wood’s hands kept moving, but Conlan was unconscious, slumped over, arms limp. Unfortunately, Conlan’s momentum and the continuing barrage sent him out of the ring, through the bottom rope, headfirst to the floor.

Davison and Wood frantically embraced, on top of one another on the ring canvas, reacting with the kind of untethered emotion that comes out when something utterly unbelievable takes place. But as Wood got to his feet to greet other team members, he sensed something was wrong outside the ring. Conlan hadn’t yet moved, and was being tended to by team members and ringside physicians. Almost instantly, Wood took charge of the situation. He walked over to the ropes where he would be in view for the most fans possible and gestured with his gloves for fans to be quiet.

In doing so, he set the tone for the respectful, cautious approach everyone else involved ultimately took as well. The DAZN broadcast did not show a replay of the knockout, ostensibly out of respect and caution. In formally announcing the decision, ring announcer David Diamante took a somber tone and prefaced his spiel with an acknowledgement that “our thoughts are with (Michael) Conlan and his family.” The broadcasters themselves, former champions Tony Bellew and Carl Froch, were visibly distraught, heads hanging and microphones dangling as if the last thing they wanted to do was discuss the minutiae of a fight that potentially had a tragic ending. 

In his post-fight interview on the broadcast, Wood offered only praise of Conlan’s ability and toughness, never discussing any of his own successes in the fight, before effectively opting out of the questioning by saying he needed to first know that Conlan was okay.

To be clear, this level of self-control and empathy in this kind of moment is one of many unreasonable requests boxing has for its participants. 

Before fighters even step into the ring, they are encouraged to insult one another, or, at least, commended for their marketing efforts when they do so. Fighters often spend weeks and months demeaning one another for some combination of psychological advantage and bonus publicity. During their final staredown following the weigh-in, Conlan repeatedly shouted “death warmed up,” while Wood called him a “skinny little rat.”

When the verbal tirades are over, fighters then of course have to fight. Matches like Wood-Conlan - brutal, violent, dramatic battles with multiple knockdowns - are the carrot promoters dangle in front of fans. Fans demand “TV friendly fighters,” ones who behave like Wood and Conlan did. Fighters in turn promise that they will “put on a show” and will often go out of their way to suggest that entertainment is paramount over everything else. Networks promise “potential fights of the year” and “can’t miss action,” all of which is shorthand for tune in because you might see a fight like Wood-Conlan. 

Fighters are expected to dislike one another and act like it before a fight, because if they’re too obvious in their attempts, they risk being labeled disingenuous or fame-hungry. Then they step into the ring with an opponent they ostensibly hate, in a sport where the ideal outcome for a participant is to render the other incapacitated for at least ten seconds. Knockouts, fighters are told, are the ultimate currency, the key that unlocks popularity in the sport. The consolation prize is to be “exciting,” in the ring, to put yourself at risk often enough each fight to absorb big blows. They’ll tell you that losing doesn’t matter, that fans will want you back as long as you were entertaining. 

All of this is broadly accepted wisdom from the boxing marketing machine. But what does that actually ask of fighters? It demands the willingness to insult and be insulted, to go in with the intention of knocking someone unconscious (the worst result of the best, hardest punch, is of course fatal), but then following the fight insist that it all was nothing personal, and both display empathy and praise for your opponents. 

On Saturday, Leigh Wood must have experienced a range of emotions most of us could never fathom. Fighting in an arena where he once bought tickets to see Carl Froch, against an opponent he was verbally jousting for weeks, getting up off the canvas in the first round and ignoring any self-doubt, enduring heaps of punishment for 11 rounds, then knocking someone out so brutally that people, him included, instantly feared for his life. 

Conlan, after thankfully being given a clean bill of health, was lighthearted and complimentary. He praised Wood, joked a little bit on Twitter, and the two posed for a photo with their arms around one another the morning after putting one another through hell, two days after promising even worse. 

Wood-Conlan perfectly encapsulated everything we love about boxing and everything we fear. Too often we forget how thin the line that divides our joys and our nightmares in this sport actually is. The solemn response to Conlan being knocked out was appropriate. But had he merely been prone on the canvas and not sent to the concrete floor, it would potentially have been replayed on loop, shared and celebrated instantly and subsequently. The intention from Wood would have been the same—hit him as hard as you can. The result ranges from momentary lack of consciousness and brain damage to something worse.

Fights like Wood-Conlan are what we clamor for and what the sport’s vendors promise us what might be inside the wrapper every Saturday. Somehow, the person most conflicted, Wood himself, helped us all find empathy and understand just what it is we ask for when we turn on the fights. 

We don’t deserve that fight. We don’t deserve those fighters.

Corey Erdman is a boxing writer and commentator based in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Follow him on Twitter @corey_erdman.