Darnell Wilson is one of my favorite fighters active today. How could he not be? He's funny, well-spoken, self-effacing, and confident. Plus he lives about 30 minutes away from me in suburban Maryland. And, oh yeah, he has some of the most concussive power available right now in the sport of boxing. When he was announced as a participant on this season of the Contender, he was easily the most accomplished fighter on the show.
Yet many people predicted an early exit for "The Ding-a-Ling Man". And, unfortunately, I found it hard to argue with them. Wilson has huge power. But his boxing ability is suspect at best. And the format of the show, in which the early bouts are only five rounds, seriously cuts to Wilson's disadvantage. It's much easier to avoid that one big shot for five rounds than ten.
That wasn't all Wilson had to deal with. Wilson was struggling with his weight throughout the show, leaving the already rather slow fighter even more drained. And the fighter who called him out was Ehinomen "Hino" Ehikhamenor -- not the most feared fighter on the show, but certainly someone with a tested chin: in his last fight prior to the contender, he went 12 rounds with former titleholder Herbie Hide, becoming only the second person in Hide's (to that point) 42 wins to make it to the final bell. Not the fighter Wilson wanted to see.
Sure enough, Wilson was clearly out-boxed for five rounds, losing a lop-sided decision to the now 13-3 (7 KO) Ehikhamenor. Wilson dropped to 23-8-3 (20 KOs).
And now, Wilson has a problem. The template for beating Darnell has been well-established by now. After four straight losses to elite competition, Wilson bounced back into the title hunt (and into The Ring Magazine's top 10) with four straight KOs over Daniel Judah, Dale Brown, Kelvin Davis, and Emmanuel Nwodo (the last of which was rated ESPN's KO of the decade). That set him up for a title eliminator against undefeated BJ Flores. I watched that fight, and while I believe Wilson narrowly won, it was in a fashion akin to Valuev/Holyfield where neither man looked good. The only reason that Wilson won on my card (the judges handed the decision to Flores) was because his opponent didn't throw any punches. But what he did do -- quite effectively -- was make Wilson miss. A lot. And make Wilson lose his balance. A lot. Wilson's main (really only) offensive weapon is his wide, looping hooks. A boxer smart enough not to try and brawl with Wilson can easily avoid them, and pick Wilson apart in the meantime. That's apparently what happened in Wilson's next fight: a title shot against Firat Aslan. Wilson swung wildly, Aslan hung back, and cruised to the decision victory.
After his loss on the Contender, Wilson seemed determined to go back to the drawing board and make another run. He noted he had at one point been on a four fight losing strike, and managed to crawl back to a title shot "the old fashioned way" (by which I assume he meant, taking the head off of everyone who got in his way). But he seemed to think that the main problem in this fight was that he came in "unprepared", by which I assume he was referring to his weight problems.
Let's cast aside Hino's performance, which from what I could tell seemed quite good (this clearly was the biggest win of his career). Wilson's problems do not end with his weight. He needs to dramatically improve at least four facets of his game if he is to be competitive with anyone who won't slug with him.
First, his jab. This is a key for all fighters, and Wilson doesn't really pay enough attention to it. When the other guy isn't willing to stick his neck out and ask to be clubbed, you can't get a KO without a jab to set it up. See how Edison Miranda knocked out David Banks for a demonstration.
Second, ring generalship. No matter what we do to round out the edges, Wilson is never going to be a boxer's boxer in the ring. He'll always be better off in a brawl. Fine. But ring generalship is how you get an opponent to fight your fight. Wilson needs to learn how to box in his man, get him trapped in a corner or on the ropes, so he can unload. Right now, he just sort of follows people around, and fighters (like Flores or Hino) who aren't afraid to put on the track shoes can just pot shot him to death.
Third, develop an uppercut. This is short-hand for "diversify your offensive arsenal", but at least in this last fight an effective uppercut would have done wonders. How do you avoid a sweeping hook? You weave it. What happens when you weave? You duck down and lean forward. Where does this put your chin? Sticking way out, begging for an uppercut. Wilson knows this is going to be the reaction of the smart opponent to his money punch. So why not make him pay for it?
Fourth, work on your balance. Darnell Wilson has an excellent chin. Yet, in two of the fights I've seen him in (this last one, and his KO victory over Kelvin Davis), he's been on the canvas. It's not because he's been seriously hurt. It's because those sweeping hooks leave him badly off balance and vulnerable to counters. Not only does this put Wilson in a hole (bad for any fighter), but it makes him even less likely to try and settle in and box, and more prone to look for one shot KOs. Also, the lack of balance makes it harder for Wilson to put together combinations -- problematic when your opponent has learned to avoid option A (the sweeping hook).
Can he do all of this? I don't know. Wilson's been fighting for a long time. I don't think the Contender trainer is a good fit for him (though Wilson himself had very nice words). He needs someone who will sit him down and rebuild him as a fighter, and I don't know if that can be done to a fighter like Wilson at this stage in his career.
Wilson will always have a place on TV sets simply because he carries with him the potential for brutal, devastating knockouts. But against a fighter who can box and move? I'm not sure he has an answer. And that's a shame. Because as I said, I really like The Ding-a-Ling man, and I'd like nothing more than to see him make another run at the top.