FROM SPORTS REPLAY (March 13, 1998): A photgraph caption in Thursday’s editions identifying Moe Smith as the promoter for tonights’ USA vs. Ireland amateur boxing exhibition was inaccurate. Smith is a local boxing coach and promoter. Toby Steward is the promoter of tonight’s match.
He went into the game expecting nothing.
For the longest time, he put in what he took out.
Today, at 31, Darnell Wilson is the oldest and finest amateur junior middleweight in the country.
Seventeen years ago, he was an 85-pound freshman at Martin Luther King High in Chicago, hoping to make it in football as a not-so-wide receiver.
A stretch of practices convinced him there had to be a more practical way to apply his athletic talent.
He turned to boxing.
The gym was a haven, a place to forget for awhile. He lived in a Chicago housing project, where he and a younger brother, Rodney, padded their fists with socks and pounded on each other, pretending they were Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard.
It took years to get serious.
“I got into boxing just to have somewhere to go,” Wilson said Wednesday before continuing workouts for Friday night’s dual match with Team Ireland in the Arena. “It kept me off the streets. I won, but there was no travel or anything.”
Just being part of a team was an advantage. Wilson cautions kids today who get into boxing with big dreams to “just do it and have fun.
“If you make it to a level like where I’m at, OK,” he says, “but if not, do it for the fun. I never thought I would get this far.”
Not after he climbed through the ropes for his first fight. The blood was running, the theme from Rocky was blaring and in the opposite corner that night was a veteran of some 80 amateur fights.
“I thought I was b-a-a-a-d,” Wilson said, humming the Rocky Theme. “I got murdered.”
He hasn’t forgotten the kid’s name. Keith Mosher. The lesson Mosher taught remains vivid.
Never underestimate experience.
It took months to get over that first-bout pounding, Wilson said.
“My friend would try to get me to spar with him. It took three months before I did. I was so scared that every time he moved I threw punches.”
After so-so progress, Wilson’s interest waned. He was showing up at fights 8 pounds over and cutting weight by ingesting Ex-Lax. He wasn’t overly dedicated in the gym.
He quit in ‘85. Played some basketball. A little football on the streets. He was busy at Mike Ditka’s Chicago restaurant, graduating from busboy to maintenance man, to setting up bakery food to bartender and security. He met his wife, Kathryn, there. He had a life.
“When I first saw Ditka walk in, he was scary,” Wilson said. “But he was nice. Totally different than you see him on television.”
When the restaurant closed, he moved to Lafayette, Ind., where he fell in with the Twin City Boxing Club where he now coaches as much as he trains.
In 1992, he fought his way to the semifinals of the Eastern Trials, where the light finally came on.
These are some of the best in the country, he reasoned. If I can run with these guys, I can run with the best.
So Wilson, a down-to-earth charmer with a self-effacing way of explaining how he came to prominence, turned himself into a serious athlete. He ran longer, trained harder, threw more punches. In Lafayette, at the urging of another boxer, he started attending First Assembly of God Church.
The pastor played basketball. He and Wilson struck up a friendship as Darnell started moving into the national picture.
He figures he’s won about 175 of his estimated 200 amateur bouts. His biggest - a box-off with David Reid for a berth on the ‘96 U.S. Olympics team - was a loss on points.
“I thought I did well enough to win,” he said, “but I wasn’t angry or mad about it. If it had happened before I started going to church, I might not have handled it the way I did.”
After all these years, Wilson shrugs off the gruelling nature of the sport.
“Look at hockey,” he said. “It’s not supposed to have fighting and there’s more fighting in that. Boxing is a chess game. It’s 5 percent physical and 95 percent mental. You can have fast hands, but if you don’t know what you’re doing it’s just not going to happen.”
The hectic schedule of the international athlete started at 7 a.m. with a 5-mile run in Colorado Springs before a quick shower and a dash to the airport.
Friday night’s fight here is an important preliminary heading into next week’s nationals, back at Colorado Springs. By the end of the month, Wilson will be in Thailand, hoping after that to be ranked among the top 10 in the world.
Friday night, you’ll see in Wilson a “boxer who can fight inside. I’m adaptable.”
“I usually don’t fight with a game plan,” he said. “After I get hit the first time, I’m ready. I start adjusting.”
The goal is to fight in the Olympics. After that, he’ll turn pro at an age when most in his craft are old men.
“I want to at least try it,” he said.
Wilson was having a salad at C.I. Shenanigan’s. He laughed off any omen about lunching in an Irish joint the week of the Team Ireland bout.
“My coach in Chicago was Tom O’Shea,” he said. “He’s Irish, and he’ll be here for the fight. I think he’s friends - like childhood buddies - with the coach of the Irish team.”
That ought to be enough to put some of the luck of the Irish in his corner.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 Photos
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: TICKETS Tickets for Friday’s U.S. vs. Ireland boxing card are $15, $25 and $50. They can be purchased at all G&B; outlets.