VIRGIL HILL: THERE’S NO PLACE LIKE HOME

Some fighters turn professional and have high expectations instantly placed upon them. Others turn pro with little or no fanfare and still go on to carve out an outstanding career. Then there’s this other group: a small group of fighters that everyone knows has talent but no one is quite sure of how far they will go or what they will achieve. When Virgil Hill made his debut, he found himself in that last group. Surrounded by a girth of stars in his fellow Olympians, he could have easily become lost in the mix. Instead, he got his head down and carved out a career that took him all the way to Canastota. In the end, everyone knew who he was.

Born January 18 1964 in Clinton, Missouri, Hill started boxing aged 8 when his family moved to Grand Forks, North Dakota, after having watched the Golden Gloves on television. He went on to win that same competition in 1984, plus the North American championship, earning himself a call up to the USA boxing training facility. His ring education continued here and was rewarded with a spot on the most successful Olympic team to date. Not much was expected from the quiet and unassuming Hill, the representative at middleweight, but he surprised many by boxing his way to the final, losing a debatable 3-2 decision to Korea’s Shin Joon-Sup, finishing his vested career with a record of 288-11. The team eventually won nine gold medals and one bronze to sit alongside Hill’s silver. Impressive stuff indeed.

He made his professional debut on 15 November 1984 at Madison Square Garden, on a card billed as “Night of the Olympians”. Several gold medalists made their debuts on live televised fights, but Hill’s fight wasn’t, instead being placed further down on the card. Nevertheless, he made a winning start, stopping one Arthur Wright in two rounds.

Most of the Olympians who signed with promotional outfit Main Events also employed the services of their trainers, Lou Duva and George Benton, but Hill opted to acquire the teaching and knowledge of one of history’s greatest, the legendary Eddie Futch. Standing just over 6 feet and with a 77 inch reach, Hill was nicely built for the light-heavyweight division, and his jab and movement enabled him to glide around the ring, earning the ring moniker of “Quicksilver”. The work would come in developing the converted southpaw’s right hand, something he would continue to do throughout his career.

The wins kept coming as Hill slowly worked his way up the rankings, with familiar names David Vedder, Mike Sedillo and Eric Winbush all being outpointed. On 11 December 1986, he picked up his first title, the WBC Continental Americas championship, with a twelve round points win over Clarence Osby, than rattled off another four wins to set up a world title shot against WBA champion Leslie Stewart. It was during this time that he also changed trainers, hooking up with future Hall of Famer Freddie Roach. Roach was an up and coming trainer and assistant to Futch, however, during one particular sparring session, he had noticed that Hill had no one in his corner to freshen him up whilst his opponent did. Roach stepped up and offered Hill some advice, then gradually took over the day to day nurturing of the him. It was the start of a friendship that lasts to this day. For both men, the shot at Stewart offered them the chance to win their first world championship.

World Champion

Trinidad’s Stewart was making the first defence of the title he had won from ageing warhorse Marvin Johnson, avenging his only defeat for the same belt previously when he was stopped on cuts. At 24-1, with 17 KO’s, he would provide Hill with a right of passage. On 5 September 1987, at the Trump Plaza, Las Vegas, Hill rose superbly to the occasion, becoming the latest member of the Class of ’84 to capture world honours. He controlled the opening three rounds, his lead hand working as both a jab and hook, gliding around the perimeter of the ring as Stewart struggled to assert himself. He managed a strong right to start the fourth, the punch prompting Hill to plant his feet and exchange blows, regaining the momentum once again. Then, as the clock ticked down to end the round, Hill caught the incoming Stewart with a long left, sending him face first down to the canvas. Stewart dragged himself up but it wasn’t long before a combination punctuated by another left sent him down again. Badly hurt, he bravely tried to stand but his legs betrayed him, falling on to his hands and knees. The referee sensibly waved it off. Hill was the new WBA light-heavyweight champion of the world.

He returned to the ring just two months later, venturing to France to outpoint Rufino Angulo, then defeated another French fighter when halting Jean-Marie Emebe in eleven rounds in North Dakota. Ramzi Hassan was outpointed next before Hill decided that he wanted to make his future defences in front of his home crowd in North Dakota. He appreciated their support of him and wanted to reciprocate that feeling, starting with a tenth round stoppage of Willie Featherstone. His fifth defence would prove to be one of his most challenging to date, when he met former IBF champion Bobby Czyz. Czyz aggressive approach had Hill under early pressure, bobbing and weaving under the champion’s jab before landing overhand rights. And in the third, one such punch whipped the legs from under Hill, sending him to the canvas. It looked a clean knockdown but the referee somehow judged it a slip. It was a wakeup call to the danger Czyz presented and Hill upped his game, boxing his way to a unanimous decision. Joe Lasisi and James Kinchen were stopped in seven and one rounds respectively, before he outpointed both David Vedder and Tyrone Frazier.

Around this time there was talk of a unification tournament featuring all four title holders. “Prince” Charles Williams (IBF) and Michael Moorer (WBO) had fought non-title fights on the same card to promote a meeting between the pair. Hill was in talks to meet the WBC champion Dennis Andries in the other semi-final, but terms could not be agreed and a chance to crown one undisputed champion fell by the wayside. Hill got back to action, stopping Frank Minton in a non-title fight, before outpointing Mike Peak for his tenth successful defence. He still craved that big fight against a marquee opponent though, one he could finally show just he good he really was, one in which he could call himself the finest light-heavyweight on the planet. But, as the saying goes, sometimes you should be careful what you wish for.

Losing To A Legend

Thomas Hearns was regarded as one of the greatest fighters to ever lace on a pair of boxing gloves. His two showdowns with Sugar Ray Leonard and his three round war with Marvelous Marvin Hagler have been etched in to boxing folklore, and his brutal second round knockout of Roberto Duran still leaves the mouth aghast when viewing it. He was the first man in history to win world titles in five divisions and his devastating right hand had seen him render opponents unconscious from welter all the way up to light-heavy, and his 40 KO’s in his 49-3-1 record gave testament to that power. However, by the time he went in with Hill it was felt that although he still had box office appeal, he was now slowly in decline and that this was the perfect time for Hill to face him and make his own statement.

Caesars Palace, Las Vegas, entertained the match-up on 3 June 1991. The first four rounds were split as each man looked to control the action behind their jabs. Hill’s best weapon was proving highly effective, but two things were becoming apparent; Hearns power and punch variety were proving an advantage, and Hill’s lack of both of these were starting to become his undoing. But his durability was impressive, absorbing some powerful right hands that would have levelled lesser opponents. Round six was an example of this when Hearns moved through the gears landing clean shots with both hands. Hill came back in the seventh, but Hearns big fight experience was starting to see him take control. He had a big ninth round as he caught Hill flush with hard rights and hooks, with one particular cross momentarily stunning Hill. The defending champion tried to muster up a rally over the last three rounds, with Roach urging his charge to let his hands go, only to find himself being outpunched by the veteran. It was close, but the three judges awarded Hearns a unanimous decision. Hill had lost his biggest fight, title and unbeaten record.

Hill took the loss hard. He felt that he had let down both himself and his fans, and that if he wanted to regain his championship then big changes would have to be made. He relocated to Australia and hired Johnny Lewis to take over training duties. Lewis was the trainer of three-weight champion Jeff Fenech and the now WBC light-heavyweight titleist Jeff Harding. Both fighters exhibited the come forward aggression that Hill felt he needed to add to his game and would rub off on him in camp.

He returned to winning ways with a ten round points win over Aundrey Nelson, then won the WBC International title when he scored a fourth round knockout of Lotte Mwale in front of his Bismarck fans. But then he was offered the chance to fight for his old WBA title against former Olympic team mate Frank Tate. Hearns had lost the title on points in a rematch with Iran Barkley, whom had then decided to relinquish the belt and defend the IBF super middleweight championship that he also held, thus rendering the title vacant. Tate (30-2, 17 KO’s) had won gold in the junior middleweight division at the Olympics and had captured the IBF title at middleweight as a professional. His reign was brief however, making one defence before being stopped in nine by Michael Nunn. He moved up, losing a points decision against Lindell Holmes for the vacant IBF belt at 168 lbs, before eventually settling at light-heavyweight. A smooth boxer, he preferred to work at his own pace, using his long jab to set up a strong right hand. He had run off six straight wins to earn his third title chance.

World Champion Once Again

On 29 September 1992, in front of his ardent supporters at the Civic Center in Bismarck, Hill showed off this new version of himself, pressing forward and launching volleys to keep Tate from settling. Even his right hand was in play, regularly finding its target over Tate’s low hanging left. Whilst he lacked the power to put Tate in any serious trouble, he landed often enough to earn himself a comfortable unanimous decision and regain his former title.

The first defence of his second reign got off to an odd start when challenger Adolpho Washington was caught in the face by a ringside camera man and suffered damage around the eye. Unable to continue, the fight went to the scorecards, with Hill well ahead and taking an eleventh round technical decision. A trip back to France saw him take a split decision over Fabrice Tiozzo before returning to Bismarck to outpoint Sergio Merani, stop Saul Montana in ten, and then round off 1993 by outpointing Guy Waters. He made only one appearance in ’94, once again outpointing Frank Tate, before resurfacing in ’95 with points wins over Crawford Ashley and Drake Thadzi. His next defence though saw him pushed to the limit by the unbeaten Lou Del Valle. Del Valle was a heavy handed southpaw who would one day wear the WBA title, but he came extremely close to ripping it away from Hill. Hill struggled with Del Valle’s stance from the first bell. He was caught flush with sharp left hands throughout the first two rounds, with one of them sending him to the canvas at the end of the second as he lunged in, taking his first professional count. He started making adjustments to get himself back in to things, but it was back and forth the whole way, with Hill scraping victory by virtue of a close, unanimous decision. After nineteen defences over two reigns, he was still looking for that one career defining victory, or even a unification, to really prove he was the number one in the division. In his very next fight, he finally got the opportunity to prove it.

Unified Champion

Hill prepared to face IBF champion Henry Maske next, in a meeting of the top two light-heavyweights in the world. German Maske had been an outstanding amateur, the highlight being winning middleweight gold at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. He had won the IBF belt by outpointing “Prince” Charles Williams and had made ten defences since. With only eleven knockouts in his 30-0 record, his solid southpaw fundamentals more than made up for his lack of pop. He would also have hometown advantage as Hill would have to travel to secure this opportunity.

On 23 November 1996, they met at the Olympiahalle in Munich, Germany. Hill controlled the early rounds, keeping his front foot on the outside and throwing rights down the middle as Maske seemed tense and hesitant in front of his own fans. But by the middle rounds, he started getting himself back in to the fight, pushing Hill back and landing with both hands. It became scrappy as the rounds went on and the crowd roared every success that Maske had. After twelve close rounds though, Hill was awarded a debatable split decision (originally incorrectly announced as unanimous). It didn’t matter to Hill though. He had gone in to his opponents backyard, taken his unbeaten record, and was now recognised as the WBA, IBF and lineal light-heavyweight champion of the world.

Nine years after he first became champion, he was now gaining the recognition his achievements warranted. Next up would be another trip to Germany to take on yet another unbeaten champion. Only this time it wasn’t the result he was hoping for.

WBO titleist Dariusz Michalczewski had won thirty three in succession, twenty four by stoppage, with three by disqualification. Born in Poland, he had defected to West Germany in 1988 whilst at an amateur tournament, before gaining citizenship in 1991. He had also won the WBO cruiserweight (then known as junior heavyweight) title, immediately relinquishing to concentrate on the light-heavyweight division. He had defended the WBO strap eight times, but due to the complications of the “Alphabet boys” (the WBA not recognising the WBO as a legitimate sanctioning body) his title wouldn’t be on the line against Hill.

The fight was originally scheduled for April but a leg injury to Hill forced the fight back until 12 June 1997. There was no doubt that the injury hampered Hill from the start. Unable to move as smoothly as usual, he was forced to stand up to the high pressure style of Michalczewski. Right hands thudded on to his jaw with regularity as he was outworked and outfought throughout. Hill’s durability allowed him to survive the distance, but he was well beaten, losing his titles on a unanimous decision. It was only the second loss of his career. He would take ten months out before returning to the ring. And he really couldn’t have chosen a more difficult opponent to get back in the ring with.

Roy Jones Jr.

Jones was sitting at the top of the pound for pound lists and was one of the most amazing talents to ever step foot inside the squared circle. Possessing blurring handspeed and carrying dynamite in each hand, he had dominated all that had faced him before. Even his only loss in his 35-1, 30 KO’s record was a controversial one; he was disqualified against Montell Griffin for striking his opponent while he was on the canvas, costing him his WBC 175lb title. He immediately gained revenge by violently blasting out Griffin in one round to win his fourth title in three divisions. Hill would be a 15/1 underdog for this one.

Meeting on 25 April 1998 at the Coast Coliseum, Mississippi, Hill opened the first round positively, jabbing and displaying the movement that was missing against Michalczewski. However, it didn’t take long for Jones to start timing Hill’s jab and counter with eye-watering rights over the top. Hill was struggling to contain the speed of Jones and dropped the next two rounds. Then things got a whole lot worse. With just under a minute gone in round four, Jones effortlessly fired a long right hand under Hill’s jab, the punch thudding in to his exposed ribs with the sound comparable to a baseball bat striking a frozen meat carcass. Hill crumpled to the canvas holding the affected area, wincing in pain. Amazingly, he tried to rise, but was counted out on his feet for the only time in his career. He was taken to hospital with three broken ribs, testament to Jones explosive power.

But things were not looking so prosperous for Hill. Now aged 34, he had been comprehensively beaten twice in succession and knocked out for the first time in his career. If he carried on it seemed that he would become a high-profile steppingstone for the next generation behind him. But Hill certainly wasn’t ready to accept that, and his next move would show why experience and determination are qualities that should never be underestimated.

Cruiserweight Champion

Hill returned to the ring in November ’98 moving north of the light-heavies to the cruiserweight division. James Hayes was knocked out in two rounds whilst Glenn Thomas was outpointed over ten in Hill’s only outing of 1999. He was then offered a shot at the WBA title, now held by previous victim Fabrice Tiozzo.The loss to Hill had been the Frenchman’s only loss in forty three fights. He had gone on to win the WBC light-heavyweight title before stepping up to cruiser to outpoint Nate Miller for the WBA strap he would put on the line against Hill. It would be his fifth defence.

Hill entered the Astroballe, in Lyon, France on 9 December 2000, a slight underdog, based on recent form. There was nothing much between them for the first two minutes until Hill unloaded a sharp one-two that sent Tiozzo crashing to the canvas. Stunned and shocked, as were the crowd, Tiozzo hauled himself up only to be sent back down again from another combination. Up once again, he tried to defend himself but Hill would not be denied, pummeling his man until the referee stepped in. At nearly thirty seven years of age, Hill was world champion once again.

But his reign wouldn’t be a long one. Out of the ring until 23 February 2002, he finally put the belt on the line against Jean-Marc Mormeck at the Palais des Sports, Marseille, France. Mormeck entered with a 27-2, 18 KO’s record, and was a powerfully built fighter who overwhelmed his opposition with a two-handed attack. And it was this strategy which was highly effective against Hill, taking the title from him when he was ruled out after eight rounds with a badly cut eye. But still Hill wasn’t done yet.

He returned in August of that year with a first round win over Carlos Bates, then outpointed Joey DeGrandis in November to pick up the minor IBC trinket. His only appearance in 2003 saw him outpoint former WBC light-heavyweight champion Donny Lalonde before, on 22 May 2004, he travelled to South Africa to face Mormeck in a rematch for his old title. He put forth a sturdy effort but found himself taking a count in round eight before coming out on the wrong end of a unanimous decision. Now aged 40, it appeared to be his last chance at world glory.

But thanks to the infinite wisdom of boxing’s governing bodies, the WBA promoted Mormeck to “super” champion leaving a vacancy for their “regular” title. On 27 January 2006 in Atlantic City, despite giving away seventeen years in age to unbeaten Russian Valery Brudov, Hill called on all of his ring acumen to unanimously outpoint his opponent. At 42, he had captured yet another, albeit watered down, version of the title. It would turn out to be his last hurrah though.

Maske II

Henry Maske had been itching for revenge over Hill for ten years. It had been his only defeat and he had retired straight after. But having seen what his rival had gone on to achieve had inspired him to re-enter the ring and comeback, but for one fight only. Terms were agreed and their rematch would be a non-title match and would once again take place in Munich.

Although both were past their primes, the contest on 31 March 2007, featured a good level of skill, as you would expect from two counterpunchers and former Olympians. But where wear and tear had been taking its toll on Hill, the time away had served Maske well. After twelve rounds Maske walked away with a unanimous decision and peace of mind. As always, Hill was gracious in defeat and turned his attention to defending his title.

Germany’s Firat Arslan had won a split decision over Valery Brudov for the “interim” WBA bauble and was mandatory to Hill. He had compiled a 27-3-1, 18 KO’s record, and was a solid, if unexceptional, come forward southpaw. A prime Hill, or even one just past it, would have comfortably outboxed Arslan. But this version was now an advanced veteran with a professional career spanning twenty three years and fifty six fights behind him. Even so, on 24 November 2007 back in Germany, and conceding sixteen years in age, Hill displayed glimpses of the boxer he had been, more than holding his own early on. At the end of the fifth, he also showed what great sportsmanship he always had when he accidentally landed a right after the bell, instantly apologising and planting a kiss on Arslan’s cheek. From there though, youth started to win the day as Arslan started having more success. Once again, Hill’s outstanding chin saw him go the distance, dropping a unanimous decision and his title. It was the end of the line.

Home

Or so it was thought. On 15 February 2015, now aged 51, Hill fought one last time at the Civic Center, Bismarck, North Dakota. He hadn’t been happy that his career had ended so far away from those that had supported him throughout his whole journey and wanted to say a heartfelt thank you. And he made sure they went home happy when he stopped Jimmy Campbell in two, to finally end with a 51-7, 24 KO’s record.

He was inducted in to the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2013.

Hill is still involved in boxing, passing his knowledge down as a coach and he occasionally promotes pro-am shows in Bismarck. He is also a member and spokesperson for the USA Boxing Alumni Association.

Historians will never place Hill at the top table of the greatest light-heavyweights of all-time, but that’s okay. His legacy of four titles (plus one regular) in two divisions plus twenty successful title defences over two reigns demands its own respect. For a brief period he was the number one in his division. But more importantly, for one of the most humble and likeable guys in boxing, the love affair he continues to have with his fans in Bismarck, surpasses anything. There really is no place like home