Thursday, January 15, 2004
Grand Forks native, Virgil Hill, turns 40 this Sunday. While most fighters have called it quits by this age, word has it that Virgil is more than ready to avenge the 2002 loss of his WBA Cruiserweight title to Jean-Marc Mormeck sometime soon. A rematch with Mormeck could lead to “Quicksilver” Hill’s sixth world title.
As a kid, Hill was full of energy and short on concentration; his mother said he was like a jack-in-the-box ready to spring. He was painfully shy, and his mixed ancestry of French-Canadian, Scandinavian and Cherokee gave him a golden skin tone that brought out the bullies. However, Hill wasn’t afraid to fight – which often landed him in the principal’s office.
In high school, Hill became the class cut-up and a star in every sport he played, including boxing at the local gym. When that turned sour, his father, Bob – a plumber by trade – opened his own gym for the boy. At 16, Virgil wanted to fight Kevin “Koma” Grosz, who was in a higher weight class. So Virgil filled his pockets with rocks for the weigh-in; he qualified, but he was in for a big surprise. Grosz couldn’t box that day, and Hill ended up fighting what he called, “this big ugly guy from Chicago.” After the first round, Bob Hill stopped the fight.
Right before Virgil’s senior year in high school, Bob relocated the family to Williston so his son could get better training and access to bigger contenders. Virgil was devastated; Red River High was poised to win state in four sports that year, and he didn’t want to leave. But Williston proved a good move. As an amateur, Virgil fought 297 matches, losing only 11 times.
In ninth grade, Virgil had told a friend that he wanted to box in the 1984 Olympics. “He was real serious,” Al Larsien said. “I didn’t laugh or anything, but when he left I said, ‘Geez, listen to this guy. He thinks he’s going to be in the Olympics.’”
Virgil faced a lot of prejudice and obstacles on his way up, but frustration only spurred him on, and he persevered until he made it to the ‘84 Olympics. In a controversial decision, he came home with a silver medal that many, including Howard Cossell, thought should’ve been gold.
Virgil has been an outstanding ambassador for the state, staging several major bouts here and appearing at other ringsides with North Dakota banners, flags and in Native American headdress as an honorary member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa. “I’m kinda like North Dakota,” Virgil has said, “always being the underdog, always having to fight the odds. You know it wasn’t easy, none of it, I had to work twice as hard as everybody else. And the sacrifices we all had to make. Sometimes I can hardly believe I’ve made it as far as I have.”
Hill won the WBA light-heavyweight title in 1987 and defended it 20 times in two different reigns as champion. In the first pro defeat of his life, he lost the title to Tommy Hearns in 1991; then he promptly turned around and took Hearns fishing for a couple days in North Dakota.
Hill’s current professional record stands at 47-4. He’s a multiple World Champion, was named the 1993 WBA fighter of the year, and in 2000, he gained the WBA Comeback Fighter of the Year award. He’s also the current IBF Cruiserweight champion of the world.
Happy birthday, Virgil. We’ll be watching to see what happens in the next chapter…
Dakota Datebook written by Merry Helm