November 1, 2013

KO Digest Interview: Virgil Hill - "My hands are still pretty fast"

Quicksilver at the IBHOF in Canastota
International Boxing Hall of Fame 2013 inductee - former light heavyweight champion Virgil Hill has always closely associated with North Dakota, and for anyone who has watched Hill or gotten the chance to know him, the pairing seems particularly fitting. In and out of the ring, "Quicksilver" Hill (50-7-0, 23 KO's) would never be described as flashy. Soft spoken and respectful, Hill was an old school fighter and at 49, still has an old school personality. He reigned atop the 175 lb weight class as WBA champion for the better part of a decade, and was elected to the IBHOF on the first ballot. Like his home state, he is reserved and flies under the radar, but Hill never failed to make his presence felt even in his 40's, claiming the WBA cruiserweight title at 42 in January 2006.

In fact, Hill still believes he has what it takes to compete. Even as he approaches the half century mark in age, Hill hopes to schedule at least one more farewell fight, or possibly a third and deciding bout against German rival Henry Maske. Although his career résumé ranks him among the sport's best, Hill continues to stay out of the public eye, outside of his recent venture into promoting, which represents his son, Virgil Hill Jr. Though Hill's post-fighting life has been filled with athletic and business ventures that have keep him busy, the stress doesn't seem to be affecting him. Just like in the ring, Hill is poised and in control, seeming to be thoroughly at peace in the so called "Peace Garden State."  

Hill loves North Dakota and they love him back
KO Digest's Joel Sebastianelli: You have a strong connection with North Dakota. You have lived there, and several times during your career, you fought there. Why is this relationship you forged with the state so important to you? Why insist on fighting there?

Virgil Hill: I grew up there. I wanted to bring as much exposure as I possibly could so we would have kids following in the same footsteps. I fought up in Bismarck and they packed the house to come out and cheer me on. One of my things was to never say which city or town I was from in North Dakota because back then there were only 600,000 people in the whole state. Most cities are bigger than the whole state of North Dakota as far as population.

KOD: This summer, you were inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, NY. Did you expect to be voted in on the first ballot? 
What were your emotions on induction day?

VH: It wasn't my thought at all. It was a really big thing for my Dad, me getting into the boxing hall of fame. When Ed Brophy called me and said I was on the ballot, and then called me to let me know I was in, I was extremely honored.

Hill shares a place in boxing history with Arturo Gatti
KOD: Another notable inductee from the IBHOF class of 2013 was Arturo Gatti. What are your thoughts on Gatti getting in?

VH: It's not my decision. I guess two hundred other guys said he should be in there as well. Arturo Gatti fought some great fights and he brought a lot of money to Atlantic City.

KOD: You won the silver medal at the 1984 Olympic Games. Teammates of yours included Meldrick Taylor, Pernell Whitaker, and Mark Breland. Why has the boxing in the Olympic Games slipped in success and representation in recent years?

VH: They changed the format from what it was. When you reach that level, you are a semi-pro, and all you had to do to go from amateurs to the pros was go more rounds. But when they flipped the whole format of the amateur program, it was terrible. The clickers, three judges scoring the fight on one punch—what it did was take away the skill level. So now you can lose the first two rounds and then come back and win the whole fight in one round. Or you can get ahead in the first two rounds and then just run around the last round. It's beneficial to the Europeans because they have no real boxing style. All our kids at that level are basically semi-pros. They're getting ready to make the transition. The talent pool is in the pro division. Now you have trainers that come up in the crazy little format they have, so they're missing fundamental boxing. They have to get back to the old school stuff.

Hill shows his age against Arslan in 2007
KOD: By the time you fought your final fight against Firat Arslan in 2007, you were 42 years old, but you only won one fight after the age of 39. If you could go back and do it again, would you still step into the ring so long after your prime?

VH: Absolutely. If I had based it off of age, I wouldn't have won my sixth world title in 2006. Everything happens for a reason. 

KOD: Based on age in the ring, one of the fighters you draw a comparison to is Bernard Hopkins. Even at age 48, he still eludes time and holds a major title and looks strong while doing it. What do you think about the way Hopkins has fared so late in his career? What does the future hold for Bernard Hopkins?

VH: It's fantastic for us old guys! That's proof right there that the amateur system is broke. When I was an amateur as a young kid, if you fought past 35 you were old. The talent pool in the division is so weakened that we can compete at an older age. Attrition has really changed and that takes part. It's up to Bernard and how far he wants to take it. Right now, he's the cash pony in that division. I'm still in boxing—I would be at that fight, but I have my first promotion out here in North Dakota. I'm a promoter, Quick Silver Promotions. It's my first fight as a promoter and my son's second fight.

Hill is now trying his hand at promoting
KOD: How has the transition been from fighter to promoter? 

VH: Well, it's easy. I know the game. Throughout my career, I've been with just about every major promoter in the world. Don King, Bob Arum, I've had all those promoters, so I know it. I have 42 years of knowledge in boxing from the amateurs to the pros.

KOD: Athleticism runs in the family. Your son, Virgil Hill Jr., was drafted by the St Lois Cardinals four years ago and now made his pro debut in boxing in August. Which sport is the best fit for him, and how did you introduce him to sports as a kid?

VH: He's been around boxing his whole life. He's pretty special. He has fast hands, fast feet, and he looks good. I would say if he can hit a 100 mph fastball, then play baseball, but he came to me and said,  'Dad, I don't love it. I always wanted to box.' His mother was a four time Olympian, with two golds and two silvers. The level at which she competed at is the highest level you can be in track in field, so she knows what the sacrifices are and how you have to dedicate yourself.

KOD: When time catches up with you when you reach an old age, at least speaking in terms of age in athletic competition, how does it feel? What is it like to experience the deterioration of skills as a fighter having come all the way through the amateurs and your prime to wind up a bit slower?

More hills left to climb for Hill at 49?
VH: I don't know. I'm not there yet! I still can get in there and move around. My hands are still pretty fast. At 49, I still get in there and compete.

KOD: Last year, a report surfaced that you were considering a comeback. How serious were you about returning to the ring? Is that still a possibility?

VH: Absolutely! I am for sure going to have a send-off fight in North Dakota. If I could fight Henry Maske in Germany for the tiebreaker, which would be the biggest fight in Germany, definitely. Maske would be the right opponent. He turns 50 four days before me. If I could fight Maske, that would be great. If not, I'll just have a send-off fight. Maybe if Bernard Hopkins wanted to fight, two old guys, but who would buy the fight? Nobody wants to see two old guys! I'm still working with Virgil Jr and my promotion and I have a couple of other fighters as well. If I can find the right guy and find the right time, I would like to have a send-off fight in North Dakota to say thank you, goodbye, and farewell to the people. That's when I will be retired. It definitely wouldn't be a pay per view!

KOD: Over the course of your career, you were managed by a pair of legendary trainers, Eddie Futch and Freddie Roach. How did those men impact your career and life outside the ring? What was their greatest lesson?

Freddie Roach and Thomas Hearns at the IBHOF
VH: One way or another, Eddie was connected to all my guys. Freddie Roach, Mike Hall, who was my trainer after Roach, was Eddie Futch's cut man. And then Freddie was with Mike as well, but Mike was one of the best trainers I ever had outside of those two. Eddie always had great stories. When you sat down to eat with him, you might sit there for two hours because he had all these stories about situations that fighters had been in both in and out of the ring, trying to help a young guy like myself make sure I made the right choices and did the right things. With Freddie, he was just tough. Coming from Boston and the way he grew up, the training was hard with Freddie. I was Freddie's first world champion, so at that time, we were just trying to figure it out. Now he is an unbelievable trainer, one of the best in the world.

KOD: One of your most notable fights early in your career came in 1991 against Thomas Hearns. You were a two to one favorite entering into the fight but lost by narrow unanimous decision. Do you feel as though you put up a better showing than the judges gave your credit for?

Hill faces the legendary jab of a legendary Hitman
VH: I think if you're fighting a legend, you need to really beat him. It's just like fighting a world champion. The only thing different in this scenario is fighting a legend. When you fight a legend, you need to go up there and beat him. Hearns was fast, hard hitting, and back then his right hand was still good. More than I lost the fight, I lost the fight, you know?

KOD: You held the WBA title at light heavyweight from 1987 to 1997, one of the longest title reigns in the history of the sport. Who was the toughest challenger you face during the streak? Which fight are you most proud of?

VH: I don't know. They've all been tough in one way or another. From having to cut weight or being out of your comfort zone by not fighting in North Dakota or fighting in another country, they're all pretty tough. I don't want to discredit any of the guys I fought by saying 'this guy was better than that guy.' They all fought for the world title, so they were comparable as fighters. They were all tough.

KOD: After the title reign, you fought Roy Jones Jr. in 1998. Takes us through your memory of the fight, your preparation for it, and when things all went wrong with that body punch knockout in the fourth round.

VH: We had the right idea of what to do with Roy and were doing it. I just didn't expect him to throw a shot to the body. He never threw a body shot before, particularly with the right hand, so we just got caught. Up until that point, I believe we had the right formula. Had it gone two more rounds, it would have been a different story.

RJ hits Hill the hardest he's ever been hit
KOD: Can you describe what being knocked out like that feels like?

VH: It was the hardest shot I have ever been hit with, for sure.When you get hit like that with a body shot, the only thing I really remember is them saying "six, seven..." and then I got up. I didn't lay down. They counted me out, it wasn't a technical knockout where the referee stopped the fight.

KOD: Outside of recently forging your way into the promotional business, what else have you been up to since you last stepped into the ring?

VH: I train and condition fighters. We're in promotions, management, advising, as well as training the fighters and other athletes. I have trained baseball teams, football, soccer, individual training—I condition athletes.

KOD: How does the light heavyweight division now compare to when you were the champion?

VH: I couldn't even tell you, I haven't paid that close attention to it. I know Bernard is a great fighter, but the man is almost 50 years old and none of these young guys can beat him? The talent pool is just not there. Not to take anything away from Bernard because he is a great champion, but back in my day he wouldn't even have thought of it.

Dedication and humility pays off for Hill
KOD: When people think of Virgil Hill, there are multiple things that will spring to mind—Hall of Famer, champion, and many others. What do you want people to think of when think of you? 

VH: I'm a regular guy. Boxing is what I did for my living, no more no less than my father being a plumber. You strive to be successful in your business in boxing, and being successful is winning. If you win, you advance slowly. If you do it long enough, they honor you by putting you in the hall of fame. It's no different than anyone else who worked hard at their craft. I'm still the same guy I was when I was living in North Dakota as a little boy. I've always stayed grounded, humble, and dedicated to bringing recognition to North Dakota and my native country as well.

The Future of Boxing

KO Digest Interview conducted by Joel "The Future" Sebastianelli

Joel joined KO Digest in January 2013 and has been a fixture on press row in the New England area for three years. In 2012, he served as the host of “The Boxing Fix” on Leave it in the Ring Radio.
Sebastianelli is the future of boxing journalism and broadcasting.  

Joel can be found Tweeting on Twitter @JJSebastianelli