20 years later we're still talking Virgil Hill

By Matthew Aguilar


20 years later we're still talking Virgil Hill

Think about this: It's almost been 20 years since Virgil Hill first won a world championship. Yet, North Dakota's favorite son is still a champion (well, kind of). He's still formidable (somewhat). And he's still a pay-per-view draw (at least, when he's fighting national icons).

If that doesn't earn a fighter some measure of respect, nothing will.

Saturday in Munich, Germany, "Quicksilver" Hill - not yet "Slowsilver" - will meet former victim Henry Maske in a strange battle of 43-year-old once-weres that is drawing extensive, stunning attention overseas. Stunning because, really, this is not a legitimate title fight. Actually, it's not a title fight at all. Regardless of whether the WBA designates Hill as its champion or not - by virtue of a 12-round decision over someone named Valery Brudov for the vacant title more than a year ago - boxing purists regard Jean-Marc Mormeck as the true cruiserweight king.

The same Mormeck that has beaten Hill twice.

And, besides that, the WBA isn't even sanctioning this fight. So, really, it has little bearing on the 200-pound landscape. Neither fighter is ranked in "The Ring" magazine's cruiserweight top 10. And neither should be.

But, through his perseverance and longevity, Hill has somehow made this fight attractive. Afterall, consider where his 1984 Olympic teammates are, and how long their careers lasted. Pernell Whitaker, an all-time great, is long retired. Meldrick Taylor is in bad physical shape from the wars he endured over a brief-but-spectacular pro career. And nobody's heard from Tyrell Biggs in years.

There's only Hill, an unknown, underappreciated silver medalist in those '84 Los Angeles games, and Evander Holyfield, a bronze medalist who, stubbornly, continues a career that should've ended 10 years ago. Holyfield shouldn't be near a gym, or a ring.

But, somehow, we don't think the same about Hill, a defensive specialist who was roundly criticized early in his career for being, well, too defensive. How can anyone forget those 12-round bores with the likes of David Vedder and Mike Peak, endless marathons in which everyone outside of a strangely ecstatic Bismarck. N.D., was bored to tears?

Hill's jabbing, stick-and-move style was a source of frustration for the boxing public.

Physically, Hill was a marvel - a big, strong upper torso held up by muscular legs that could dance him around the ring all night long. He was fast. And he knew what he was doing in there, likely because he had a boxing guru in his corner in the great Eddie Futch.

But what was confusing to the boxing community was that Hill could punch, too. Especially with his left hook. But he was always just a little too cautious.

When he won the WBA light heavyweight title at the tender age of 23 from Leslie Stewart, Hill looked like a modern-day Bob Foster. He destroyed Stewart, on national television, no less. And, collectively, the boxing community thought, "Where's this guy been, and why didn't we pay more attention during the Olympics?"

That wasn't the only Hill power display. There was also an 11th-round knockout of Jean-Marie Emebe in 1988. A seventh-round knockout of Joe Lasisi in 1989. And, late that year, a brutal, first-round destruction of James Kinchen.

But, in between those special performances were walzes with overmatched unknowns like Rufino Angulo, Ramzi Hassan, and Tyrone Frazier. Hill's "Dr Jeckyll and Mr. Hyde" routine flustered everybody.

Still, after 11 title defenses, the undefeated (30-0) Hill was ready for his graduation to the big-time, against three-division legend Thomas Hearns, in 1991. Not surprisingly, Hill fought timidly that night in Las Vegas, against a man who was considered on his last legs. Quicksilver lost a 12-round decision, and his title. And you have to wonder, had he been more aggressive, where he would have gone from there.

But, that was Hill's career. Written off after the disappointing Hearns fight, Hill regained the vacant WBA title a year later against Frank Tate. And the Bismarck love affair with Virgil started all over again.

It was like deja vu. Dull decisions over Tate (twice), Sergio Merani, and Drake Thadzi surrounded by entertaining victories over Adolpho Washington and Lou Del Valle.
And Hill found himself in another big fight, this time with undefeated German Maske in a unification battle, in November 1996.

Unlike the Hearns fight, all signs pointed to a Hill loss. Though they were the same age, Maske was considered fresher. And, more than a few people figured Henry the better boxer. And, on top of that, the fight was on Maske's home turf of Munich.

But, Hill surprised again, and won a 12-round decision. Finally, he garnered the recognition and appreciation he had sought his entire career.

Then he went and lost to Dariusz Michelczewski in his next fight. It was a familiar pattern.

Over the past decade, Hill has been remarkably successful, though his losses have been profound. One excruciating body shot did him in against Roy Jones Jr. in 1998. And Mormeck took care of him easily (KO 9, W 12).

Yet, here we are still talking about Virgil Hill, 20 years after he knocked out Stewart, 16 years after he lost to Hearns, and nine years after he was hammered by Jones. He could probably talk his way into a rematch with a washed up Jones. And he'd probably win. Jones was done three years ago. Or maybe even a rematch with a more washed-up Hearns, who, like Holyfield, prefers to entertain the impossible and continue his career.

Maske will be a tough challenge for Hill. He's big and smart and motivated. He's been eating, sleeping and dreaming his conqueror for 10 years.

But Virgil Hill has a way of surprising us. And a way of surprising Maske. He'll win. And prove that longevity and perserverance can indeed endear a supposed "boring" and "overcautious" fighter to a skeptical boxing public.


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