Smithville resident Virgil Hill will be rewarded for his longevity, consistency and success in boxing today when he is inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota, N.Y.
The 49-year-old enjoyed a 25-year professional career that included a 50-7 record with 23 knockouts, five world championships in two weight classes and a record 20 title defenses during his light-heavyweight reigns before he retired in 2007.
Not bad for someone who thought his future would be in a different sport.
"I really wanted to be a football player," Hill said with a laugh. "I was a running back and defensive back (at Red River High School in Grand Forks, N.D.). I also wrestled, ran track and played baseball. I honestly didn't like boxing all that much. But once I started, I made a lot progress so I decided to stick with it."
Hill came upon boxing almost by accident. As a 7 year old, he had just finished his chores on the family farm in Reynolds, N.D., and went inside to watch TV.
He got up to flip through the channels - there were no TV remotes in those days - and stopped when he saw two guys punching each other.
"My father (Bob) came home from work while it was on," Hill said. "I said, 'Dad, if we ever move to the big city, I'd like to try boxing.' The next year, we moved to Grand Forks and he asked me if I still wanted to try it. I said yes and he took me to the local gym.
"That's how I got my start."
Hill remembered losing his first amateur fight but didn't suffer many more defeats. He compiled a 288-11 amateur record and earned a silver medal in the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles as a member of the most successful U.S. boxing team in history.
He was part of a team that won nine gold medals, a silver and a bronze. The group included future pro world champions Mark Breland, Frank Tate, Meldrick Taylor and fellow Hall of Famer Pernell Whitaker, plus former heavyweight contender Tyrell Briggs.
"I thought I had won a gold just like those guys," Hill said. "I actually beat a South Korean fighter 3-2, but in those days all close decisions went to a jury and they overturned the win and gave it to the other guy."
He turned pro later that year - his second fight was at Harrah's Resort in Atlantic City - and wound up winning his first world title on the Boardwalk in 1987 with a fourth-round TKO over Leslie Stewart at Trump Plaza.
The late Eddie Futch was his trainer at the time. His cutman was a quiet guy named Mike Hall, who was also training young fighters such as Pleasantville middleweight Kevin Watts at the Pleasantville Rec.
After Hill suffered his first loss on a decision to Thomas Hearns in 1991, he vacationed in Australia. When he returned to the United States, he moved first to Pleasantville and then to the Smithville section of Galloway Township and Hall became his trainer. Hall was in his corner for the rest of his bouts, including when he won the WBA cruiserweight crown in 2006 over Valery Brudov at Tropicana Casino and Resort.
"I was really hoping Mike could be with us at the Hall of Fame," Hill said. "But he just got into a serious car accident and he also has diabetes, so he's not going to be able to join me. I'm sure he would really enjoy it, just like my dad would have. My father died (in 2011) from cancer. This would mean the world to him."
Hill will be joined by his wife, Pleasantville native Carla Hill, as well as his two sisters, five children and other friends and family members. His mother, Leona, lives in Joplin, Mo., and is too ill to attend, he said.
After the ceremony, he plans to resume training athletes while also guiding his oldest son, Virgil Hill, Jr., into a new sport.
Virgil Jr., 23, has decided to try boxing after playing professional baseball for four seasons in the St. Louis Cardinals organization. The outfielder, who was the Cardinals' ninth-round draft pick in 2009, opted to switch sports after getting released at the end of spring training in March.
"I had some other offers (from Milwaukee and Cincinnati) to keep going in baseball," Hill Jr. said last week while accompanying his father at the Atlantic City Boxing Legends Gala at Resorts Casino Hotel. "But I got to the point where I didn't enjoy playing baseball anymore. My dad wasn't real thrilled about my decision to try boxing at first, but he's been real supportive."
Hill has been dividing his time between Smithville and his son's home in Santa Clarita, Calif., located about 35 miles northwest of Los Angeles. As soon as he's ready, his son will make his pro debut rather than compete first as an amateur.
Hill Sr. also hopes to fight one more time, probably in his native North Dakota.
"I wouldn't mind fighting in Atlantic City, but I won my first world championship there and my last world championship there, so I feel like I've gone full circle there," Hill said. "I honestly believe I could still compete because of the caliber of fighters. There are very few top fighters out there now. But I know I'm done. I just want one more sendoff fight, one more fight to say thank you and goodbye to boxing."
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