Jeff Kolpack, Published June 03 2012
Not yet over the hill: Boxer has designs on being oldest champ in history
He buried his father and the roaring cheers of thousands of boxing fans had long since faded. Instead of continuing to soak up his fame, Virgil Hill was staring at a path seen all too often in the sport.
It’s not always easy being a former world champion.
So he drank, perhaps too much.
This is the same guy whose workout routines bordered on exhaustion. Hill won 28 world boxing titles with his ace in the hole being his quickness and physical fitness. Rare was the fighter who could out-jab the native North Dakotan.
Robert Hill died of cancer last October, just a few weeks after being diagnosed. Virgil said he had it all over his body and he never regained his strength through treatments.
“It killed me, killed me,” he said. “My father was my hero, you know. My world was … it took him so fast. He was suffering so bad. He was in so much pain.”
Virgil said coping included alcohol and it wasn’t long before he realized it was spinning out of control. So he stopped.
“I just put it down and never picked it back up,” he said. “Some people wouldn’t call me an alcoholic. I do.”
It wasn’t long before an old addiction – training – resurfaced. And when Bernard Hopkins defeated Jean Pascal a year ago May to win the World Boxing Council Light Heavyweight title, the 46-year-old Hopkins also became known as the oldest world champion ever, overtaking George Foreman, who won a heavyweight title at 45.
Virgil Hill is 48.
That is where the path of his father’s death and a quest to top Hopkins’ record met. Why not? If Hopkins could do it, he figured, so could he.
But Hill was also far removed from world championship shape.
“I started at the bare minimum, I started walking and doing pushups,” he said. “I started walking for hours and hours and that progressed into something more.”
It progressed into making a call to an old friend – trainer Freddie Roach.
The two along with assistant trainer Al Larsien teamed up to win several world titles in the 1980s and ’90s. Roach is still a hot name in the boxing game as the head trainer for six-time world champion Manny Pacquiao. Calling Roach’s Wild Card Boxing Club in Hollywood and finding five minutes of spare time these days isn’t easy.
But mention Hill’s name and Roach put everything else aside.
“If it wasn’t for Virgil, I would probably be working in telemarketing somewhere,” he said. “Virgil saved my life. If it wasn’t for Virgil Hill, I wouldn’t be in boxing right now.”
That’s because Hill took Roach on as a trainer when Hill’s former trainer, the legendary Eddie Futch, became too busy with other fighters. Roach said he was a little surprised at first that Hill wanted to get back in the ring, but he’s warming to the idea.
“It’s a young man’s sport but there’s always an exception to the rule,” he said. “Virgil happens to be one of them.”
It’s been nine months since Hill said he last had a sip of alcohol and six months since he first resumed training. The work ethic is still the same – and that is to try and outwork everybody else in the gym.
“It hurts when I get out of bed sometimes, depending on what I did the day before,” Hill said. “But once I get moving around, I’m fine. I’m actually enjoying myself more now than when I did back then. I know why I’m doing it.”
He’s acting as his own manager, at the moment anyway. He had a conversation with former manager Bill Sorensen, but the two will not reunite.
Hill is 50-7 in a professional career that started in 1984. His last fight was a defeated by unanimous decision to Firat Arslan in Germany in 2007. Three of his last four fights resulted in losses with the exception of a decision over Valery Brudov in 2006 to win the World Boxing Association cruiserweight title.
The comeback plan is to find a couple of tune up fights somewhere, perhaps returning to Germany where he fought four times.
“German people would know that I’m serious in what I’m doing,” he said. “I’d like to go to Germany and rattle the cages over there first.”
Hill had 22 professional fights in North Dakota. He’d like another one. The last was in Grand Forks in 2002 when he defeated Joey DeGrandis for the vacant International Boxing Federation cruiserweight belt.
The 41-year-old Arslan is the only former opponent still fighting. He’s ranked between ninth and 11th by three major boxing organizations including the WBA.
Roach said he’s talked with long-time promoter Bruce Trampler of Top Rank Boxing about a possible fight.
“He said as long as it’s reasonable for the first couple of fights he would take a look at him,” Roach said. “I was happy to hear that.”
For now, Roach said Hill is doing as much sparring as he can. He said for 48 years old, his former champ is looking good.
Camp includes more hand-eye exercises than Hill ever did before. He currently weighs 193 pounds, well under the 200-pound cruiserweight maximum.
Asked if he treats Hill different from a young fighter, Roach scoffed at the notion. Everybody is the same in his gym, he said.
“My dad was never complained or whined,” Hill said. “I will not either.”
Forum reporter Jeff Kolpack can be reached at (701) 241-5546.
Kolpack’s NDSU media blog can be found