In February, Virgil Hill will take one last walk out of a dressing room adorned in a robe and trunks with taped hands encased in eight- to 10-ounce gloves and stride purposefully into a boxing ring in Bismarck, North Dakota, ready to exchange blows with another professional who is on the same mission as Hill — to score a knockout or make the other fighter bend to his will and physical skill.
That he will be 51 years of age when he climbs into that ring might make others pause. But not Hill.
Hill is not fighting simply for the money. Nor is he chasing some final moment of glory that is beyond practical, or taking part in some reality television show.
Hill, who presently lives in Santa Clarita and is training at a small gym in Pacoima, has already done about as much as he can in professional boxing. His Hall of Fame career, which began in 1984, saw him win five world championship belts as a light-heavyweight and cruiserweight. His children — Virgil Jr., 25, Alaysia, 21, and Azaria, 16 — are grown or almost grown. He’s dabbling in training and promoting other, younger fighters.
But like many other proud, competitive athletes, Hill believes he can do what he sets out to do, and doesn’t want to be told what is or is not possible.
“A doctor told me I would never fight again,” said Hill, during a break from his workouts. “That was his diagnosis. Whatever. Had I listened to that kind of talk when I was a very young guy and stuff, I would have never made the Hall of Fame. I would have never gone to the Olympics. I never would have won world titles and stuff.
“My whole life I was told ‘you can’t do this, you can’t do that.’ And I proved to people I could. When I step into that ring [for the last time], I will have accomplished exactly what I want to accomplish. And I can leave it and go on.”
He is fighting in North Dakota because it is where he grew up and had most of his pro fights, including several championship ones. Life there was harder when he was a boy. “Oh yes I got called (the N-word), Little Black Sambo, Jigaboo, Spear-chucker,” Hill recalled, but it was home. Of course Hill is such a blend of nationalities — he counts African American, Native American Puerto Rican, Irish, German, French and Scandinavian in his genetic makeup — it’s hard to envision picking out one specific ethnic group to pick on.
He first rose to prominence in 1984 at age 20 when he won the national Golden Gloves middleweight championship and a silver medal as a light-heavyweight in the Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Many observers thought Hill should have won the gold but was robbed in a 3-2 decision to South Korean Shin Joon-Sup (who went on to win other world amateur titles but never fought professionally).
He turned professional that same year and won his first 30 pro fights. His first world title belt came in 1987, when he defeated Leslie Stewart on a fourth round technical knockout for the WBA light-heavyweight championship. He defended the title 10 times before losing it to Tommy Hearns in 1991. Hill went on to win four other belts in the WBC, WBA, and IBF divisions. He worked with top trainers like Eddie Futch, Mike Hall and Freddie Roach. He fought some of the best of his generation, including Hearns, Roy Jones Jr., Frank Tate, Bobby Czyz, Henry Maske and Marvin Camel. Hill compiled a 50-7 record with 23 knockouts, and was voted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2013.
But although his last two pro fights were in 2007, and were losses to Maske and Firat Arslan, Hill wasn’t completely convinced he was done.
At age 47, Hill contacted Roach and asked Roach to work him out in Roach’s gym in Los Angeles. Roach, who trained Hill for his first title, told Hill he looked okay. Hill felt emboldened to want to fight one last time — if he could get back in pro shape and if he could get a fight.
“I just think age is in the mind,” Hill said. “Am I as fast as I used to be? Maybe not. But I am damn sure a lot smarter. And I know why I’m doing this. People ask if I wish I were a little younger. I say, ‘not a chance.’ I would not want to go back to those younger years of having to discover and find out [life]. I get it. I love being where I’m at. I see it, I get it.”
He still had to convince Denean he could do this. And Denean Howard Hill knows something about being a star athlete. She and her three older sisters Sherri, Artra and Tina set a national record in the 4 X 440-yard relay in 1979 while at San Gorgonio High in San Bernardino that still stands today. She would finish high school at Kennedy in 1982. And Denean won three Olympic medals — one gold and two silver — running on USA relay teams in 1984, 1988 and 1992.
She met Hill at the 1984 games. They married, had kids and divorced, but are now back together. “I thank God for her every day. I love her with every fiber in my body,” Hill said.
“I didn’t want him to do it. I wanted him to be done,” Denean said. “I think Virgil has given a lot to boxing and had a fantastic career. But the deal was, if he was going to do it, he would do it right. We all (family) had to be on board with it.
“Now that he is a little bit older, he’s got to do it right or not at all. He bought into ‘let’s do it right’ with his training and diet. And he’s an athlete. I understand what he wants to do, why he wants to do it, and the timeframe he wants to do it in. So I bought in.”
Hill has been working with local trainer Edgar Ponce, who is starting to build a stable of fighters including promising boxer Ron Cruz of North Hollywood. The relationship between Hill and Ponce started slow, but has gotten closer as the fight draws near.
“Edgar knows so much about conditioning and boxing, that I was surprised,” said Hill, noting that Ponce has taken his physique from soft to chiseled in a year. “The thing I had to get Coach to do was not let me lead. I said ‘when I train with you, you are the Coach and I am the pupil.’ Because he’s 33, he has so much respect he wouldn’t tell me things, he would suggest things when we first started out.
“But I’ve seen what he’s done with his athletes before I started training. It’s old school stuff someone had to show you how to do. That’s what I love about it. I want him to be part of this because he deserves the credit and credibility of what he can do. People think this is just a kickboxing gym. He’s transformed me.”
Still, you can’t talk about boxing these days without definitive health risks, especially as a fighter grows older.
Nearly 90-percent of boxers suffer a brain injury of some extent during their career, according to a study published in 2013 by the Association of Neurological Surgeons.
It’s a little-related fact that boxers can take a heavier pounding in the sparring sessions as they get conditioned to “getting hit.” And it’s not just the head (even if wrapped inside protective headgear, which primarily guards against cuts and facial swelling): it can also be arms, kidneys, the spleen, ribs and other internal organs. Multiply the amount of hits a fighter can absorb starting as a youth boxer through a professional career until you’re a middle-aged adult and — well, you do the math.
But it’s the head (and the brain,eyes, face, nose and even sometimes the voice) that people immediately think of as being most vulnerable for a boxer. Nobody wants to see Hill or any fighter be a victim of Dementia pugilistica, often called “punch-drunk syndrome,” that can leave a fighter with slurred speech and diminished mental capacity from taking too many punches.
Talk with Hill, however, and there are no slurred words. His answers to questions are elongated and thoughtful. Even though he has been cut in fights, Hill shows little wear and tear from his career.
Maybe he can do this.
Ponce, for one, says yes.
“He’s very competitive,” Ponce said. “If there’s a guy in the gym hitting a bag, and Virgil’s next to him, he wants to out-punch him. If you’re doing 100 situps, he’s doing 101. He’s still got that drive. I like that about him. At his age he still works hard. It makes my young fighters work harder. They see him working — ‘Virgil’s doing it, why am I not doing it?’”
Hill’s had a trial run of sorts with an exhibition against his son in December in Fargo, North Dakota. Virgil Jr. is a promising super middleweight, with a 4-0 record since turning pro last August.
“After watching his exhibition fight, he looked good,” Ponce said. “He’s been training good. If I had noticed something in the sparring, if he was not performing, I’d tell him ‘Virgil, don’t take the fight.’ But he looks good.”
Hill said he is still finalizing the opponent for the last fight in Bismarck. It will probably be some young and hungry bruiser who doesn’t care about Hill’s pro pedigree, who has no sentimentality about this being a last fight by a 51-year-old. He will do everything he can to get Hill out of there.
For the last time, Hill wouldn’t have it any other way.