Hail Virgil Hill and all the Hometown Heroes

Hail Virgil Hill – A “hometown hero” in athletic parlance can mean different things to different people, depending on the hometown and the sport. Few fans outside of rural Oklahoma ever would have heard or cared about Mickey Mantle if he had only bashed home runs for his old semi-pro team in the tiny mining community of Commerce. But when The Mick began whacking pitches into the upper deck at Yankee Stadium, the transplanted Okie quickly became baseball’s blond, switch-hitting Adonis, the flyspeck on a map where his legend began to take root soon becoming nothing more than a footnote to history.

Boxing, though, is different than baseball or other team sports where a sufficiently large stage is required to achieve greatness, or something akin to it, in the professional ranks. A fighter does not necessarily have to come from, or relocate to, major metropolises like New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Detroit or Las Vegas to build a large, avid following in his birth city or adopted hometown. In fact, those who continue to pledge their fealty to less populous, non-traditional fight sites can become very big fish in relatively small ponds, and more marketable attractions than they ever could by attempting to carve out a toehold in places where the competition for sports entertainment dollars is fierce and unrelenting.

A prime example of a fighter who recognized the potential for cashing in on his local popularity is former light heavyweight and cruiserweight champion Virgil “Quicksilver” Hill, who came to realize that being from North Dakota was a distinction he could use to his advantage, and frequently so.

July 7 marks the 26th anniversary of my one and only trip to North Dakota, to cover for my newspaper, the Philadelphia Daily News, the ninth defense of Hill’s WBA light heavyweight title against a quasi-Philadelphian, Tyrone Mitchell Frazier, who claimed to be the nephew of his manager-trainer, former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier, but was in fact no blood relation to the great Smokin’ Joe. Mitchell, who took the last name Frazier out of respect for his mentor and because it carried an undeniable cachet, originally was from Wyandanch, N.Y., a burg of fewer than 12,000 residents in Suffolk County located 31½ miles from Brooklyn, the nearest of New York City’s five boroughs. A star guard for his high school basketball team, the then-22-year-old auto mechanic had moved to Philly several years earlier, with the idea of pursuing a boxing career under Frazier, his idol. It was like a real-life scene from Rocky V, with Mitchell playing the role of Tommy Gunn to Smoke’s Rocky Balboa. As was also the case in Rocky V, Frazier first told Mitchell to go back home to resume doing tune-ups and oil changes, but the kid’s persistence eventually won him over.

The bout originally had been scheduled for April 29 in Las Vegas, but injuries to both fighters — a torn retina in Mitchell Frazier’s right eye, which was corrected with conventional, non-laser surgery, and Hill’s broken left thumb – prompted a rescheduling. But regardless of the timing, Hill was such a prohibitive favorite that Nevada’s legal sports books declined to even post odds or to accept wagers on what was correctly seen as a total mismatch, as was proved when the champion pitched a 120-108 shutout on all three official scorecards by making maximum use of his principal weapon, a stiff, radar-guided jab.

“As soon as I tried to gasp for air, Virgil stuck a jab in my mouth,” said Mitchell Frazier, who, exhausted, was on the receiving end of 27 consecutive jabs in the 12th and final round.

So, if the rescheduled matchup was such a non-competitive gimme, why had a raucous, sellout crowd of 8,400 turned out in the Bismarck Civic Center on a warm Saturday afternoon? Anywhere else – say, Madison Square Garden or Caesars Palace – Hill-Frazier would have been an undercard offering of a show with a more compelling main event, or not even scheduled at all. But then again, this was Bismarck, where Hill might have played to standing room only mixing it up with almost anybody.

“Virgil Hill is our franchise, our professional franchise,” former Bismarck mayor Bill Sorenson, who also managed Hill, said before his guy thrashed Mitchell Frazier. “He’s the only show in town.”

Bismarck Tribune sports editor Abe Winter told me that the only thing he could compare to the frenzy of a Hill bout was the three-year championship run of the Bismarck High Demons, who won state basketball titles from 1957 through ’59.

“But nobody outside of North Dakota knew or cared about that,” Winter said. “Virgil is a world champion, so he’s a star everywhere. It’s just that, well, he’s a bigger star here.”

To be fair, Hill, now 52, was a star, good enough during the course of his long, productive career to have won a silver medal at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and to have been inducted into the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2013. But stardom and superstardom are not the same thing, which is why Floyd Mayweather Jr. set pay-per-view records while Guillermo Rigondeaux, whose boxing attributes are very similar to “Money’s,” is widely regarded as TV poison.

A handsome man of French, Canadian, Norwegian, German and Native American (Cherokee) ancestry, Hill seemed a natural fit for North Dakotan idolization. Sure, the state – with a population of fewer than 700,000 – had produced its share of pro sports stars, the most notable being New York Yankees slugger Roger Maris, the Fargo native who broke Babe Ruth’s single-season home run record with 61 long balls in 1961, and Phil Jackson, who was a member of two NBA championship teams with the New York Knicks before going on to win a record 11 league titles as a coach with the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers. But only Hill elected to keep coming back.

That likely would not have been the case had only Hill been perceived as someone with more of the “it” factor that separates the very good from the truly great, or at least the truly saleable in any venue. He had made the U.S. Olympic boxing team in 1984 by upsetting another future pro champ, Michael Nunn, at the Trials, but there were those who regarded him as the weakest medal threat on the 12-member American squad, which amassed 11 medals, including nine golds, against a field thinned by a multi-nation boycott that included powerhouse Cuba and most of the Soviet Bloc countries.

Hill turned pro on Nov. 11, 2015, in Madison Square Garden as part of “A Night of Gold,” which was a bit of a misnomer since Hill had taken a silver in Los Angeles and Evander Holyfield a bronze. But Holyfield likely would have been the gold medalist had he not been jobbed on a dubious disqualification in his semifinal bout, which would have put him in the same glittering company with debuting golden boys Mark Breland, Pernell Whitaker, Meldrick Taylor and Tyrell Biggs. Hill opened the card in a non-televised bout, a second-round stoppage of Arthur Wright, which was not even taped for posterity.

The knock on Hill, one that he never was able to completely erase, was that he was a one-handed fighter whose strong jab, serviceable hook and competent ring generalship never would overcome a mostly ornamental right hand, stolid style and lack of put-away power.

Hill, who was born in Clinton, Mo., was 11-0 and not drawing much attention when he went back to his childhood home of Williston, N.D., to knock out Wayne Caplette in one round on Oct. 4, 1986. And just like that, a cottage industry sprang up.

Well, maybe not quite just like that. Hill wrested the WBA 175-pound title from Leslie Stewart on a fourth-round TKO on Sept. 5, 1987, at Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, N.J., but his second defense came against Jean-Marie Emebe in Bismack before what would become the standard sellout crowd. For much of the rest of his career, and for as long as he held the title and the leverage, the world would have to come to Hill, and to North Dakota.

All in all, Hill staged 26 of his 58 pro bouts (51-7, with 24 wins inside the distance) in North Dakota – 16 in his adopted hometown of Bismarck, three apiece in Fargo, Grand Forks and Minot, and one in Williston. Critics, and there are plenty of them, dismiss the quality of opposition during Hill’s various reigns. And it’s true that no one will confuse Emebe, Ramzi Hassan, Willie Featherstone, Mike Peak, Sergio Daniel Merani, Saul Montana, Guy Waters, Crawford Ashley and Drake Thadzi with a Who’s Who of boxing greats, but Hill did defeat “Prince” Charles Williams, Bobby Czyz, Lou Del Valle, Fabrice Tiozzo and Henry Maske, all of whom were or would become world champions.

Even though Hill resided in Las Vegas throughout much of his career – a fact North Dakotans apparently were willing to overlook – his status as an icon in that state, and especially Bismarck, is forever secure. Until the1870s, the place was known as Edwinton, but a rumor spread that German Chancellor Otto von Bismarck was contemplating buying an American railroad. The prospect of foreign investment in a frontier town was so enticing to local politicians that they immediately changed the name from Edwinton to Bismarck. Neither von Bismarck or his money, alas, ever arrived, but nobody bothered to change the name back.

Bismarck has a population of 67,034 (as of 2013), making it the state’s second most-populous city after Fargo, but there is a shortage of nationally or globally known sports figures outside of Hill, Maris and Jackson, unless you count four-time pro rodeo world saddle bronc riding champion Brad Gjermundson of Marshall or Cliff Purper of Grand Forks, the first North Dakotan to reach the National Hockey League. Small wonder then that each Hill fight within the state’s borders drew fans from towns with names like Zap, Nome, Max, Donnybrook and Flasher.

For me, the few days I spent in Bismarck was like being transported back in time to a more innocent era when TV shows were in black-and-white and featured first-run episodes of Leave It to Beaver. There was casino gambling, but it wasn’t exactly like stepping inside the billion-dollar palaces on The Strip in Vegas where fortunes are routinely won by the turn of a card or a roll of tumbling dice. I played a bit of $1 blackjack at the downtown Sheraton Galleria, but there were only three tables and a betting limit of $5 per hand. Low-rollers heaven.

That a Virgil Hill could be what he became in North Dakota is somehow encouraging, a signal that America’s heartland does and should still have a say in how the business of our nation is conducted. Consider some of those in the fight game who also took the road less-traveled to the summit of their profession: Hall of Famer Carmen Basilio never fought in his hometown of Canastota, N.Y., site of the IBHOF but too small to host major fights with an everyday population of fewer than 5,000, but he logged 32 bouts in nearby Syracuse; Tony “The Tiger” Lopez fought 26 times on home turf in Sacramento, Calif.; Johnny Tapia (21 bouts) and Danny Romero (17) were huge box-office draws in Albuquerque, N.M., and Joey Gamache fought 28 times in his home state of Maine, winning all 18 in his birth city of Lewiston, which has a boxing history that clearly extends beyond the second Muhammad  Ali-Sonny Liston scrap on May 25, 1965.

Oh, sure, Vegas, New York and L.A. remain the most frequent landing spots for major fights in the U.S., now that Atlantic City has become a less-favored destination in the rotation. But Terence Crawford is reinvigorating the long-dormant boxing scene in his hometown of Omaha, Neb., and WBC heavyweight champ Deontay Wilder is showing that big hits in Alabama are not restricted to football fields in Tuscaloosa and Auburn. Wilder defends his title at the Legacy Arena in Birmingham for the third time when he takes on Chris Arreola on July 16.

Virgil Hill’s former promoter, Top Rank honcho Bob Arum, once expressed the opinion that, in Bismarck, Hill enjoyed “the greatest home-ring advantage of any American fighter.”

If that isn’t reason enough for more fighters to at least occasionally consider going back to their origins, what is?

Hail Virgil Hill