Big gloves to fill
Beads of sweat trickle down Virgil Hill Jr.’s 6-foot, 168-pound frame. His royal blue shorts and black Adidas shoes bounce up and down as his massive, shirtless upper body seemingly floats around the boxing ring.
His father and trainer, Virgil Hill Sr., exerts extra effort just to follow him around to spar. His son is too quick for him.
It used to be the other way around.
“When I was younger, I used to chase him around in the ring,” said Virgil Jr., 23. “He’d work on his quickness and agility and stuff like that. Those are my fondest memories.”
Now the tables have turned.
The 49-year-old Virgil Sr., a five-time world champion at light-heavyweight and cruiserweight, hasn’t fought in nearly six years. His son has never fought. He wasn’t allowed.
He will Friday at the 4 Bears Casino and Lodge in New Town – in his professional boxing debut.
His love all along
“I’ve been wanting to fight for as long as I can remember,” Virgil Jr. said Monday at Calavera Martial Arts and Boxing Club.
His professional debut will also be his overall debut because until March, he was a baseball player.
With a Hall of Fame boxer as Dad and a four-time Olympic sprinter – Denean Howard – as Mom, his peers expected him to excel athletically early on. He wanted to box like his father, who at the time was fighting the likes of Roy Jones Jr. and Thomas “The Hitman” Hearns.
“Most people have guys like Muhammad Ali that they idolize and Sugar Ray Leonard and Ray Robinson,” Virgil Jr. said. “My superhero is my father. For me he can do everything and do anything. I grew up idolizing him.”
But Howard, now amicably divorced with Virgil Sr., forbid her son from boxing.
“His mother was dead set on him not boxing,” Virgil Sr. said. “Just because she’s been through the tough times of boxing in my career.”
Virgil Jr. still tagged along to his father’s training sessions and fights, though, and developed a passion for the sport.
Meanwhile, he competed in football, basketball, baseball and track at Valencia (Calif.) High School and became a four-sport star. He received numerous scholarship offers and was selected by the Florida Marlins in the 28th round of the Major League Baseball Amateur Draft following his senior year.
Virgil Jr. elected to play junior college baseball at Los Angeles Mission College for two years, after which the St. Louis Cardinals drafted him in the sixth round of the MLB Amateur Draft. He played four seasons with the Cardinals organization – ending with their Class A affiliate, the Quad City (Iowa) River Bandits – before he was released in March.
He procured two offers from other teams, but it didn’t feel right.
He knew he wanted to begin professional boxing.
“My heart just wasn’t in (baseball) so I told my dad, we sat down and had a conversation,” Virgil Jr. said. “I said, ‘You know, I don’t love baseball but I love boxing. I want to box.’ It didn’t go too well with Mom. Dad was trying to keep me in baseball, but he supported me, supported my decision and now we’re going after it.”
Training with Dad
“It’s not every day a guy gets a five-time world champion as a coach, let alone as a father,” Virgil Jr. said. “He’s going to make sure I’m right. He’s got me in the best shape I’ve ever been in, in my entire life. I feel good, feel strong and I’m ready.”
Five months ago, Virgil Jr. was a speedy baseball player with a desire to box. His father’s job was to turn him into a fighter.
The pair spent the first two months working entirely on defense.
“He was already aggressive,” Virgil Sr. said. “We had to teach him how to block shots, counter and flip inside, stuff like that. That’s tough stuff.”
When they secured a fight date, training shifted to getting in shape. That was the easy part for the elder Hill.
“He wants to do everything and more,” Virgil Sr. said. “Most people you have to push to get them in shape. You can get spoiled as a coach because it’s so easy to train him because he just does whatever you ask him to do.”
Father and son have a great rapport, cracking jokes and poking fun at each other during a training session Monday. But it’s not always like that.
Virgil Jr. has been ready for Friday’s fight for nearly two weeks, his father said. They’re eagerly awaiting his pro debut. After that, it’ll be back to the grind. Just like it was in Virgil Sr.’s heyday.
North Dakota roots
Virgil Jr. recalls seeing exactly zero large buildings during his first trip to North Dakota. Growing up in California, he couldn’t believe his eyes. The open land was like nothing he’d ever seen.
“What did you do here growing up?” he asked his father.
Virgil Sr. recounted stories of running outside in minus-45-degree weather and other tales of the beautiful scenery.
North Dakota is where he made a name for himself – first as an amateur in Williston and later producing a 26-0 record in pro fights in his home state.
“This is still his home,” said local boxing coach Richard Calavera, a longtime friend of Virgil Sr. “He still calls North Dakota his home. Even though his boy is living in Califorinia, this is where he spread his wings. He’s still a North Dakotan.”
Virgil Jr. hopes to have a career as successful as his dad. It might as well begin in North Dakota, he said
“The only reason I’m picking up a set of gloves is because of my father,” he said. “It means much more to me. It’s more than a game. It’s more than a boxing match. It’s family.
“If he started in North Dakota, then that’s where I want to start. It means just as much to him as it does to me.”
It’s uncommon for boxers to begin their professional careers as the main event.
But Virgil Jr.’s super-middleweight bout on Friday against 23-year-old Brent Moorehead of Texas City, Texas, will be just that. The home crowd will undoubtedly cheer for him. They’ll judge him, too, his father said.
“Being that I’m from here and he’s my son, yeah, I think that the fanfare will be on his side,” Virgil Sr. said. “But he also has a huge amount of pressure, because everybody’s going to be looking at him. They’re going to scrutinize him – his style, how does he look, can he box?”
Virgil Sr. is less nervous for his son’s professional debut than he ever was for any of his fights, he said. Not because he cares any less, but because he knows his son is prepared.
He can’t wait to watch him dance around the ring and emulate his old man’s fighting style. Virgil Jr. has more of a taste for his right hand, however, and his father said his son punches harder than he ever did at light-heavyweight. When they spar in practice, Virgil Sr. dons a body pad and tapes his wrists for protection. Practice is nearly over, though. He knows his son is ready.
Virgil Jr. shares the same name as his father, but he wants to make a name for himself. Beginning Friday.
“Most people say, ‘You’ve got big shoes to fill,'” he said. “Personally, I like it. I see it as a challenge. If I get anywhere close to what he did in his career, I’ll be all right.”
Ryan Holmgren covers general assignment and high school sports. Follow him on Twitter @ryanholmgrenMDN.