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Native boxing icon Virgil Hill to receive North Dakota Rough Rider Award

Posted 8/11/23 (Fri)

By C.S. Hagen

August 10, 2023

BISMARCK — Out of all the sparkling medals, belts and titles, winning the 48th North Dakota Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award means the most to Virgil Hill, a Native American professional boxer since 1984.

"This award means more to me than the five world titles and the Olympic silver medal. It's the highest thing for me, ever. I love North Dakota, and if it hadn't been for me being raised there, and my work ethic being developed there, none of it would have been possible," Hill told The Forum on Thurday, Aug. 10.

Established in 1961, the Rough Rider Award is the state’s highest commendation for its citizens. North Dakota Secretary of State Michael Howe and State Historical Society Director Bill Peterson both concurred with Gov. Doug Burgum’s selection of Hill for the award.

Raised in Grand Forks and Williston, Hill has represented North Dakota in the boxing ring for 51 years, often wearing a headdress and two state flags.

While many people — Native and non-Native alike — have considered Hill to be a boxing icon and a hero, for Hill, his father was always his hero.

"My ultimate hero was my dad. He was a plumber, and during the winter it is very difficult to be a plumber because you're under people's houses trying to thaw out pipes, and it's cold. I always remember my dad being steadfast and hardworking — a typical North Dakotan," said Hill, now 58 years old.

"He was an amazing man to me," he said.

As a child, Prairie Rose Seminole, a former Fargo resident, used to sneak into Hill’s boxing studio on Main Avenue, at the old firehouse where the Red Raven Espresso Parlor was once located.

“It was the superhero thing; we wanted to see some magic happen. Just being there was magic,” said Seminole, a member of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.

What she saw then she still remembers: a “larger than life boxing ring,” jump ropes and gym equipment. Rarely did the children sneak in when it was busy, but they were almost always caught.

Once, if she remembered correctly, she was caught by Hill and escorted off the premises.

“But they were never mean to us. We never stayed there long. I know him by watching him while growing up. He was the only Native on the scene, someone in whom we could see ourselves because that was not always happening,” Seminole said.

“The last time we ever got in trouble, we decided never to crawl through again,” she said, chuckling.

With a professional record of 51 wins, 7 losses, and 24 wins by knockout, Hill, who had the nickname “Quicksilver,” was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame in 2010, the International Boxing Hall of Fame in 2013, the Atlantic City Boxing Hall of Fame in 2019 and the National Hall of Fame in 2022. He fought such champions as Thomas Hearns, Roy Jones Jr. and Bobby Czyz.

Most recently, as a registered member of the MHA Nation, Hill was inducted into the North American Indigenous Athletics Hall of Fame in 2023.

As an amateur boxer, he held a record of 288 wins and 11 losses and won a silver medal while competing for the United States in the 1984 Olympic Games.

Hill didn't remember Seminole sneaking into his gym in Fargo but said he began boxing at 8 years old after watching the sport on television. He asked his father if he could box, and his dad said yes.

He started boxing in a Grand Forks basement underneath a camera shop that was so small he learned to stay away from the ropes, he said.

"It was wall to wall. If you got to close to the ropes, you could get banged in the face and then bang your head on the wall. It was a two-fer," Hill said jokingly. "But that's how we learned to stay off the ropes."

“Virgil Hill’s career was one of exceptional achievements and contributions. His journey from a talented amateur boxer to renowned professional champion and role model for youth exemplifies the power of dedication, determination and a strong connection to one’s roots,” said Burgum, who is also a presidential candidate for the 2024 Republican primary election, in a press release.

“His impact extends far beyond the boxing ring, making him a champion not only in the sport but also in his commitment to community and the causes he holds dear,” Burgum said.

As an amateur, Hill first caught the attention of the boxing world when he competed in the 1984 Olympic Games for the United States and won the silver medal as a middleweight, according to the North American Indigenous Athletics Hall of Fame.

Getting accepted into the Olympics wasn't easy, Hill said. He saw Olympic boxing on television, and once again asked his father if he thought he could make it.

"He said yes," Hill said.

He lost fights, but when he did he had to wait for permission to leave the competition.

"So, I finally got tired of sitting and watching fights, and put my head to the grindstone and got after it," Hill said.

He turned professional and fought as a light heavyweight and cruiserweight from 1984 to 2007. Over that career, he won five world titles and defended those titles 20 times before making a final farewell fight in his hometown of Bismarck in 2015.

When he fought in North Dakota, thousands of people flocked to arenas in Bismarck, Grand Forks, Minot and Fargo. In his final fight called “One Last Stand,” he defeated Jimmy "The British Assassin" Campbell, bringing the “world stage to his home state,” Burgum’s office said in the release.

“Hill carried the North Dakota state flag into the ring while wearing a tribal headdress and often credited the state for instilling in him positive core values and a strong work ethic,” the release said.

“He is a local celebrity for us and continues to be a good leader, saying, 'Go for your dreams,'" Seminole said.

"Young people in this day and age need to be reminded to just keep going for it," she said. "It's not common to have Natives recognized, and this is a prestigious award."

Since his retirement from boxing, Hill has been engaged in charitable work, supporting organizations focused on youth sports development, anti-bullying campaigns, veterans’ assistance and cultural preservation. He also continued to train athletes, especially young Native American athletes, while promoting North Dakota, the release said.

“North Dakota means so much to me. My whole life has revolved around everything I learned as a kid in North Dakota and trying to pass it on to the next generation,” said Hill, who learned about the Rough Rider Award as a boy.

Living in California, Hill is currently not helping any young boxers from North Dakota, but that's only because nobody has asked, he said.

"I would assist them if they asked me to, but nobody has reached out. My goal is to help our Native American kids have the opportunity to participate in the Olympics as well as represent themselves as Olympians," Hill said.

The 48th Rought Rider Award will be presented to Hill later this year at a date and location to be announced, Burgum’s office said.