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Native boxing legend Virgil Hill receives Rough Rider Award

Posted 10/31/23 (Tue)

By Scott Throlson/The Bismarck Tribune

October 30, 2023 at 10:08 PM

BISMARCK — Virgil Hill brought big-time professional boxing to North Dakota.

Wherever he traveled during his Hall of Fame career, he brought North Dakota along with him.

On Monday, the state honored the Olympic medalist and world champion one more time.

Gov. Doug Burgum presented the North Dakota Rough Rider Award to Hill, fittingly, in a boxing ring in the main arena at the Bismarck Event Center, where Hill fought so many of his big bouts.

“It means more to me than anything that I‘ve ever been awarded, any of my belts,” Hill said. “It means more to me than getting inducted into the Hall of Fame.”

Hill was the 48th recipient of the Rough Rider Award, which recognizes current and former North Dakotans who have been influenced by the state in achieving national prominence, along with past winners like Roger Maris, Louis L’Amour, Peggy Lee and Eric Sevareid.

Born in Clinton, Mo., Hill moved to Grand Forks in 1969 and was raised there and in Williston, where he went to high school.

He compiled a record of 288 wins and 11 losses as an amateur and won a silver medal at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

He turned pro in 1984 and won his first bout at Madison Square Garden in New York. He went on to win 51 of his 58 fights as a professional, winning 24 by knockout.

“I’m proud. I’m proud to be a North Dakotan,” Hill said. “I’m proud of the things they taught me – my work ethic, they taught me everything. I didn’t really learn anything more when I went abroad because I already had the work ethic and stuff like that. I just needed the opportunity.”

Hill fought all over the world during his professional career, during which “Quicksilver” was a five-time world champ, claiming titles in both the heavyweight and cruiserweight divisions. Nearly half of his pro bouts were held in North Dakota, including 14 in Bismarck at what was then called the Bismarck Civic Center.

He always felt a connection to his home state.

“None of this is possible,” Hill said. “None of what I accomplished in boxing is possible had it not been for the support that I had. I was lucky to have 750,000 people in my corner. And that’s what I brought into my corner every time I went to fight.”

Longtime manager Bill Sorensen introduced Hill during a program on Monday at the Event Center to present him with the Rough Rider Award.

“It bring a big smile to my face,” Sorensen said. “I’ve been looking forward to this for a long, long time. I know 21 of the people that won the Rough Rider Award, but I don’t know anyone that’s promoted the state of North Dakota like Virgil Hill has.”

Before the event, Sorensen was circulating through the Event Center, just like in the old days.

“Somebody told me I was pacing out there, and I said I always did. A lot of memories,” Sorensen said.

Whether back in North Dakota or overseas, Hill entered the ring wearing a tribal headdress and waving a North Dakota flag.

“He was very popular overseas, but what really made his career, and he understands this, is we were able to bring network television here because there were 7,000 screaming fans and they loved that for television,” Sorensen said “It helped his career a lot and it helped with his overseas audiences. He understood that at the time and he’s grateful for it now.”

Walking back into the Event Center and seeing the ring set up once again took Hill back. He was undefeated in the arena during his professional career.

“It brings back a lot of good memories,” Hill said. “I was very fortunate that I had a whole state that was behind me and followed me.”

The weather outside – gusting winds with flurries – also jogged memories.

“Luckily I got a little taste of the weather again,” Hill joked. “Now I live in southern California. Old Man winter showed up for the function.”

He closed his professional career with one final fight in Bismarck, winning a second-round TKO over Jimmy “The British Assassin” Campbell in February of 2015.

Since retiring, Hill has been active in charitable works, supporting organizations focused on youth sports development, anti-bullying campaigns, veterans’ assistance and cultural preservation. He has also trained other athletes and has a boxing gym in southern California.

“We’ve been doing a lot of reminiscing that last couple of days,” Sorensen said. “Being a boxing manager was nothing that I wanted to do. In fact, I turned him down a number of times but it’s one of the most fun things I’ve done in my life because he’s just such a true champion, worked so hard, he's so gracious, so grateful. It was fun for me to be involved.”

As a Rough Rider Award winner, Hill’s portrait will hang in the state capitol building along the other winners.

“This award was something that I wished I could earn and I’m glad that at the age of 59 that they are giving it to me. I’m very proud,” he said. “I don’t know if I can cover everything when I get up there. My mind is not what it used to be. But it started here and it ended here.

“I’m very honored to be on that list. I don’t know how to express what it means to me to be given that award from the North Dakota people.”