BISMARCK, N.D. – Five-time world champion Virgil Hill stepped into the Bismarck Event Center boxing ring one more time today to receive the North Dakota Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Award from Gov. Doug Burgum. Hill is the 48th recipient of the Rough Rider Award, the state’s highest commendation for its citizens.
Family members, friends and boxing fans attended the ceremony for Hill, who was raised in Grand Forks and Williston and won a silver medal in the middleweight division during the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Hill went on to build an impressive professional record of 51 wins and 7 losses, with 23 wins by knockout. He set the record for the number of light heavyweight title defenses at 20 and was a first-round inductee into both the National Boxing Hall of Fame and International Boxing Hall of Fame.
“To us, Virgil, you’ve always exemplified the best qualities of North Dakotans: tough, brave, determined, durable, resilient, generous, grateful, humble, and like many of us, immensely proud to call North Dakota home,” Burgum said.
Burgum presented the Rough Rider Award to Hill in a boxing ring inside what used to be known as the Bismarck Civic Center, where Hill fought many memorable bouts, including his “One Last Stand” victory in 2015 to end his career before a crowd of approximately 4,000 fans.
“For those of you and those of us who lived through the 1980s and 90s … the name Virgil Hill is synonymous with boxing,” Burgum said, noting that 27 of Hill’s 58 professional fights were in North Dakota. “Wherever he went, Virgil was first and foremost a North Dakotan, a true ambassador of our state, proudly carrying our blue flag with its eagle with outstretched wings into the ring.”
Hill called the Rough Rider Award “the biggest award that I’ve ever received.”
“I won five world titles; I gave all my belts away. I won a silver medal; I gave that away, too. I’m not giving this one away,” he said. “I’m very proud and very honored that you guys thought that I was worthy of this (award), and thank you.”
Hill credited the work ethic he learned in North Dakota for his success.
“This is what molded my drive. And don’t let them ever tell you that you can’t, because you can,” he said.
Hill’s friend and former trainer, Al Larsien, who grew up with Hill from grade school on up, called Hill an extremely talented athlete and “fierce competitor” who wouldn’t be outworked.
“He just did not have any quit,” Larsien said.
Hill’s heartbreaking loss in the Olympic gold medal match – which Larsien and many other observers believe Hill won – turned out to be a blessing in disguise, Larsien said.
“Because it was like throwing fuel on this never-ending fire that burned in his belly,” he said.
Mark Fox, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara (MHA) Nation, who ran in the same local boxing circles as Hill during his adolescent and college years, said Hill was a “very driven” competitor and an inspiration to Native Americans everywhere – someone who never forgot the people who shaped his life and career along the way. Fox gave Hill a war bonnet, similar to those Hill frequently wore into the ring as a proud display of his Native American heritage.
For many, Hill made the impossible seem attainable, Fox said.
“He made us all understand … with some talent and a lot of hard work, you can attain these things if you commit yourselves to that,” Fox said. “And that’s what he did, and gave us all a lot of hope – and not just in sports, but in our careers, in starting a business, in community relations, in raising a family, in being a good father.”
Beyond his boxing achievements, Hill actively engaged in charitable works, supporting organizations focused on youth sports development, anti-bullying campaigns, veterans' assistance and cultural preservation. Since his retirement from boxing, Hill has continued to train athletes and promote North Dakota, going out of his way to train young Native American athletes and provide opportunities for them to excel in their chosen sport.
Fran Joerz, a former board member for Make-A-Wish, recalled how Hill formed a special bond with a young cancer patient and visited the child frequently, even giving the boy a pair of his boxing gloves.
“Every time Ryan went to chemo, he packed his boxing gloves that Virgil gave him,” she said, reading a quote from Hill that was published in the Bismarck Tribune back then. “’Boxing is a tough sport, but not as tough as what this little guy goes through. What a trooper this kid is. He’s more of a man than I will ever be,’” Hill was quoted as saying.
Hill’s friend and former manager Bill Sorenson, who served as master of ceremonies, said Hill is “extremely well-deserving” of the Rough Rider Award, which recognizes present and former North Dakotans who have been influenced by the state in achieving national recognition in their fields of endeavor, thereby reflecting credit and honor upon North Dakota and its citizens.
“I’ve known not a person that’s gone out of their way to promote North Dakota like Virgil Hill,” he said.
North Dakota Secretary of State Michael Howe and State Historical Society Director Bill Peterson, both of whom concurred with Burgum’s selection of Hill for the Rough Rider Award, assisted in unveiling the official portrait of Hill. The portrait was painted by Minot-based artist Vern Skaug, who since 1970 has painted many of the portraits hanging in the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Rider Hall of Fame at the North Dakota Capitol.
Established during the 1961 Dakota Territory Centennial, the award was initially given as an honorary rank of Colonel in the Theodore Roosevelt Rough Riders.