"I'm just like any other North Dakota person," Virgil Hill was saying as the television set in his hotel room blared Virgil trivia on the local news and zoomed in on boxing fans decked out in Virgil T-shirts. "I mean, except that I'm the champion of the world." The modest, 25-year-old Hill could cite other exceptions. Not every North Dakotan has a left hand quick as prairie lightning. And not every North Dakotan has his portrait hanging in the governor's office.
"Virgil epitomizes the North Dakota spirit—determination and loyalty," said Governor George Sinner last week. Admirers in the Peace Garden State mob Hill on the streets, and women ask him to sign their skin. There are probably more toddlers named Virgil in North Dakota than in any other state. "He put us on the map," says a Bismarck fan.
North Dakota began its love affair with Hill the day he brought home a silver medal from the 1984 Olympics. And the passion has only intensified as Hill has won all 25 of his pro fights, including six successful defenses of his World Boxing Association light heavyweight title. Hill has returned the affection by showcasing his talent not in Atlantic City or Las Vegas, but in the state's capital, Bismarck. Last Saturday, Hill defended his title in the 8,500-seat Civic Center for the fourth time, by knocking out Joe Lasisi of Nigeria in the seventh round.
Born in Clinton, Mo., Hill grew up in Grand Forks and Williston, N. Dak. He now trains in Las Vegas, but he returns home often to do charity work and hang out with family and friends. "North Dakota people are genuine, hardworking, the best you'll find anywhere," he says. "Maybe I pay a price in terms of purses and national fame by fighting here all the time, but I love the place."
Lasisi, Hill's 32-year-old opponent, is a journeyman puncher whose only weapon is a murderous right hand; his 22-0 record going into the Bismarck bout included 20 knockouts. Lasisi came to the U.S. in 1986 and signed on as Hill's sparring partner. The fighters became friends—"like brothers," both, say—but last week Hill charged that Lasisi was "betraying our friendship" by challenging him in the ring. "He could have fought [IBF light heavyweight champ] Prince Charles Williams," said Hill. "Joe-Joe must think I'm the lesser opponent. He won't think so when I knock him out. I want his head."
Lasisi replied that friendship was one thing, business another: Hill was simply the more lucrative opponent. "There is no friendship in the ring. And I know his logic, his tricks," said the challenger. "I want his head."
While much of this rancor was hype, Hill was indeed miffed that his friend had chosen to fight him instead of Williams. Lasisi thought a friend would understand his reason: Lasisi's $105,000 payday was $100,000 richer than his best previous one. (Hill made $300,000) Still, after refusing to pose with Lasisi at a prefight press conference, Hill explained privately that they were afraid that if they had to pose too long, making all those mean faces at each other, they might break up laughing.
The local hero was serious enough on Saturday. Once the fight began, Hill brought the crowd to its feet with a first-round knockdown that was almost accidental: Lasisi had walked into an ordinary jab. The challenger was up quickly to take a mandatory eight count. Over the next three rounds Lasisi stalked, feinted and jabbed but seemed disinclined to do anything with his fabled right hand—except lower it. Each time Lasisi threw a jab he dropped his right, and each time. Hill hit him with a left.
Midway through the fifth, Lasisi finally landed the big right. Hill's eyes flew open. His knees wobbled. The faithful uttered a collective gasp. Lasisi charged and swung, trying to follow up his advantage, but he was wide of his target, and the moment passed. Hill escaped to jab again, his gloves making popcorn sounds on Lasisi's skin and reopening a cut over the challenger's right eye that had first appeared in the fourth.
In the seventh, Hill whistled a left hook to the right side of the challenger's head. Lasisi shook. Another left sent him to the ropes, and down went the gates of his defense. Hill rained blows until referee Hubert Earle stopped the assault with 1:04 left in the round. A moment later, Hill's 18-month-old son, Paul, who had slept through most of the action, found himself snug in his father's gloves, being paraded around the ring while Hill's fans chanted the name of their own favorite son.