Herald Top 5 memories: It was an entertaining night at the old Ralph for a Virgil Hill Fight
Editor's note: This is the first installment of a series in which the Grand Forks Herald's veteran sports staff ranks their top five memorable moments. Herald sports editor Wayne Nelson opens the series with his No. 5 memorable moment.
In the late 1980s and a good chunk of the 1990s, Virgil Hill, who grew up in Grand Forks, was a big attraction in North Dakota sports -- perhaps the biggest. His boxing matches in the state were legendary -- thousands of North Dakota fans in electric atmospheres watching their favorite boxer win championship bout after championship bout.
In April of 1996, Hill fought New Yorker Lou DelValle in old Ralph Engelstad Arena -- the main event of HBO’s Boxing After Dark. The cable network’s BAD events began late Saturday nights, this one in Grand Forks starting at 10:30 p.m. The Herald sports staff had another name for Boxing After Dark -- Boxing After Deadline.
I covered that Hill-DelValle fight, the World Boxing Association light heavyweight title bout that began at 11:40 p.m. -- the normal deadline for a regular sports night at the Herald at the time. Because of the high interest in the fight, the Herald delayed the late press run to include the story. I’ve scrambled on deadline many nights over 40-plus years in this business -- none more so on this night.
DelValle talked the talk leading up to the fight. Before the fight, DelValle told Hill: “I’m going to knock you out punk. You’d better learn some new tricks because I’m going to knock you out. You’re dead. You’re dead.”
More than 6,000 roaring fans in the old Ralph wouldn’t let Hill lose the fight, although it was closer than anticipated. Hill won a close decision even though DelValle knocked Hill to the canvas in the second round with a left hook.
Hill said it wasn’t his best fight. DelValle’s manager, Joe DeGuardia, thought his fighter won. “Anything Virgil does affects the judges,” he said. “If this was any place neutral, we get the decision.”
Hill, a 20-1 favorite, improved to 42-1 with the win while DelValle lost for the first time in 23 bouts.
The day after the fight, I tracked down DelValle -- nicknamed “Honey Boy” -- at his motel for a second-day story. He was anything but cocky. Gone was the bravado displayed before the fight. After a pleasant interview, he asked if I could do him a favor and take some of the Bit-O-Honey candies he had in his room. The small candies -- hundreds of them -- were in a huge cardboard box on his counter. He brought the candies to throw out during his Engelstad Arena entrance the previous night.
I obliged, but my jacket pockets were only so big.
That night still resonates with me, not only because of the title bout but by the electricity in the arena and other not-so-normal things you see covering sports.
My seat was near the ring apron -- you couldn’t get any closer to the ring than where my seat was located.
On the undercard was the fight between Obed Sullivan and Buster Mathis Jr., who fought Mike Tyson two months earlier.
Mathis Jr. and Sullivan were two massive heavyweights pounding each other relentlessly. At one point during the bout, the two heavyweights were slugging it out on the ropes right above my seat.
I had my trusty Radio Shack TRS 80 laptop -- now an ancient relic -- right in front of me. Looking down to begin typing, I noticed there was some type of a sludge on my keyboard, no doubt the fallout from the punches landed above me.
Somehow, I struggled to clear the keyboard and keep typing.
These days, I probably would have needed to call a crew with Hazmat suits to clean the keyboard.
All-in-all, it was a top five night in my years of covering sports.