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Exclusive Interview with Bill Hillman

Bill Hillman is a writer and a fighter from Chicago and he runs with the bulls. Exactly what is says on the tin. This man has such an infectious and unique story it is hard not to want to read what is about to unravel in front of your eyes. Without further ado this is Will Vickers and Bill Hillman deep thought with one another. Enjoy the ride!

Can you tell us about your upbringing in Chicago and how you first became involved with boxing?

I came up in a great but dangerous neighbourhood. The older gang kids would make us fight bare knuckle to see who was the toughest. I fought a lot, I fought over a hundred street fights before I ever met a Christian Brother named Peter at Saint Joseph high school. He was humongous energetic History Teacher from Bridgeport on the South side and a Chicago Park District champion in his youth and he’d trained several Golden Gloves Champions. I asked if Brother Peter would train me and we started hard-core toe-to-toe sparring in the wrestling room in the basement of the gym. It was brutal torturous training. I instantly fell in love with the sport. Brother had a way of breaking you down and then building you up until you were a vicious pit bull ready to unleash wrath on anybody who stepped in the ring with you.

Your amateur boxing career, do any fights stand out in your mind? And where have you boxed?

I beat Jermaine White who went on to fight Chavez Jr as a pro. I fought several ranked guys. I was a finalist in the Illinois State Open Division and lost a close decision to a top ten nationally ranked guy. I won a Chicago Golden Gloves title at Saint Andrews gym which is a boxing mecca in its own right. It kind of has the same vibe as York Hall in London, sadly they don’t hold fights at Saint Andrews anymore. The Chicago Golden Gloves selected me for three international teams, I beat a guy from England when their team came to Chicago then when we went to Spennymoor, England I fought a guy named Brian Denem, he was a 6”4’ southpaw ranked highly in England. I dropped him in the first but he got up and edged me in a majority decision that could have gone either way. Then we went to the nation of Oman a year later and I fought Derek Zugic who was ranked 3rd in the nation in the USA. It was close and ended in a draw, I know what you’re thinking, there are no draws in Amateur boxing, but we were going by Oman rules. It was funny because the local TV station chose to do a segment on me for some reason, and I was fighting another guy the next day, he had about 20 pounds on me and he caught me and I slipped and fell down. They ruled it a knockdown and I got pissed and got up and put an ass-whooping on him then afterwards he’s complaining that I hurt his jaw, I’m like, Man! You just embarrassed me on TV!

Late in my career, I took a fight on one days’ notice, I’d been sick with strep throat but was feeling better and I was still taking anti-biotics, I had just come back to the gym after a week out and sparred and got the better of a 16-year-old Cedric Agnew, who went on to be an incredible powerhouse and fight Kovalev for the world title, I only went two rounds cause I was still sick. But Sam Colonna didn’t know that I was sick, so he offered me to fight some guy named Luciano Perez that I’d never heard of. The winner is going get a pro contract, Sam told me.

I shrugged and said OK. Sam tells me, but you have to lose ten pounds. I’ll try. He put this slimy green potion all over me and got me in a plastic sweat suit and I lost 8 pounds. I weighed in and the fight was made. I came out and boxed Luciano real well in the first round, Luciano couldn’t touch mebecause I had good feet and started low blowing me with bombs. In the second I got real tired and he snuck a right hook around my guard and surprised me and suddenly I was floating upward in a golden haze, I thought I was dead. I landed and the ref was counting in my face. He asked are you ok? He asked. No! I replied. Then he leaned in and whispered, now go over there and mess him up. So I did, I battered Luciano to the ropes and almost had him out and the bell rang. I’d shot my wad. I collapsed in the corner. Sam told me, Fake like your hands hurt and started taking off my glove. I stopped him. Naw, Sam I don’t want to quit. Then he yells to Andrew Golatawho’s sitting in the front row and Andrew comes up in my corner and tells me, Hit him with the overhand right! You’ll hurt him! We’d sparred before. So, I go out there and throw an overhand and miss and Luciano put a real beat down on me. He was in great shape. I finally fell into the ropes exhausted and the ref got between us. He looked over at the time keeper and screamed, Ring that bloody bell! The time keeper did and the fight was over and we were only a minute into the last round. And that’s the only reason I can say, I never got stopped in my boxing career. Luciano got the pro contract and went on to have a good pro career, fought on TV a few times but anyone that moved their feet well, he couldn’t find them. If I was in shape and wasn’t sick, and didn’t lose all that weight, I think that would have beaten himtoo but we’ll never know.

Have you sparred any big names in your time, and how did this go?

I sparred a little Asian guy when I was 16 and a welterweight, he was a pro bantamweight and he was getting ready for a lesser world title shot like the IBO or IBA or something. He was kind of tired and I surprised him with a counter right-cross over his jab and dropped him. He popped right up and a month later won the title. That’s when Sam Colonna first noticed me and gave me an open invitation to train at Windy City.Sparring at Windy City was epic, especially on Saturday around noon. Top notch celebrity boxers sparred in there all the time. I sparred with Rico Gonzalez who was an Olympian for San Salvador and had a short pro run. He really taught me a ton, he fought out of the pocket like a magician and brought the best out of me.  But the best consistent sparring partner I had might have been a guy most people never heard of named Chet The Jet. He is a master boxer but never turned pro, he could have done big things, we sparred a hundred rounds, he taught me a lot. Years later I sparred Fearless Fernando Hernandez who was ranked in the world as a pro. I gave him a black eye but he kind of fucked me up with his Southpaw jab. I sparred a pro Mike Nevitt a bunch and kind of got the better of him the first two times, then he got fired up and kicked my ass in revenge. A world ranked Oscar Bravo put the worst beating on me I ever got in sparring. Every single shot hit me perfectly on the chin. I was late and wasn’t warmed up and Sam, yelled at me to get in there and give him work. Bad idea. I sparred Don Da Bomb George nothing, really happened.

I sparred Tim Skolnik a bunch, he was an Olympic Alternate in the Athens Games, I busted his nose and kicked his ass a few times but he gave me a black eye our last outs and a concussion. I sparred several rounds with a young Cedric Agnew, he was a junior national champion and I was twenty, we went back and forth pretty evenly but even so he had special talent and toughness even back then, of course Agnew later fought for a world title.  But that’s life sparring, sometimes you catch guys on an off day and fuck ‘em up and they come back and beat your ass a week later, but there was no question I had the talent and chin to hang with top fighters.

The craziest sparring I ever did was the day I sparred with Andrew Golata. He wasn’t wearing a head gear which was supposed to even it out because I was only like 190 at the time but it made it worse cause then I had to look at his scary fucking face. I landed some body shots and the guys watching owweed and laughed and that got Golata fired up and he started bombing body shots on me. He was hitting me so hard my feet were flying a foot off the ground. Sam screamed at him to stop the crap but he wouldn’t so I did what Rocky Martinez told me to do and rushed in and when Golata jabbed I slipped his jab and threw an overhand right over the top of his jab. A tremendous pressure locked on my fist, shot to my elbow, then to my shoulder and almost knocked me down. I looked up and Andrew’s knees buckled and his eyes bounced around his head like pin balls. He’d walked into my bomb of an overhand right and I’d caught him perfectly on the chin, out of pure luck. Andrew’s eyes clear and he started bouncing around the ring and swearing in Polish. I thought he was going to kill me but he didn’t. So, I started throwing punches and at the end of the round I landed a little combo at the bell and the last punch was board-line late so I said sorry Andrew and turned away. Suddenly something swirled in my periphery,  and a tremendous uppercut smashed into my chin. I flew up a foot off the canvas and came down out on my feet. Andrew’d fouled about three seconds after the bell. In the weirdest way, it was an act of respect from a guy like Andrew. But oh man, I never stepped in the ring with him again.

Arguably the best pro I sparred the most with is Adrian Granados. He’s kind of like my younger brother in boxing, he went to Saint Joe’s about five years after me and started boxing with Brother Peter and I was around to give him some pointers on the bag and with the mitts. He went on to train with Rico Gonzalez who’s become excellent trainer and the best mitt man in Chicago and under Rico and Brother Adrian became and National Amateur Champion and an Olympic Alternate for Mexico because he’s a duel citizen, so real late in my boxing days, Brother asks me to come down to spar Adrian and I say ok for old time’s sake, I think Brother just wanted to know who was better,ya know, like who was champ of the wrestling room in the basement of Saint Joe’s. The first day we sparred Adrian unloaded on me and I kind of pot-shot’d him and he probably won 2 rounds to 1. The second day I had a plan, I shelled up and fought off my back foot and timed and countered Adrian and won the second round and then the last round I used my weight advantage and bullied him a little and probably bested him 2 rounds to 1.  And that was it,I never sparred with him again and I never will. And that’s one of the wises decisions I ever made in boxing. Adrian’d beat the living hell out of me now. He’s really an incredible fighter and if he goes down to 140, he’ll be a world champion and who knows he might even win a title at welter. He’s a special fighter, incredible and deceptive skill, outrageous heart. He’s like a real life rocky movie at 140. ADRIAN!!!!

Why did you hang them up?

I was a total mess in my early twenties, I spent too much time high and drunk running around with Irvine Welsh, Marty Tunney, Joe Suta, and Fred Burkhart in the Chicago writing and arts scene to completely focus on boxing.  I was always going to jail or fucking up. I didn’t know I had BiPolar disorder and I was really nuts.

Here’s an example: Marty Tunney got me scheduled to fight against an Irish Team that came to Chicago, a big fight, could help me turn pro afterwards. So, three weeks out I get into a fight and I knock out this giant 6’6”guy at a party with an overhand right, one punch bam but I opened a big gash on my knuckle from his tooth. So, I keep training and the next weekend, I knock out this mouthy little asshole with a left hook on Clark street and bust up my left hand. I keep trying to spar and get ready for the Irish Team but both my hands are fucked up. Guys stopped believing me,cause I would complain about one hand, then later complain about the other hand. It sounded ridiculous. I busted both hands in two different fist fights within a week of each other. Finally, the gash on my right hand gets severely infected and I end up in the hospital for a week dazed out on morphine while they decide if they need to cut my hand off to save my life.  Needless to say, I didn’t fight the Irish Team. I completely underachieved as a boxer. I hung them up, it was the right choice. It was a lesson for my life. If you keep fucking up, your dreams will die and disintegrate before your very eyes.

So, I got sober, I got on medication for BiPolar and I’ve managed to overachieve as a writer and I’m just getting started. So, in the end hanging them up was a very good thing for my life.

Your Bull Running experiences in Spain, are very well known. How did all of this begin? Why do you do it? And, could you tell us how you got injured?

I quit boxing in 2005 and that was my first year going to Spain to run with the Bulls. My friend Irvine Welsh was getting married in Dublin right before Fiesta started so I went to the wedding then to the fiesta. I fell in love with it. There’s a really beautiful cultural art in bull-running. I started to emulate the great Basque runners like Juan Pedro Lecuona and slowly learned the tradition until I was running on the horns of bulls regularly. When you run in front of a bull it locks onto you and if you’re lucky it accepts you as its leader, that’s running on the horns. Of course, it’s really dangerous to do it because if the bull changes his mind he can gore you and kill you. To put this in perspective, only a handful of people from countries outside of Spain have been able to run like that consistently like I have. It is very rare. So, I got gored in 2014 twice in the thigh and the horn brushed my artery, had it severed it I might have died. Afterward I said I’d run again and that was the moment the Spanish and Basque runners realized I was the real thing. They came to visit me and befriended me and now the iconic Basque bull-runner Juan Pedro Lecuona is one of my dearest friends in the world, Dyango Velasco from Cuellar is my brother, the late great JulenMadina was a dear teacher to me, and younger guys like AitorAreistregui, XabiMentegi, David Lerga, and Christian Yoldi, they’re like younger brothers to me. Since then, I took three months and ran over two hundred bull-runs all-across Spain in 2016. There is a vast and fascinating culture of Bull running all over Spain and literally thousands of runs. I have friends all over Spain now. Last year I got gored again and came back two days later and ran again. After that the Spanish and Basque bull runners embraced me in a way I’ve never been embraced in my whole life. I tried to walk three blocks from the bull ring to my friend’s apartment in Plaza de Castillo, Spanish and Basque well-wishers stopped me over a hundred times, to give me me hugs, ask how I was, invite me to their towns, take selfies with me and these weren’t all just random people, some were great runners and figures in the culture. It took me over an hour to walk those three streets. It was a very humbling and moving experience. I’m very well loved in Spain and Basque Country but I love the people, the bulls and the culture more than they’ll ever know. They changed my life for the better in so many ways. I will always stand up and fight for the running of the bulls. It is one of the great traditions of all humanity.

Who are your favourite boxers of all time, and boxers at present? Why?

Jack Dempsey, the Willard fight is such a classic on how a small compact guy should fight a tall big guy, (minus the wraps controversy of course).

Muhammad Ali, one of the greatest human beings of all time. In his youth, he was flashy and pretty in old age he was so incredibly cleaver and the ultimate master boxer.

Young Mike Tyson, he was like Dempsey except faster and more explosive. In the mid 80’s Tyson was the most devastating heavyweight of all time. If Cus had lived another ten years Tyson would have beaten Holyfield and Lewis, but we’ll never know. Now sadly, most people remember the Tyson of his later years when he had already fallen apart technically and was a shadow of himself.

Roy Jones Jr., in the 90’s he was an unparalleled talent. His abilities at middle and super-middle will likely never be seen again. Sadly, he continues to fight. I hope he hangs them up.

Golovkin, he’s got the personality and charm and the power and skill that really makes him easy to like.

Jake Lomatta, a great personality and completely underrated pressure fighter.

Gatti, what an incredible fighter so many fights of the year.

Crawford, he showed me he has what it takes to beat Lomachenko in his recent win over the African. Crawford has rare skill, focus, power and patience.

Lomachenko, is an anomaly in boxing. He does things that make even great fighters like Rigondeaux quit. He’s special.

Thurman, he’s unified the division against some incredibly tough guys. He’s awesome, speed quickness, reflexes, skill, he knows how to win a fight by inches, and even though he hasn’t blown anyone away recently he has dynamite power.

Spence, he has a grinding kind of power that just chops through people’s guard. I think he has a chance at beating Thurman and Crawford but both will likely wisely let him get older before they face him.

Beterbiev, he is outrageously skilled and powerful, I can’t wait to see him against a name. I think he’ll knock out Stevenson, and maybe even beat Kovalev.

Salido, is one of the greatest fighters of this generation, completely underrated and underappreciated, he’s like a Gatti of today.

What were your highlights and lows of boxing in 2017?

2017 was by far the greatest year in boxing this century. I would love to hear anyone chime in with a better year in boxing’s entire history. 2017 showed us that when the best, fight the best incredible things can happen. Joshua-Klitschko was absolutely historic, one of the greatest heavyweight fights in history. GGG Canelo was also historic and one of the greatest middleweight fights in history and I love that they scored it a draw. It was a draw. And hopefully the draw forces a second fight and forces them to go for broke in the second fight. Loma versus Rigo was a high paced defensive masterpiece. Thurman unified and gave Garcia his first loss in an awesome fight in front of millions on free TV. We sawChocolatito knocked out and dethroned. Wilder got the chip put back on his shoulder and decimated Stivern and now no one has stepped in the ring with either him or Joshua that they haven’t knocked out. Not only did we get those fights but the lesser fights were incredible too. JamesDeGale, Spence Brook, Salido Roman, Taylor McCaskill, Chicago’s Garfield Park, The Broke Team is on a rampage, Granados eclipsed half a million bucks in purses this year and I think clearly beat Broner, Greer’s night-night knockout with the pillow, Gallimore has had two huge Kos, Eddie Ramirez put together a masterpiece stopping Ryan Karl, all of them dedicating their wins to the late great Ed Bad Boy Brown, Garfield Park’s Head Trainer George Hernandez deserves a trophy for putting that year together with his previously, relatively-unknown stable. It was a truly great year in boxing for so many reasons.

My only two gripes are the Kovalev Ward fights which stunk of bad judging and bad refereeing, and Eddie Ramirez’s stoppage loss which was a travesty. Eddie would have won that fight.

What do you do as a profession now? And what can we look forward to in the future from Bill Hillman?

I’m a writer, journalist, and author. I’ve got two books out The Old Neighborhood and Mozos: A Decade Running With the Bulls of Spain. Right, now I’m working on turning The Old Neighborhood into a trilogy and a second bull book called The Pueblos about my crazy summer running over 200 bull runs all across Spain, it’ll end with my most recent goring. I’m also working on doing some biographies and hopefully some of them will be on boxers.

Anything else you would like to leave the readers with?

I could have been a contender!!!Naw, not really, but I love the sport of boxing and boxing was very good to me.