Hill’s legacy tarnished by his inner demons
Clarence Hill admits he feels like “the forgotten man” of Bermuda sport despite achieving a feat that no other island athlete has accomplished by winning an Olympic medal.
Hill is not beloved or revered in a way befitting of a man who became Bermuda’s first and only lord of the rings when he earned bronze in heavyweight boxing at the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
Unlike Clyde Best, the trailblazing black footballer who had a lane named in his honour in Somerset two years ago, or Johnny Barnes, the late, well-wisher who had a statue erected on East Broadway in 1998, there is nothing to commemorate Hill’s heroics.
Hill, however, has a chequered past — his fall from grace resembling a well-worn boxing cliché with dark shadows still looming over his achievements.
A troubled teen growing up in Newark, New Jersey, he had a natural propensity with his fists and turned to boxing to divert his energy from the streets to the ring.
The discipline and demands of the sport temporarily rescued him, with Hill qualifying for the Olympics with a string of devastating amateur displays before fulfilling his medal-winning prophecy.
At the age of 25, he felt on top of the world.
“Winning a medal at the Olympics and being on the podium was like, ‘Wow’,” said Hill, speaking outside Controversy Gym opposite Victoria Park, an environment where he still feels most at home. “Oh, man, I can’t even explain how it felt.
“Being young and doing something you loved, and then getting the privilege to represent your country at an Olympics — I felt on top of the world.
“But then I came home and the hype and the high dropped because I wasn’t represented in my own country. To this day I don’t feel represented in my own country and I still don’t get the credit I deserve.
“I’m the only person in the history of Bermuda to win an medal at the Olympic Games. I wouldn’t say it’s racial, I’d say it’s cultural.”
The big-punching southpaw fought three bouts in Montreal, winning two and losing one to secure a podium finish.
In an entry of 20, he was given a first-round bye, thus entering the final 16 where he destroyed Parviz Badpa of Iran, knocking him out in the third and final round.
In his second, Hill beat Belgium’s Raudy Gauwe on points before suffering a points defeat to Mircea Simon of Romania.
Initially he felt “robbed” but soon found solace in the realisation he had forever etched his name into Bermudian sporting folklore.
“I thought I’d won and when they announced my opponent as the winner people in the audience booed,” Hill said. “I can still remember all those fights.”
Hill’s semi-final loss denied him an opportunity to face the fabled Cuban Teófilo Stevenson, who remains the only heavyweight to have won gold at three successive Games.
Stevenson, who reportedly turned down $5 million to join the paid ranks and fight Muhammad Ali, unsurprisingly knocked out Simon in the final in Montreal.
Despite his fearsome reputation, Hill remains frustrated that he never went toe-to-toe with Stevenson.
Conventional wisdom suggests Hill would have suffered the same fate as Simon, although the 65-year-old insists his southpaw stance and roughhouse style would have troubled his more illustrious adversary.
“I wanted Stevenson bad,” Hill said. “People think I’m joking when I say this but I’m going to say it again — in 1976 I could have beat Stevenson. That’s how cocky I was back then.
“What people don’t understand is that I was a southpaw and that would have made it awkward for him.
“Stevenson fought standing up straight, looking for that one punch. I would have stayed in close and ‘kissed’ him.”
Four years later Hill turned professional and won 17 and drawing one of his 20 bouts before retiring in 1986.
His most notable fight, televised on CBS, was a unanimous decision loss to undefeated Tony Tubbs in 1982, a bout in which Hill floored the American in the first round.
Tubbs would later meet Mike Tyson during his late Eighties reign of terror — another boxer who has struggled with depression and addiction.
Like Tyson, Hill’s mental health issues came to fore once he stepped outside the sanctuary of the squared circle, his life swiftly unravelling soon after the collapse of his first marriage.
Feeling lost and disillusioned, Hill’s drug dependency led to crime and he was convicted of various offences and spent time in jail, further fuelling his long-lasting resentment towards the Government for its lack of support, both financially and morally.
“I haven’t been an angel, trust me,” Hill said. “I know I’ve done wrong in my life and I’m not going to sugar-coat anything.
“When I retired I got depressed and started my drug addiction. I told the Premier [John Swan] ‘sir, I’ve found myself getting hooked on drugs, can you get me back out of here?’
“He told me he couldn’t help me and I felt even more depressed. I used to hold a lot of grudges and felt like the Government owed me for what I’d done for Bermuda.
“My life just spiralled downhill; I had no job, I was homeless and I started living with a person who got me into crack cocaine. I tried it and got hooked on it.
“It’s a heck of a life and I started getting into lots of trouble.”
The Nelson Bascome Centre for Substance Abuse Treatment in Dockyard has been Hill’s home for the past year.
He insists he is winning his battle with addiction, which he considers his toughest opponent, and is set to move to a transitional house in St George’s before looking for a permanent place to rebuild his life.
“I’ve had to start dealing with me and looking at me now,” Hill said.
“I’ve been in rehab for a year and it’s working, man, and I feel great about it.
“When I come out I will be continuing my programme and having meetings to help me stay clean. I want to get my life back, find myself an apartment and go from there.”
Mystery surrounds the whereabouts of Hill’s bronze medal. He remains cryptic on the matter but insists he knows exactly where it is.
“I still have my medal but no one will ever see it,” he said. “I told Bermuda many years ago they would never see it because of the way they were treating me.
“People don’t think I have it, they think I’ve sold it, and if I have then it was mine to sell. The medal is just a material thing; it’s in black and white that I won an Olympic medal.”
Perhaps using Hill as a political pawn in the build-up to the 2012 general election, the previous Government announced its intention to erect a bronze statue of Hill in its Throne Speech of that year.
It triggered an outcry among some who deemed him unworthy of such an honour, while Hill has always maintained he would prefer money to be spent on improving Bermuda’s boxing facilities.
For Hill has never craved adulation. He just wants to be respected and, more importantly, remembered for his achievements inside the ring.
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