Best I Faced: Verno Phillips
Battle-hardened veteran Verno Phillips held three portions of the junior middleweight title during the 1990s and early to mid 2000s, during what was a very respectable 20-year career.
Phillips was born in Belize City, Belize on November 29, 1969.
“I was a wild child,” Phillips told The Ring, with a laugh. “We weren’t poor but it wasn’t great. The houses were broken down, they didn’t have doors and windows. It was tough growing up there. I tried to help out, picking up stuff and with sanitation. I remember playing baseball and soccer and getting into a lot of fights.”
When Phillips was 10-years-old, his mother, a single parent, decided to move him and his younger sister from the poor Central American country to Troy in upstate New York, where his grandmother lived, for a better way of life.
Phillips took up boxing at 12-years-old after an altercation.
“I had a street fight with a friend and his brother said, ‘Hey, why don’t you come to the boxing gym?'” Phillips explained. “I stopped by the gym one time and that’s where it all started.”
As an amateur, Phillips won some state tournaments and even represented New York in dual meets in Europe. During the national PAL, he fought and lost to a young Roy Jones Jr.
After graduating high-school, Phillips took a job working at Watervliet Arsenal, a manufacturing facility owned and run by the U.S. Army but he was more interested in boxing. He quit the job just before turning professional, after going 57-7 in the unpaid ranks, in January 1988.
Phillips won his first four outings before running out of gas against Carl Sullivan, who also outpointed him in a direct rematch. In 1990, Phillips took Clarence White’s unbeaten record and dropped decisions to Larry Barnes and 1988 U.S Olympic representative Kenny Gould.
“The Cool Runner” returned with two wins and was offered a life changing opportunity.
“I got a call to fight in Argentina and grew as a fighter down there,” he said. “I lived there for two years. Down there it showed me to be more humble. I took that and nurtured that and came back and was a whole different person. To this day I still speak to the people in Argentina, I didn’t leave them behind.”
During his time in South America he gained valuable experience, notably beating future WBA 154-pound titlist Julio Cesar Vasquez by six round disqualification, going 9-0-1 before returning home due to family reasons.
Upon his return to America, Phillips won two fights and met big-punching Mexican Lupe Aquino for the vacant WBO junior middleweight title (below). Click here to watch Phillips v. Aquino from Oct. 30, 1993.
Phillips recovered from a first round trip to the canvas to stop Aquino in seven rounds and become the first and to date only fighter from Belize to win a world title.
“The dream came true,” he said. “It was on my grandmother’s birthday and winning her a title before she passed was a big part of my career.”
Phillips turned back the challenges of perennial contenders Jaime Llanes (TKO 7) and Santos Cordona (UD 12 and SD 12). He then took his title on the road to face former two-time world titleholder Gianfranco Rosi in Italy.
Initially, Phillips lost a unanimous decision. However, the fight was changed to a no-contest when Rosi failed a post-fight drugs test and Phillips was reinstated as the champion.
Next up, Phillips traveled to England and met unheralded Paul Jones. Phillips was widely expected to brush the British journeyman aside but was surprisingly outhustled, dropping the title by majority decision.
Phillips lost two out of his next three outings and his form was decidedly patchy over the next couple of years. However, he did manage to see off wily veteran Rosi (MD 12 in May of 1997) and stop big-punching former two-weight beltholder Julian Jackson (KO 9 in January of 1998) to stay relevant.
A loss to rising hopeful Kassim Ouma appeared to suggest his time at the top was over. Unperturbed, though, the seasoned veteran pushed on and won six fights, including besting Bronco McKart, Jaime Lerma and stunning Julio Garcia in one round, in March 2004, to earn him a shot at the vacant IBF 154-pound strap against Ouma. However, when the African pulled out because of injury, in stepped Carlos Bojorquez. Phillips stopped the Mexican in six-rounds.
“Winning another world title 11 years apart, not many people do that,” Phillips proudly said. “People thought I wasn’t the same anymore, they thought I was finished after my loss to Ouma.”
Phillips feels he overtrained and lost his title to Ouma in a rematch on Showtime in his first defense by 12-round unanimous decision. He lost a hard-fought 10-round decision to Ike Quartey and again appeared to be near the end.
He righted the ship with three wins to become the mandatory challenger to IBF titlist Cory Spinks.
The 38-year-old was tasked with facing Spinks in St. Louis, as a 7-1 underdog. Somehow, he was able to turn back father time and pull the upset by split decision.
“I trained hard, I was hungry and he gave me another opportunity and I wanted to show the world I still have it,” said Phillips. “I was one of the best fighters in the junior middleweight division. I wasn’t leaving his hometown without the title.”
Phillips vacated his title to face Paul Williams, who became only the second man to stop him, albeit in mitigating circumstances.
“I was getting ready to replace a root canal cap,” he explained. “I only had a temporary plastic and cracked it the night I left [home to travel to the fight], and it got infected. I’m not saying I would have won the fight, I would have done the whole 12-rounds. I told my corner I couldn’t continue because it makes no sense to take punches if I don’t think I’m winning the fight. I was hurt going into the ring.”
After issues with his promoter, Phillips decided to retire with a record of 42-11-1 (21 knockouts).
Phillips, now 51, lives in Colorado, he is married and has two children. He keeps busy with different activities outside boxing but also trains his son, who is 13-2 as an amateur.
He graciously took time to speak to The Ring about the best he fought in 10 key categories.
Ike Quartey: His jab was like his right hand, that is why they called him “Bazooka”.
Gianfranco Rosi: It was tough to land a clean shot on him. Even though he was past his prime, he still had his defense, he was an awkward fighter.
Kassim Ouma: He was young, he was hungry and he was a southpaw and that took me by surprise. Cory Spinks was fast but Ouma was a little faster.
Cory Spinks: He was a southpaw and slick, he’d bob and weave, he wasn’t out of control with his footwork.
Spinks: It’s between Cory Spinks and Gianfranco Rosi. Rosi was a smart fighter, he was a two-time world champion, he still had it, he was just a little older but he was still smart. Spinks was the smartest fighter. He was more of a thinker.
Julian Jackson: If you were in front of him, that’s why I was moving, and he caught you with a crunch hook, you’re definitely going down. When we were tied up and I was holding his weight, you could feel his strength. You couldn’t push him.
Lupe Aquino: He caught me pulling back with a hook and I went down, it was like a flash knockdown. I got back up and won the fight. If I would have stood right in front of Jackson and got a good clean shot, I probably would have went down. I trained to avoid his powershots.
Ouma: I was hitting him; he was eating them but he didn’t go down. I hurt him but he was in shape and didn’t go down.
BEST BOXING SKILLS
Rosi: He was a little older but if I’d fought him in his prime, he would have given me a helluva fight.
Ouma: He was a young kid, who was hungry and when I fought him, the first round I was like, ‘Oh wow, this kid is fast.’ so I had to switch it up. He brought the best out of me. Julian Jackson was still dangerous but he was probably past his prime. Rosi was an experienced fighter. Ike Quartey was one of the best.