Joe Hipp: Blackfeet Indian Reservation’s Warrior Sticks Close to Boxing

By Brian D'Ambrosio on February 27, 2013
Joe Hipp: Blackfeet Indian Reservation’s Warrior Sticks Close to Boxing
“I see a lack of respect,” says Joe Hipp, "for elders from young people on reservations.”

Hipp was born on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Montana, on December 7, 1962; his mother was a full-blooded tribal member…

It was one of the most brutal boxing wars of its decade. That June 1992 afternoon when Joe “The Boss” Hipp and Tommy “The Duke” Morrison walloped it out for nine grueling rounds.

Hipp, the upfront southpaw, even broke the jaw of the heavily favored Morrison. The resilient Hipp absorbed plenty of punishment as well; Morrison broke one hand and badly fractured the other. To match these injuries, Morrison sustained a nasty gash over his right eye, which required around 40 stitches.

Hipp was an 11 to 1 underdog, which didn’t irritate Hipp in the least. “I was an underdog through all my early fights,” says Hipp. “People looked at me and said, ‘This guy doesn’t look like a fighter.’ No one who ever fought me said afterwards that I wasn’t a fighter.”

Hipp was born on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Montana, on December 7, 1962; his mother was a full-blooded tribal member. For most of his career he fought out of Yakima, Washington, the city he and his family relocated to when he was six years old. Hipp began his professional career in 1987, at age 25. He went on to become the first boxer of Native-American ancestry to compete for a version of the heavyweight championship.

“Browning was a tough place,” recalls Hipp, “My family had no money, my parents worked hard, and we had miserable winters. To get out of Browning for a native kid is a big thing. I had uncles and friends who boxed, but they never made it off the reservation. Once they turn into their teens, alcoholism and other distractions pull many native kids down.

“I started boxing at eight, and I’ve been fighting my whole life. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and to be. I used to drink quite a bit and that’s never good. When I was boxing, I couldn’t do the things my friends could do on Friday night, which is fine, because I would have ended in jail or shot. Boxing was a way to get out and to make a new kind of life.”

Once he dedicated his mind—and fists—to pugilism, Hipp became a fan favorite, referred to as “The Boss” by his loyal following. In 1994 he captured the NABF (North American Boxing Federation) heavyweight title with a points win over Alex Garcia. The victory put Hipp in contention for a shot at the WBA (World Boxing Association) heavyweight champ Bruce Seldon. The 1995 title bout was on the undercard of Mike Tyson’s first fight after release from prison for rape.

The Hipp-Seldon fight was stopped in the 10th round by the referee after Hipp sustained massive facial swelling. Hipp—and others, including a few at ringside—felt the Seldon fight was stopped prematurely. Those who questioned the stoppage knew that if Hipp, a gritty, gallant, granite-chinned slugger, could stand on his own two feet, then, he could keep fighting.


Nothing gives insight into the passion—and, indeed, limitation—of Joe Hipp more than the Tommy Morrison encounter. Televised on ABC’s Wide World of Sports on June 27, 1992, the bout took place on a steamy afternoon at Bally’s in Reno, Nevada. Hipp describes the fight as “a great war” and “a hard fight.”

“I lost the first three rounds when he was trying hard to take me out. But then I thought, ‘if I’m gonna lose, I’m not gonna lose backing up,’ so I stood in and traded punches.”

Entering the ring with a three-fight winning streak and 24-2 record, Hipp’s résumé and reputation promised audiences a barroom brawl. After suffering a devastating fourth-round knockout to Ray Mercer in 1991, Morrison, 32-1, was on his own four-fight winning streak. A couple of years earlier, Morrison played the turncoat in the 1990 movie Rocky V. In 1993, he fought for the WBO (World Boxing Organization) heavyweight title against legend George Foreman and won that 12-round decision.

Morrison floored Hipp in the fifth with a vicious right uppercut and straight right combination that shattered the big man’s cheekbone. Somehow Hipp survived and got back into the fight. Midway through the ninth, Morrison faded. Gashed above one eye, bleeding from the mouth, and both hands busted, he looked depleted. Mindful of his opponent’s jaw as a target, Hipp strongly escalated his assault.

Morrison summoned the strength to reverse the tide, putting Hipp on the canvas with a clattering uppercut. Clearly staggered, Hipp beat referee Vic Drakulich’s count, but the concerned official intervened.

At the time of stoppage, judges Keith McDonald and Herb Santos both had Morrison ahead by the slim margin of 76-75, while Doug Tucker scored it 76-75 for Hipp. 

“I travel all over the place and I’ve had so many televised fights,” says Hipp. “The Morrison fight is the one that people still remember and talk about. I still do a lot of memorabilia. I got a letter from Hungary once, I signed it and mailed it back.”

On July 14, 2012, Hipp returned to the boxing ring in his hometown, winning in the fifth round by TKO against Harry Funmaker. Hipp bumped his lifetime record to 44-7 with 30 knockouts. It was his first fight since 2005, and perhaps the final bout in a career that has transcended even his own grandest expectations.

“I just got back from China,” says Hipp. “ I’ve met so many people and been to so many places because of boxing. It’s amazing that you could be born in Browning and you could do all that. When I got the opportunity at age 49 to fight another native kid in my hometown, I knew it would be a lot of fun.

“Financially, I make a better living now in Washington. I love Montana, and I love to come back to visit Browning and Kalispell. I would one day love to open up a boxing club, or run a nonprofit in Montana, and travel to reservations to talk about motivational goals. I see a lack of respect for elders from young people on reservations.”

Boxing Will Always Be Part of Hipp’s Life

Just a few weeks into age 50, Hipp’s most pressing contemporary clash takes place outside the ring: teaching Tribal Youth the essential skills of leadership, discipline, and tenacity through the sport of boxing. Recently, he created the nonprofit All Nations Foundation to achieve this goal. He also serves as a trainer and mentor; his top protégé is a Spokane-based heavyweight named Chauncey Welliver (54-7-5), a top-ranked fighter with bright potential.

“Once you are involved in boxing, you want to stay in boxing in some way. Once you get into it, you never get out of it. It seems as if you are either training, promoting, or doing something with boxing. It stays part of your life.”

Brian D’Ambrosio lives in Missoula, Montana. He is the author of Reservation Champ: A Life of Montana Boxer Marvin Camel, available April 2013.

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Tommy Morrison vs. Joe Hipp 1/3

Tommy Morrison vs. Joe Hipp 2/3

Tommy Morrison vs. Joe Hipp 3/3

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  1. Pete The Sneak 05:35am, 02/28/2013

    Mr. D’ambrosio, nice article on one of my favorite guys to watch. “The Boss” was as tough as they came and yes, that Morrison fight was truly something to behold. Never had the opportunity to meet the man, but in reading this, it appears his classiness, caring and warrior spirit has transcended nicely outside of the ring. If anyone can teach the young folks about respect and how to go about achieving things in life, it’s “The Boss.” Here’s wishing you all the best in all your future endeavors Joe. Peace.

  2. Irish Frankie Crawford Beat Saijo (aka) Gimpel 05:17am, 02/28/2013

    Brian D’Ambrosio-Great article….Tommy’s mom is Native American as well…..did he qualify as the first Native American Heavyweight Champion when he won the WBO title….just wondering…he never seemed to go out of his way to claim this part of his bloodline. Many athletes don’t seem to understand that the genes that come through mom are often the ones that bless them with their athletic ability and yes… fighting spirit!

  3. the thresher 02:42pm, 02/27/2013

    Hipp vs. Morrison was an all-time classic. Doesn’t get any better.

    Great trip back in time.