Q&A with Henry Milligan, the “Princeton Puncher”! By Ken Hissner (Oct 18, 2010) Doghouse Boxing
The career of Henry Milligan of Wilmington, DE, started out like a storybook tale. He was All State at A.I. dePont H.S. in Greenvville, DE, in football, baseball and wrestling. He was also All American wrestler once. He was the states 1977 Athlete of the Year. At Princeton and was a three sport star in wrestling (All-American), baseball (offer from N.Y. Mets) and football (3 year starter) who won the Senior Scholar-Athlete of the Year earning ten varsity letters (all time school record) and got his degree in Engineering in 1981.
I asked former world title challenger Dave “TNT” Tiberi to say something about Milligan. “I would be honored. He has represented the sport so well. How many (3) sport All-American athletes from Princeton do you know that received his Engineering degree and tested Mensa. He then goes on and wins the National Amateur Championship and goes toe to toe with Tyson,” said Tiberi.
Milligan went to Princeton on an academic scholarship and became a member of Mensa International (top 2% of the IQ’s in the world) and the Triple Nine Society (99.9% IQ). Bobby Czyz is also a member. In 1982 at the age of 23 he decided to take up boxing and became the national champion in 1983. At 5:11 and 185 he was about the size of Rocky Marciano. He lost in the second round in 1982 from an uppercut and then defeated the same Henry Tillman at the Nationals in 1983 in winning the title. “Henry has an unusual background for a fighter. He hasn’t held up any banks or had any prison time,” said Sam Hickman. Hickman ran Joe Frazier’s team in the North Philly section over 10 years. He also taught at Graterford Prison. “After losing to Tillman, he closed up his elbows and hands going on to win the decision in their rematch,” said Hickman.
Prior to the US Olympic trials there was a Cuba vs USA dual meet in Reno, NV. Evander Holyfield lost to Romero giving Cuba a 6-4 lead. Milligan was up against Aurelio Toyo. In the second round it was very close. After being warned five times by the referee Toyo lost a point. As the fighters approached each other Milligan slightly bent to his right and Toyo landed a lead right behind the ear which should have been ruled a foul. He went down and got to his feet with help from the referee who had stopped the bout. By all rights he should have won by disqualification. This can be seen on you-tube.
Milligan stopped Charles Dread, the Marine champion earlier to get to the semi-final. Milligan met 17 year old Mike Tyson in the semi-finals. Milligan took the first round over what seemed like a sluggish Tyson. Halfway through the second round Milligan received a questionable standing count. Shortly after this he received another standing count. A Tyson uppercut dropped Milligan who got up immediately but the referee stopped the bout. This also is on you-tube. Tyson then went to the finals and lost to Tillman. If Tillman had met and beaten Tyson in the semi-finals instead of the finals and met Milligan in the finals you never know who would have made that team. “Henry Milligan is a great guy,” said Tillman.
Milligan has appeared in almost a dozen national television commercials and was in the “Night and the City” (1992) with Robert DeNiro. If you think I’m making this up, I’m not. I was introduced to Milligan several years ago. I met him again in late August at a Dover Downs boxing show where he was doing the commentating for MCN TV Sports. I didn’t know half what I do now except that he met Mike Tyson in the Olympic trials. Milligan who turned 52 as this story was written is in excellent shape both physically and mentally. After posting a 41-6 amateur record with 31 knockouts, 21 in the first round (I saw him knock out Daniel Bey, former title challenger David’s brother in the first round) he went onto posting a 17-3-1 professional record with 15 knockouts. He fought for the IBO cruiserweight title in 1993 and was inducted into the Delaware Sports Museum and hall of Fame.
In 1983 Milligan was given the choice of continuing his work at Del Marva Power and Light Company in Wilmington, DE, or stop boxing. He was missing too much time due to taking boxing trips. Needless to say, he kept boxing. When he first had the idea of taking up boxing he asked his Mike, his brother, thoughts on how their mother would react. She thought he was crazy. “I wanted him to be an ordinary person,” said Pat Milligan. Milligan went on to tell his mom he wasn’t an ordinary person.
Before we get into Milligan’s professional career let be express something that all boxing fan’s know but rarely is it talked about. I have attended fights for close to fifty years and believe me race plays a part. Still today when I especially attend the amateurs white boxers are a minority. What happened to black boxers in years gone by happens to the white boxer today. Another heated factor is blacks against Latino’s. They love their boxers and can go overboard. Don’t get me wrong, whites want to beat the blacks and Latino’s just as bad but aren’t going to come out of the stands and use language that you don’t want you kids to hear as readily. MF is the favorite of the blacks and when the Latino’s get fired up they go back to their Spanish language so who knows what they are saying?
Milligan was promoted by Charley Messina and trained by John Thornton in the amateurs. Both were from Delaware. After his first three professional bouts Philly’s Jimmy Arthur took over as trainer for about six fights. Then Messina and Milligan’s brother Mike even filled in. Milligan had a right hand that could take down a wall. Arthur was brought in to replace Thornton. He had trained Tyrone Everett, one of Philly’s best boxers. Only thing was Milligan was not a boxer. He was a puncher!
The Brandywine Club, in Chadds-Ford, PA, just across the Wilmington, DE, border was a perfect place for Milligan to get his start. He turned professional in March of 1985 and rolled through the first three opponents with first round knockouts fighting once a month. In his fourth fight Milligan got dropped in the first round by Mike Harris, 3-4-2, a Jamaican, out of Philadelphia. By the third round Milligan dropped Harris three times for an automatic stoppage at 2:59 of the round.
In Milligan’s fifth fight he debuts at Atlantic City’s Resorts International which will be his main place to fight. He dropped Felix Shorter, 2-0, in the first round and finished him in the second round. Shorter had just defeated Delaware’s Vince Tiberi the month before. A couple more knockouts at Resorts and back to Brandywine and at Resorts Scott Lindecker, 4-0, IA, was brought in who had a 20 pound advantage over Milligan. It was a wild first round with Milligan hitting the canvas only to get up and knock out Lindecker all in the first round.
At the end of 1985 Milligan stopped southpaw Bobby Thomas, 7-3, in the second round, who two months prior to this lost a twelve round decision fighting for the W. VA, title. Next up would be a real test with Lionel Byarm, 12-3-2, of Philadelphia. Byarm had defeated Dawud Shaw, 10-1, Robert Folley 12-1-1, heavyweight contender Zora Folley’s son, and drew with Stanley Ross, 8-5. He was Evander Holyfield’s first opponent taking the future champion the distance over six rounds. Byarm was dropped in the first and second rounds before the fight was finally stopped in the fifth round in favor of Milligan.
After scoring his eleventh straight win, all by knockouts, Milligan met Al Shoffner, 5-3, in May of 1986 at Delaware Park, in DE. He would suffer his first defeat when the referee stopped it in the second round. The punch was questionable whether it was behind the head or not but ruled as a clean blow. This was not only his first loss but his first bout in his home state. In less than three months he was put in with Mike Fisher, 20-10, of NJ, at Resorts. Fisher had gone ten rounds with Bobby Czyz and won three of his last four fights all by knockout. Milligan would win his first decision fight over eight rounds.
Next would be another Jersey fighter, this time Rusty Rosenberger, 20-3, who had won five of his last six fights only losing a majority decision to Joe Tiberi, 16-3. Rosenberger had only been stopped once. Milligan would be the second to stop him this time in the seventh round at Resorts. I questioned putting Milligan in with Fisher and Rosenberger after coming off his first loss. Milligan never asked about another opponent’s record and was unaware of the type of records these two opponents had or he would have questioned his manager.
“Henry was probably the greatest fighter to come out of DE. He was just too small for a heavyweight. He should have gotten down to light heavyweight where he would have been a champion. I love the guy,” said Mike “No Joke” Stewart. Stewart was the USBA champion and fought Ricky Hatton for the WBU title in the UK. He defeated Ebo Elder in the first round of “The Contender” and lost to Grady Brewer the eventual winner in the second round.
At the end of 1986 Milligan was matched with Frank Minton, 16-5, of Indianapolis, who had won four of his last five fights. The fight took place at Resorts International, in Atlantic City which was a home away from home for Milligan. It wasn’t uncommon for Milligan to bring in twelve bus loads of fans. The fight was stopped in the seventh round in favor of Minton due to a broken nose. At the age of 31 Milligan decided to get away from boxing and it lasted for almost seven years until February of 1993.
Milligan started back winning in six rounds over Mark Swawinski, 2-0, of NJ. In July of 1993 Joel Humm, 14-6-2, of Pittsburgh, was brought in to the Blue Horizon in Philly where Milligan had just scored a knockout. In the second round the fight was stopped due to a clash of heads resulting in a technical a draw when Milligan got a very bad cut. It was the heaviest Milligan had weighed at 193. Humm had weighed as much as 200 previously.
In December of 1993 Milligan would get his first title shot at the fifth recognized organization the IBO cruiserweight title against David Izeqwire, 14-0, of Nigeria, out of MD. Milligan’s opponent had twelve knockouts so it was expected to be a real shoot out. The fight took place in Aspen, CO, between Christmas and New Years. It was another shoot out with the fight being stopped in the eighth round due to cuts, with Milligan losing for the third time in nineteen fights. The altitude played a part in the loss. He would stop boxing this time for almost five years until July of 1998.
Milligan would post knockout wins over Terrence Kelly and Jermain Dixon at the Big Kahuna, in Wilmington, DE, in July and September. He would announce his retirement the day before he turned 40. He finished with a 17-3-1 record with fifteen knockouts.
Milligan was kind enough to take the time to do a Q&A with this writer. Dave Tiberi said it will be a fun interview and he was right on the money.
KEN H: I understand that in high school you were either an All State or All American wrestler.
HENRY M: Two All State and one All American at A.I. DuPont H.S.
KEN H: You are associated with Mensa which takes in 2% of the countries highest IQ’s and that former champ Bobby Czyz and actress Gina Davis are also members. Could you briefly explain what Mensa is about?
HENRY M: You test for Mensa and the top 2% in the world qualify. It must be a standardized, approved intelligence test administered by a licensed professional.
KEN H: I understand at Princeton you were a three sport athlete including wrestling, baseball and football. I also heard something to the effect it took Superman to break one of your records.
HENRY M: I was a three-time All Ivy League and one time All American wrestler. I played third and shortstop in baseball, but was drafted as a catcher by the Mets. I broke a long time record with six interceptions in football that was broke five years later by Dean Cain who played Superman on ABC’s Lois and Clark in the 90’s. I still hold the University record for ten varsity letters in three different sports.
KEN H: After completing your degree at Princeton you inquire about taking up boxing. Who worked with you as far as a trainer in the amateurs and promoter as a pro?
HENRY M: John Thornton. I walked into a bad part of town in Wilmington, DE, at the West CC. You have to picture this blond hair, blue eyed 22 year old walking in and being the only white kid in the building. I held my own with Pinky Gordon and from there improved to become a National amateur champion. Charley Messina was my promoter when I turned professional.
KEN H: I understand you sparred with Evander Holyfield.
HENRY M: I sparred with him in Houston and did really well. Evander, at the time, was the ABF National Champion at Light Heavy, and I was the ABF Champ at Heavyweight, so I was supposed to beat him. I did, but that might have been the best boxing performance that I ever had!
KEN H: You defeated Tillman in your rematch bout that would eventually gain you the 1983 National title. Did that qualify you for the Olympic trials?
HENRY M: Yes, as the #1 seed! Unfortunately, in the semi finals I matched up with some kid from NY named Tyson. I had won the first round, and was holding my own when he tagged me with an overhand right in the second round which was the beginning of the end for me. I can still hear Howard Cosell broadcasting ringside for ABC Wide World of Sports “look at Milligan, he’s hitting Tyson with a left, with a right…….” and that’s all I heard. What was I doing, fighting the most feared man on the planet, listening to loud mouthed Howard Cosell tell the world how well I was doing?? I do a lot of speaking engagements these days, and always tell the story as a lesson not to get caught up in oneself. Live in the moment, and everything will take care of itself. I got caught up in me, and lost a real chance to make the ’84 Olympic team! (Milligan beat Michael Bentt (future WBO heavy champ) in regionals in order to fight Tillman a week later. Then beat Orlin Norris (future WBA Cruiserweight champion), Al Evans and Olian Alexander (1983 GG champion).
KEN H: Let’s discuss how it feels to be a minority in boxing for a white fighter. Especially in the amateurs you find it. Tell us what it was like entering the ring against a black fighter when the opening bell sounded from the crowd if there was a majority of black’s attending.
HENRY M: The beauty of athletics, any sport, is that it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference what color your skin is, what your daddy does for a living, or what your politics are. It only matters what you can do on the field of battle. That is why competing in sports is what makes our country great. The only thing that matters is what you do in the ring, which is a direct reflection on how hard you have worked to prepare for battle. The color of your skin, inside the ring, is taken out of the equation, as it should be!
KEN H: How do you think your career went as far as the management and promotional end of it?
HENRY M: If my Irish skin had held up to the punches, we would have been world champs. As it was, we came very, very close. Not bad for an Ivy Leaguer.
KEN H: You knew you could punch with that right hand of yours. Did you think you adapted along the way to be a better defensive boxer?
HENRY M: Yea, I started to find out it was no fun getting hit by these pros!
KEN H: You were 11-0 with 11 knockouts and were dropped by Mike Harris and Scott Lindecker who was 4-0 with 3 knockouts. You were 41-6 in the amateurs. Were there any precautions in your defense or concerns from your amateur bouts or these two knockdowns about your ability to take a punch?
HENRY M: My style, unfortunately, developed into ‘get one to give’. That’s a tough way to make a living!!
KEN H: In your tenth fight you face Lionel Byarm, 12-3-2, who had gone the distance in Evander Holyfield’s 6 round debut. Tell us about your fight with Byarm.
HENRY M: I hit him early and often, because his style was very suited for me. He didn’t have much power, so he couldn’t keep me off him. I do remember him being a slick boxer though.
KEN H: In your twelfth fight you lose for the first time to Al Shoffner who with his five wins had four knockouts. Were you concerned about his punching power?
HENRY M: No I just got hit (which happens!) behind the ear (much like the Cuban Aurelio Toyo hit me) and unfortunately never recovered.
KEN H: You come back after your first loss and defeat two fighters with 20-10 and 20-3 records which I would feel would be a mistake early on. How were you able to overcome these odds?
HENRY M: I never knew their records until you pointed them out 20+ years later. As long as my opponent only had two hands, I didn’t want to know anything more about them. I left that to management I just trained and fought who they told me to fight!
KEN H: Next up was Frank Minton, 16-5, with 8 knockouts. He had lost to future champion Iran Barkley and twice to future title challenger James “The Heat” Kinchen in the late rounds of those fights. You had brought your weight down from 189 to 177 in a year’s time. Did you think this affected your performance losing to Minter?
HENRY M: No I was ahead of Minton (who was a very skilled fighter) in the fourth, when a left uppercut broke my nose. The bleeding forced the ref to stop the fight, but I certainly believe I was ahead.
KEN H: You are off for 7 years and come back with two wins and a technical draw in 10 months. What happened in the draw?
HENRY M: Joel Humm and I hit heads, and I got the worst of it. It took twenty-four stitches to close it, and to this day I am thankful to my ex-wife who insisted in the emergency room that I get sewn up by the best plastic surgeon available, Dr. John Saunders. Today, there is no scar at all!
KEN H: You find yourself in an IBO world title bout in Aspen, CO, with David Izeqwire, 14-0, with 13 knockouts, from Nigeria. You lose this one on cuts. Did you think it was too big a step though you were 15-3-1 at the time?
HENRY M: No he was very skilled, but I had him out in the first round. His corner pushed him off the stool to start the second, and to his credit, he kept me away with his jab. I was affected by the Aspen altitude (10,000+ft) which just zapped me after that big first round.
KEN H: You’re off for 5 years and come back scoring a pair of knockouts inside of two months. The last one was a day before your 40th birthday. Had you planned to end it that way?
HENRY M: I was training for another fight, and William Guthrie broke my nose again in sparring. I had it repaired surgically, but the recovery convinced me that I never wanted to go thru that again!
KEN H: You certainly had an interesting career. Almost all your fights were between Atlantic City, Wilmington and Chadds-Ford areas. Were you more grateful to be fighting in front of the home crowd except for your championship fight in Aspen?
HENRY M: I was ‘Big Man on Campus’ in Wilmington back then, and yes, I loved it. (As many as 12 buses would be packed with fans going to Atlantic City)
KEN H: Dave “TNT” Tiberi retired in 1992 after putting a whipping on James “Lights Out” Toney in losing one of the worst decisions I have ever witnessed. You came back in 1993 for your title bout and it wasn’t until 2004 that Mike “No Joke” Stewart fought Ricky Hatton for the WBU title. In 2006 Stewart was on “The Contender”. Without a doubt you were three of the most popular fighters out of Delaware. When you look at the sport today what do you see not just in your area but overall?
HENRY M: I think that with the lack of a charismatic heavyweight champion, couple with the increasing popularity of UFC/MMA fighting, has really posed a challenge to the sport of boxing.
KEN H: You just celebrated your 52nd birthday. How do you stay so fit?
HENRY M: When it becomes a lifestyle, it is just like breathing. I developed good eating habits over the years, and that, coupled with a little strength building exercise (I don’ run or do aerobic training at all) has kept me leaner even than when I was competing. I am now a personal fitness trainer, and those are the principles I teach to keep my clients in shape.
KEN H: I guess you can’t teach punching power or otherwise the fighters would be flocking to you for your secret. Have you worked with any fighters since retiring?
HENRY M: Some, but more of my clients are just regular people who want to get or stay in reasonable shape, and I try to make it fun! I have ideas on increasing power but never found the right person to execute it.
KEN H: When I last saw you at Dover Downs you were working with the film crew. Who are they and have you been doing it long?
HENRY M: MCN. I started working with them last year, and hope to become more involved with them as they grow! (They do events in casino’s working on a 24/7 network on the internet)
KEN H: I can’t tell you what a pleasure it has been in talking with you. Dave Tiberi said it would be fun but he jokes so much I thought he might have you put me in a full nelson or something. Anything you would like to shout out to your many fans?
HENRY M: It has been so great reliving some of these bouts thru you. Thank you, thank you! You have be a godsend, as have the many fight tans whose unending support carried me thru many a fight all those years ago!
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