The PMI Story: Wilmington's Henry Milligan and His Quest for a World Championship

IMG_0037In 1986 a trio of Wilmington businessmen, Kevin Reilly, Murray Sawyer and John Riley joined with professional fighter Henry Milligan to form Pro Management Inc. for the purpose of managing Milligan’s boxing career. A local high school and college all-around athlete, Milligan famously won the national amateur heavyweight boxing title before losing to Mike Tyson in the 1984 Olympic trials on national television.

Local and some national sportswriters often referred to Henry by the ring names, “Hammerin’ Hank” or “The Hammer” due to his extraordinary punching power. His career has been well covered by local media over the years but Riley, who has written a series of articles for Town Square Delaware about people and local history has decided to approach the subject from another angle and will chronicle the experience from the manager’s perspective, providing an insider’s view of the fight world.


Below is the first in a three-part series.

Philly Gyms

In July 1986 with an important Atlantic City televised fight scheduled, Henry Milligan’s training regime began to ramp up with regular visits to Philadelphia gyms to find talented sparring partners. The Philly gyms were legendary in the fight world with the quality of fighters who worked between the ropes. My office phone rang late one afternoon and it was one of my Pro Management Inc (PMI) partners, Kevin Reilly, telling me something had come up and he would not be able to accompany Henry to Augie’s Gym that day in South Philly. Kevin, the former NFL linebacker, would try to make the trip after work whenever possible – he was the guy the gym rats and Henry respected. Kevin had been in the arena in Philadelphia professional sports, and his presence just seemed to make a difference at Henry’s workouts. Have to say I was feeling a bit inadequate in my golf slacks – and things were about to get worse.

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(l to r) Reilly, Milligan, Riley (author) at                         Stanley’s Tavern

On the way to Philly in the car Henry briefed me on the gym environment and what he would need me to do when we arrived. I had to find the local matchmaker and negotiate an opponent, the number of rounds and the fee we would pay for the privilege of fighting his guy. Entering Augie’s I was first stuck by the smell of the leather and sweaty fighters. I could feel my stomach tighten and knew I was way out of my country club element. And I experienced for the first time the Milligan effect – a slight hush in the gym as nearly all eyes tracked Henry as he made his way to drop his gear.

I spoke briefly to the guy collecting the gym fees and asked where to find the matchmaker. He pointed to a guy across the gym who looked like he came straight out of central casting for the Sopranos. And clearly he was not impressed with me at all – said his guy would work four rounds with Henry and it would cost us $15 a round. The logic of this business transaction escaped me, so I went back to Henry. “That’s bullshit, tell him we’ll pay $5,” said “The Hammer.” Actually I did not even want to talk to Mr. Soprano anymore, but here I was telling him we would only pay $5. There is no doubt this gentleman did not like me a little bit and the entire environment was at bit overwhelming at that moment. He glared at me and said, “$15 or you can take a hike!” I went back to Henry and told him I took care of things – actually by immediately caving to this guy.

There were tough-looking fighters all around me so it was initially unclear who the opponent was. When things finally sorted out I had a shock worse than negotiating with Augie’s matchmaker. Our opponent was one of the most intimidating looking physical specimens I had ever seen. He stood about six foot and weighed at least 240 pounds – solid muscle with a resemblance to Mike Tyson. To top it off he had on a skin-tight, red t-shirt with “US Marine Corps” emblazoned across it. With Henry tipping the scales at 178 it was clear I had made a huge mistake in my first sparring negotiation. I suggested to Henry that we should ask for another guy in his weight class – cruiserweight (Henry would later move down in weight to a light heavyweight at 175). By now Henry was all business – he said he was going ahead and that my job as cornerman was to remove his mouthpiece between rounds and handle the spit bucket! I continued to curse the fact the Kevin had cancelled on us that day, but I was more worried that my inexperience was about to get Henry hurt just before a fight. As I was taking one more shot at reasoning with Henry the bell rang and as I went to insert the slippery mouthpiece, he leaned over and whispered to me, “Don’t worry, I’m going to kick his ass!”

This rather crazy episode in my life had begun a few months before when Henry Milligan’s brother Michael came to work at Xerox where I was the district sales manager. Our office at that time seemed to be a magnet for athletes, including four former NFL players. There was certainly a new buzz with Michael around as his brother Henry was at the time 11-0 as a professional fighter and a prominent name in the local press. But Michael was concerned that Henry needed more talent in his corner and pointed to the successful management team, Cloverlay, that was formed to manage Joe Frazier’s career. One thing led to another and soon PMI was formed.

IMG_0040The partnership consisted of Henry, myself, Kevin Reilly and Wilmington lawyer Murray Sawyer. Kevin, of course, came out of the world of professional sports and worked with me at Xerox as a sales manager. Murray and I were active in politics together – in fact he had recruited me to run for his County Council seat after he decided not to seek reelection in 1982. Michael took over as Henry’s primary trainer, supported by local boxing trainer John Thornton and Atlantic City boxing promoter and all-around fight guru Pat Duffy. Kevin and Murray required some persuading, and I still remember one of them asking the obvious question, “What the hell do we know about professional boxing?”

“Just an opponent”

While we had some lingering doubts about our preparation for success in the boxing world, things were moving quickly with our first fight scheduled before hometown fans at Delaware Park on May 10, 1986. PMI was about to have its first lesson in the art of the “sweet science.” Boxing, I came to believe, was more of an art form, particularly the critical business of finding opponents. Since our group knew close to zero about the business we were relying heavily on our expert, Pat Duffy.

When Pat Duffy died in 2007, Philadelphia media described him as a sports legend. He was a former chairman of boxing for the US Olympic Committee and managed the US teams in Rome and Mexico City – games that featured the exploits of young Cassius Clay and George Foreman. It was not cliché to say that Pat had forgotten more about boxing than Riley, Reilly and Sawyer would ever learn. As our consultant, Pat’s leading task was to match Henry against competitive fighters – fighters who were respected enough to enable Henry to continue to move up in the rankings while not leaping too far ahead too soon. Henry’s fight style was gaining attention in the professional ranks – it was a style reminiscent of fighters like Marciano who bore straight ahead overpowering opponents. Most Milligan fights did not go the distance.

The day came for a decision for our Delaware Park opponent – it would be another Philly fighter with a winning record named Al Shofner. We soon learned a new boxing term from Pat: He said Shofner was “just an opponent.” We inquired as to what that meant – Pat told us not to worry, Shofner had a winning record, but could never hold up against Henry’s conditioning and power. Essentially the term “just an opponent” applied to the many boxers who were tougher than they were talented. They often risked life and limb stepping into the ring for a few hundred dollars against named fighters working to add them to their list of victims. Of course as we soon learned the lines between stardom and “just an opponent” can be a bit blurred.

So that Saturday night we settled ringside at Delaware Park, nervous but confident. In the first round it was evident Henry was frustrated by Shofner’s style and when he tried to open things up in the second round he let down his guard long enough to be stunned by a Shofner right. Before we knew it the ref was calling the fight a TKO over Henry’s protests. While the partisan crowd let out a groan, Riley and Sawyer stood there in shock.

Less than an hour after the fight Murray and I were doing a post-mortem with Pat Duffy at the Szechuan Restaurant on the Kirkwood Highway (Pat kept repeating, “I don’t know what went wrong – he was ‘just an opponent.'”) Kevin Reilly was out of town on a company trip and in the pre-cell phone days it took time before were able to connect with him in his hotel room. Kevin is famous for his practical jokes, so he thought I had turned the tables on him when I said Henry lost and insisted on talking to Sawyer the lawyer before accepting the news. A lot of our family and friends had thought we had lost our collective minds when we entered the boxing realm – we had now proven how right they were to be so skeptical.

Fortunately for PMI, Henry Milligan was not only a talented tough guy, he was also as resilient as they came. He blamed no one for the loss at Delaware Park but himself and vowed to improve his skills in the ring – there was no quit in Henry. Likewise the PMI team rededicated itself to the business. Short on boxing knowledge we decided the best we could do was to support Henry in every way possible, including accompanying him to all his Wilmington and Philadelphia workouts. These sojourns probably did not add much to Henry’s defense or punching combinations, but they did lead to some rather extraordinary encounters and more boxing lessons from Pat Duffy.

Next installment: Our opponent, Mike Fisher, just got out of “high school.”

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14 Comments

  • Great writing. Szechuan is still open! Look forward to hearing how you juggled both the spit bucket and the mouthpiece. And the stool! You probably were responsible for the stool too!

  • Thank you for sharing that experience. Jackie and I were at that fight.We were the guest of Murray. It was the very first live fight I attended. Two things always stand out in our minds. How small the ring was when seen in person and oh my, the size of Henry’s opponent.
    We often reflect on that night when we get together with you and Murray.lLooking forward to your next article.

  • John, Great stuff, how come I have never heard you or Kevin ever mention a word about the
    world of boxing? I am looking for a happy ending to this adventure, perhaps a round or two
    in Madison Square Garden would suffice, but I am not optimistic.

  • Good job, John. It is fun to relive Delaware sports history such as Milligan’s boxing career. I remember following Milligan’s boxing from afar and was impressed with his accomplishments. Looking forward to the next two articles.

  • John….
    As usual…a great tale well told….I remember all to well that for years, this was back in the day, whenever I’d bump into Henry he’d give me a playful punch on the shoulder…lemme tell-a you it hurt… I look forward to the next 2-installments.

  • John:
    Most interesting !! I have Followed
    Henry for most of his Life!!
    Let me date myself. Fall of 1972 was my
    Senior Year at UofD. Being a PE Major and
    Having wrestled Varsity @ UofD I was
    Assigned to H.B. DuPont Middle School
    For a Student Teacher requirement.
    Both Henry and his Brother Were in my
    Classes. I can assure Henry’s Boxing began
    Then In his Basement!
    Needless to say his brother would come in
    On Mondays with a black Eye. They had
    Set up a ring in there Basement!!
    Great guys!!!
    I also saw his last Fight at Kuhunaville.
    He fought a good fight and won!!
    I often felt Henry ‘a story would make
    A great Movie!!

  • As always John this is a Fabulos article. You missed your calling in Writing. You must do a book. As Tom Van Grofski said that he and Jackie were in the audience, Carolyn and I were also in the audience as well. It was the 1st and last Live Fight that I have ever seen. I was taking photos of the Fight on behalf of John, Murray, and Never There Kevin. All I remember is that I am looking thru the peep hole of the camera trying to take photos of the fast Action and I really missed the Fight. Then all of a sudden it was over. I was crushed. Hammering Hank is one of the neatest guys I have ever met, really COOL ! I felt very bad when he lost. The good news is that Never There Kevin missed the Fight. As my buddy Howard Fox, former President of the Minn Twins would say “Life Goes On “. Not sure how long the Team of PMI stayed in business, all I do know is they have been great friends of mine for a very long time. You gotta love John , Murray and Kevin , very Classy Young Men

  • John,

    I enjoy your writing style and I am hungry to read more of the story. Henry was an outstanding athlete and is an even better person. It is nice to get some of the behind the scenes insights into a piece of Delaware sports history. I knew you could tell a good story but I had no idea how well you write. Very impressed.

  • You missed your calling John! Really enjoyed your article and look forward to Parts 2 and 3. I remember you telling me about your exploits with Henry, but nothing like what you put down on paper. Maybe you should make a movie.

  • Hi John,

    I never would have believed this side of you existed. How very interesting! I look forward to reading the next installment and am delighted that you are back in my radar. I didn’t know what had happened to you since Hercules, but congratulations on your current affiliation with Ashland.

    Suzanne