In 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.
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.
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.
The 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.”