PMI and Henry Milligan: The Atlantic City Comeback Fight

This is the second article in a three-part series about the adventures of Pro Management, Inc. (PMI), a group formed to manage the professional boxing career of Henry Milligan. In this episode, the group frantically prepares for the big arena of Atlantic City and national television. [Read the first installment here.]

“Just got out of high school”


Pat Duffy was on the other end of the line explaining that he had just completed discussions with Bob Arum of “Top Rank Boxing” and that Henry’s opponent the following month would be Mike Fisher. Pat said Fisher was a highly regarded fighter with a strong 19-10 record, including a loss to future title holder Bobby Czyz that went the distance. But he was confident based on his fighting style that he would match up well against Henry. By this Pat meant that Fisher was a brawler like Henry and not likely to throw off our fighter with superior hand speed or an unorthodox style.

Someone asked, “Anything else you can tell us about him?” Yes, Pat said, “He just got out of high school.” That sounded odd until Pat enlightened us that the term “high school” in boxing language meant prison. (While Pat’s statement was never verified, it seemed reasonable in the fight business – soon it would become clear that Fisher certainly had been schooled in boxing.) For the new fight managers, nineteen wins, bouts against contenders and just out of “high school” did not exactly sound like a pushover for the big comeback fight.

PMI had taken an 11-0 star of the future, a record complied under local boxing manager Charlie Messina and quickly developed our own record of 0-1. So every day that summer you could feel the pressure building – if we lost the upcoming bout, certainly Henry’s fight career could be over and PMI would have to take some of the blame. Although we didn’t get into this business to train the fighter or pick opponents, we had a growing sense of responsibility and so we were grasping for anything that would support Henry. But at the same time the entire process seemed completely out of our control.

In the week before the Fisher fight, Kevin was spending every minute he could with Henry. Henry’s buddy, Johnny Antonelli was booking a dozen buses full of fans to make the trip to Resorts International in Atlantic City, and Henry’s entourage was building with the likes of “Mountain,” a volunteer body guard. Standing 6’ 2”, weighing 240 with a 23 inch neck and a permanent scowl on his face, Mountain could scare most people by just looking at them. Then suddenly, just two days before the fight, a crisis hit. Our cutman, Eddie “The Clot” Aliano, could not make the fight. Eddie was always in Henry’s corner, ready with his magic potions to patch up the bleeding. And with years of punishment around Henry’s eyes, every fight came with the risk of a TKO due to a cut – not to mention the danger presented to Henry’s health.

I was in my office on fight day when the phone rang – it was Kevin calling from the weigh-in. Weigh-in was always a challenge for Henry and he was right on the border for this one – starving himself for two days and standing stark naked on the scale he made it on the number. Then Kevin, the NFL linebacker, gave me his quick take on Fisher, “John, Fisher is one of the meanest looking men I have ever seen.” Coming from a guy who had tackled the likes of Larry Csonka, he made an impression. Resisting the urge to throw up, I dashed out the door and headed to Atlantic City.

Murray Sawyer – Cutman!

While Pat Duffy was working his contacts to find a fill in for Eddie “The Clot,” the Atlantic City boxing officials had a form to fill in, and with no name to hand over, Kevin gave them the first name that came to mind – H. Murray Sawyer, Jr. So there appeared the multitalented Sawyer’s name on national television as Milligan’s “cutman”– perhaps the last role his friends back in Delaware could imagine for the gentlemanly lawyer! Fortunately Pat arrived with “Doc” Nelson in time to save Murray from the real experience!

Events were moving rapidly forward now and before we knew it, “The Hammer” was working his way towards the ring, game face on. Across the ring was the menacing face of Mike Fisher, clearly motivated to knock off the handsome fighter with the Princeton pedigree. All the pressure building for weeks was coming to a head and the leather was soon flying. In a testament to how tough Fisher was, he took everything Henry had to offer – for several rounds you could not tell who had the advantage. But as we headed into the later rounds the famous Milligan conditioning began to pay off. In the end – a unanimous decision for Milligan and a huge relief to team PMI.

“The Ballad of The Green Berets”

I have been to a few celebrations over the years but nothing really compares to our post fight gathering in Atlantic City’s Irish Pub that night. Packed with a hundred Milligan fans from Delaware, they let out a wild cheer when Henry entered the packed house. After a few beers, fans were making it up to the small stage to toast Henry and even sing along with the band. Suddenly Mountain the bodyguard gathered his massive frame and stepped on the stage. To that point I had never heard Mountain speak, but he suddenly began to sing in a beautiful baritone, “The Ballad of the Green Berets.” The buzz in the bar stopped and you could hear a pin drop as he captured every note and syllable. The roar at the end matched the one earlier for Henry.

This was probably more excitement than Murray Sawyer had experienced in one day in years, but the fun was not over yet. When he stumbled into his hotel bathroom later that night, he found Mountain passed out in his bathtub.

Back in Business

Based on the Fisher fight, Henry’s stock was climbing again, but he needed one more win to be considered for a shot at the title and the big payday. Soon we were heading back to the Philadelphia gyms looking for sparring partners. Philly had a reputation in the ’80s as the boxing capital of the country – and ground zero was Champs Gym in North Philly. Located above an auto body shop a few blocks from Temple University, Champs was known to host some of the best fighters in the country. In one night, Henry sparred three rounds each with “Prince” Charles Williams and Leslie Stewart, both future IBF light heavyweight champions.

One thing was clear when we visited Champs: We were the only white faces in the building. Dark, dirty and crowded, you were immediately hit by the smell of the kerosene heaters when you entered. Henry was a curiosity to many in the room, but when he entered the ring to spar everyone pressed forward – perhaps hoping that one of the regulars would knock Henry cold.

One night as we left the gym and walked up the block to find the car, a police patrol car cut us off and two officers jumped out demanding to know what we were doing in the area. After introducing them to Henry they wished us well, but warned us not to linger in the neighborhood after dark. Later, a Philadelphia writer who came to see Henry spar at Champs, referred to Sawyer and me as looking like “two ministers in the middle of a gang war.”

Brother vs. Brother

It was also about this time that Henry and Michael decided to extend his workouts by adding three extra sparring rounds – brother vs. brother. Slightly bigger than Henry and a decent pugilist himself, Michael could hold his own for a round or two. After Henry sparred a few rounds with future boxing Hall of Fame inductee Dwight Muhammad Qawi (formerly Dwight Braxton) in Philadelphia’s Cambria Gym one night, Michael jumped in the ring with a tiring Henry and started to get the best of him. Cooling off ringside, Qawi turned to Kevin Reilly and said, “Hey Kevin, you guys are fightin’ the wrong brother” – no small compliment coming from a man who went toe to toe with George Foreman and Evander Holyfield.

unnamed

Henry at left, with his brother and sparring partner Michael

Back in Wilmington at the West Center City Community Center ring, we were waiting for sparring partner Jimmy Clark, a former Olympic heavyweight who lost his bid for fame when President Carter cancelled the US’s participation in the 1980 Moscow games. Clark could still work a ring and, although perhaps not as sharp as some of the Philly fighters, he was a great workout for Henry. Making the long drive from Coatesville to join us, the usually reliable Clark turned out to be a no-show this night. Anxious to keep to the routine, Michael put on the gloves and the brothers began to slug it out. As the tempo picked up Michael landed some solid punches. A second later Henry hit Michael hard – he was out before he hit the canvas, his head bouncing six inches off the mat in front of us. As everyone scrambled into the ring someone shouted – “Henry killed his brother!” Wilmington trainer John Thornton worked to revive Michael as Henry went quickly from full fighter mode to first brother. After a few minutes, Michael came to – it was a lesson for all of us to keep the serious sparring between the professionals.

Milligan and Riley

Milligan and Riley, celebrating the Rosenberger TKO at the Irish Pub

We were back in Atlantic City in late September for Henry’s fight against Rusty Rosenberger. An unlikely name for a fighter, Rosenberger had won the first 15 fights of his career and came into Resorts with a record of 20-3. Henry won on a TKO in the seventh round, but suffered a nasty cut over his eye. We had another celebration at the Irish Pub. When Henry entered to the cheers this time, he was coming from the hospital with seven stitches and a big bandage on his head.

Postscript

Two indelible memories from our Atlantic City experience involved the talents of Henry’s cutmen and Mountain’s intimidating appearance. Kevin went to the hospital with Henry after the Rosenberger fight and witnessed the emergency room doctor trying to stitch up Henry’s wound. After spending an hour digging the Super Glue out of Henry’s eyebrow, he questioned Kevin about the contents. Apparently cutmen concocted their own homemade remedies to stop the bleeding – remedies that had not been approved by the FDA or the boxing commission.

Regarding Mountain, on one occasion he and Henry’s brother Michael found themselves on the locker room bench at Resorts next to former heavyweight champion Joe Frazier, whose daughter was on the fight card that evening. Joe kept staring at Mountain and finally said, “You’re a mean looking dude!”

———-

Next installment: The stage was now set for serious negotiations with Bob Arum at Top Rank – Henry and PMI were on the way to the big time.

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Leave a Comment

7 Comments

  • John: great that U are taking the time to
    Record this piece of Delaware Sports
    History!!!
    I still believe U should be in the Classroom.
    Why can’t Ur effort become the basis for
    A Movie!!
    I can assure U that it was Micheal who
    Would come to school with a black
    Eye!!
    I do not want to rush U yet waiting for Ur
    Piece !!!
    Buck

  • Thanks John……I really enjoy the behind the scenes look at Henry’s, Murray’s, Kevin’s and your professional boxing careers…..

  • John, Good talking to you this morning , and I don’t know what happened to the comment I
    added yesterday. In any case, the story (and Kevin’s role and comments, plus your background
    comments were excellent). Sadly I still think this narrative has a sad ending. In any case, I look
    forward to Installment number 3, and would also appreciate your encouraging Brett’s
    bride to write the book about your favorite former Linebacker. All the best, Jon

  • Hi Jon –

    I know the edit to which you’re referring: I wasn’t able to get a link to that story, so I had to pass. But if you can find it, I’m happy to add it!