PMI and Henry Milligan: The Man in the Arena

This is the third and final installment of the adventures of Wilmingtonians Murray Sawyer, John Riley and Kevin Reilly who, along with boxer Henry Milligan, formed a management company to promote Henry’s career. [Read the first and second.] When we left off, Milligan had just won his second fight under the group and plans were beginning to be laid for a title shot.

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Teddy Roosevelt, April 23, 1910


Top Rank

The taxi let Sawyer and Riley off at the midtown New York City office of Top Rank, Inc. It was evident that Top Rank’s Bob Arum – a legend in the world of boxing promotion – was impressed with Henry Milligan, both his fighting ability and his personal story. After all, how many boxers had an engineering degree from Princeton? Arum’s top matchmaker Teddy Brenner, who had organized the great Ali-Frazier fight at Madison Square Garden, was a bit more skeptical. In fact, Brenner seemed to be skeptical about all white fighters – the first time we spoke to him he announced, “White can’t fight.”

After cooling our heels in Brenner’s office while he fielded calls from fight managers around the country, we were ushered into Arum’s office. Covering the wall behind his desk was a huge black and white photo of Muhammed Ali standing over Sonny Liston sprawled out on the mat. As Murray and I commented on the mural, Arum mumbled, “Ali, greatest man I have ever known.” (Arum had promoted Ali’s early career but later lost him to the infamous Don King.) After some small talk, including about his experience as a Justice Department lawyer under Bobby Kennedy, Arum asked us to join him for lunch in the downstairs deli. I still remember him ordering, “My usual,” which turned out to be a turkey on rye with lettuce and no mayo. After the brief lunch we headed back to his office with no real sense of where this discussion was headed.

When we sat back down Arum surprised us by handing us a copy of a multi-page contract. It called for a fight in the next 60 days in Atlantic City for a purse of $10,000 – assuming a win, it would be followed by two fights with escalating purses of $25,000 and $50,000 and culminating with Henry fighting Tommy “Hitman” Hearns or Bobby Czyz on the undercard of the Hagler-Leonard fight in 1987 for a purse of up to $500,000. Although we were hopeful when we boarded the train to New York, this offer certainly exceeded our expectations – especially after having spent 20 minutes listening to Teddy Brenner.

IMG_0043Murray and I had discussed the idea of a signing bonus on the way up, but the contract did not mention one. Before giving Murray a chance to negotiate with Arum, I blurted out, “Mr. Arum we expected there would be a signing bonus.” Arum said he did not offer signing bonuses, but then added, “What did you have in mind?” We responded with $25,000. Without blinking an eye, Arum said, “I’ll give you $10,000,” and yelled to his secretary to bring him the check book. Murray stuffed the check in his pocket, we shook hands and headed to the train station.

“We are going to fight on Friday”

It wasn’t too long before we learned Henry would be fighting Keith Vining of the respected Kronk Gym out of Detroit. Vining had an 11-4 record, with most of his wins early round knockouts. But Henry recognized the name immediately – he had fought and beaten Vining as an amateur in Golden Gloves competition.

Things were moving along nicely. Mike Milligan and Pat Duffy were even tailoring Henry’s workouts to fit the style they expected from Vining. After Philly workouts the team would often head to the Imperial Inn in Philly’s Chinatown (Henry loved Chinese) where Pat would regale us with his boxing stories. Two I remember well involved young Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston. As Pat was managing the 1960 Olympic team, the plane to Rome was being held up because they were missing their light-heavyweight, Cassius Clay. Suddenly the lanky fighter bounded up the stairs to the plane yelling, “Mr. Duffy, Mr. Duffy, I can’t go, I can’t go – I’m too scared to fly!” Somehow they calmed Cassius down, he made it to Rome and the rest is history. And to Pat, Sonny Liston was the meanest man alive. Said he was so afraid of him he once folded with a full house in a poker game because he was afraid to take Liston’s money. But he offered no insights on the phantom punch Ali used to floor Liston to retain the Heavyweight Championship in 1964 in Lewiston, Maine.

Just as everything seemed to be going our way events turned south. Henry came down with a serious case of the flu and had to stop training with only a week to go. Then I picked up the phone in my office to hear Teddy Brenner’s charming voice on the other end. Keith Vining had broken his hand in a sparring accident and Top Rank wanted to substitute a fighter named Frank Minton for Friday night. Of course I had never heard of Minton so I told Brenner I would get back to him after I spoke to Duffy. Pat answered his phone and immediately said, “John, tell Brenner we don’t want the fight – Minton is a bad option.” Knowing what was at stake with our contract I challenged Pat to tell me why he felt so strongly. Pat pointed out that Minton was known for his “fast hands” and that his 16-5 record included two losses to James Kinchen and a loss to Iran Barkley. I knew enough to understand that they were two of the best fighters in the world. Minton had been fighting in the big leagues.

I called Murray and Kevin and they agreed we should call off the fight. The consensus amongst the three of us was that a fully prepared and healthy Henry would probably beat Minton but fighting at this level coming off his sick bed was asking for trouble. Without contacting Henry or Michael, I called Brenner back and told him – it was not a pleasant conversation. Shortly after we hung up the phone rang, and it was Arum demanding we take the fight. It wasn’t hard to understand Top Rank’s anger – Henry had wide appeal, he filled seats at Resorts and it was too late to fill the void. I told him we would discuss with the entire team and get back to him.

We met mid-week at Kevin Reilly’s house in Webster Farms. As expected Henry looked like a man who had been sick for three days. He listened quietly to all the reasons why he should not fight Friday night, but you could tell he wasn’t persuaded. Michael also was clearly bothered by the idea of backing out of a fight – to the Milligans it was more about honor than about a pay day. Finally Michael said, “Look, the fact is Henry has to beat these guys to get to a title, even if he is sick.” Henry then had the final word, “Michael’s right, we are going to fight on Friday.”

No Celebration Tonight

I would like to say this story has a happy ending and our Rocky pulls it out and then runs up the steps of the Art Museum. Unfortunately Atlantic City in 1986 was not Hollywood, but there were always famous faces around. Henry took his warm up sessions prior to a fight seriously and would begin shadow boxing well in advance so as to have worked up to a full sweat by time he was headed to the ring to do battle. That night we were backstage with him as he warmed up when Michael asked me to go find out what round was coming up in the prior fight. I couldn’t see anything, so taking advantage of my manager’s credentials I squeezed up to ringside and leaned between two large men and asked over the noise what round was it. To my astonishment Joe Frazier turned to me from the right and Floyd Patterson from the left to tell me it was the seventh round.

In a twist for the Minton fight, Michael and Henry decided to have our fighter stand between rounds. And all things considered the fight looked fairly even until Minton caught Henry square on the nose in the fourth – the nose was broken and even “the Clot” couldn’t clot this wound. Before we knew it the fight was called. So Henry never left his feet – even between rounds, but we all knew there would be no celebration at the Irish Pub that night. It was a long and rather somber night – Henry, joined by Kevin, traveled all the way back to Delaware to have the broken nose attended to at St. Francis Hospital. Just as with the Shofner fight, there were no excuses from Henry – at no time did we hear from him about his misfortune of getting sick, having his training disrupted or the sudden change of opponent.

IMG_0044Kevin, Murray and I had seen enough – enough, that is, of watching Henry take serious punishment. We knew he could handle the battles in Atlantic City, what concerned us was the relentless pounding that took place all week in the gyms. This was not a man, like so many fighters who had no alternative in life – this was a very bright man with a degree from Princeton. So we met later that day in Murray’s downtown Wilmington office and persuaded Henry that it was time to hang up the gloves. A short time later Henry was working on his MBA at NYU, making television commercials and even making a boxing movie with Robert De Niro.

Postscript

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Milligan and his trademark photo fist, with author Riley

While finishing up his MBA in New York Henry found himself about to graduate in the middle of a recession. By that time I had left Xerox and was working as an executive recruiter in Philadelphia. Henry called me one day to ask for advice – said he had been sending out resumes for weeks and hadn’t received a single response. So I asked him to send it to me to review. Under “Relevant Experience” I added, 1984 National Amateur Heavyweight Boxing Champion and then – Fought Mike Tyson in US Olympic trials. About a week later Henry called me to say that every day he came home from class there were multiple job interview messages left on his answering machine – everyone wanted to meet the guy who fought the invincible Mike Tyson. Within the month he was hired by Goldman Sachs!

The championship dream for Henry never completely died out so he made another comeback seven years later. After a couple wins he had a shot at the vacant IBO cruiserweight title, but in a familiar ending, the fight was stopped on cuts.

PMI did not go out of business immediately. There were three outstanding football players at the University of Delaware looking to have someone represent them in negotiations with the NFL that year. Based on a recommendation from our friend and fellow Xerox salesman and NFL alum Dan Reeder, we suddenly found ourselves to be sports agents – another field we did not know a lot about.

Murray and I left that April of ’87 on a previously planned golf trip leaving Kevin behind to manage things on NFL draft day – what could go wrong? Suddenly in the middle of the golf course in Virginia a man came up to us in a cart and said we had an emergency at PMI. Basically multiple NFL teams were pursuing our three athletes and with signings happening quickly Kevin couldn’t handle all the calls. Murray and I jumped in the car stopping at every phone booth we found on I-95 to negotiate NFL contracts. Ultimately tight end Jeff Modisett and running back Bobby Norris were signed but later cut by Tampa Bay and Seattle.

Quarterback Rich Gannon was another story. Drafted by the Patriots in the fourth round he rightfully expected a strong contract – problem was New England wanted the speedy, athletic Gannon to play running back. Rich Gannon to his lasting credit would hear none of it. So with all the growing complications around Gannon’s search for a new team, he asked PMI if it was ok if he picked up an agent from a national firm – someone who could represent him full-time. Thus our brief and unexpected detour into the sports agent world came to an end. Considering we all had day jobs, it was a big relief.

As everyone knows Gannon went on to stardom in the NFL and was named league MVP in 2002 – sadly things ultimately ended in tragedy for both Norris and Modisett. Norris, who spent 14 years as a New Castle County police officer and described as a “wonderful family man” was shot to death in Philadelphia in 2007 by a man identified as a “disgruntled investor.” Modisett was shot to death after an argument outside an Atlanta, Georgia Waffle House in 1990.

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(l to r) Reilly, Riley, Milligan, Tiberi and Sawyer

The PMI team has stayed clear of the sports agent world since 1987. Murray Sawyer gave up his law practice to start a highly successful investment firm, Westover Capital. Kevin Reilly retired from Xerox, but continues to be immersed in the sports world doing Philadelphia Eagles pre- and postgame shows on radio as well as covering various high school and college games on both television and radio. Most importantly, he is in demand as a motivational speaker while he continues his expansive community involvement role. Michael Milligan has been working in commercial heating and air conditioning for the last 28 years. His pasttimes today, golf and cooking, are a bit more gentile than taking punches from his brother, but says if necessary he can still throw a “left hook with leverage.” Author John Riley heads up government relations for Ashland Inc and writes sporadic local color articles for TSD.

In the years since the professional ranks, Henry has worked as an investment advisor, but continued his passion for physical conditioning. In addition to staying in near perfect shape, he works as a coach and personal trainer as well as an adjunct professor at Wilmington University and Goldey-Beacom College in the business program. And he has kept his hand in boxing, working with Dave Tiberi and others developing fighters. In 1993 Henry joined his former manager Kevin Reilly as an inductee into the Delaware Sports Hall of Fame.

And on a final note, Eddie “The Clot” Aliano who in addition to Henry had patched up the likes of Mike Tyson, Sugar Ray Leonard and Wilmington’s Dave Tiberi died on April 4, 1996. The Philadelphia Boxing History website carries a quote from “The Clot”: “That’s why I like to help, to stop the blood, to get the kid through.”

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Leave a Comment

9 Comments

  • John– Many of us still remember Henry Milligan’s outstanding athletic career at A.I. and Princeton. Thanks for sharing the inside story of his boxing career. We will not see an athlete the likes of Henry Milligan again soon.

  • John, This is a great story, worth $10,000 just to have had contact however brief with Joe Frazier and Floyd Patterson. How many people do I know who ever had contact with the world of boxing ? (zero)
    I envy you and Kevin, et al the opportunity to have even had the opportunity to be as involved as you
    were with the sport, not easily accomplished. I have been expecting a brutal ending to this “venture”
    and you must be very pleased to have had a major role in helping Henry ultimately land a legitimate
    position. I suspect Princeton, covered with ivy, didn’t have many grads with “professional boxer”
    among their credits. I knew one (Princeton grad) (now deceased) who was an early U-2 pilot who flew missions over Russia in the early 1960’s but was later shot down flying F-4’s over Vietnam. But yours is
    a better story, and I enjoyed reading about the many dimensions required to promote a fighter at the entry level. Best always, Jon

  • John:
    A Great Read about Very Soecial People!!
    Henry certainly is the center focus of the
    Writing! Henry and his Brother are Special.
    Yet I feel U guys Kevin, Murry , and you
    John are truly special !!!
    To reach out; Venture into an Unknown
    World and to be there!!
    To try and help and protect Henry
    Is Special!!
    Buck

  • John,

    This is a great story! I had no idea you were involved in the boxing world. We were out of the area and I don’t recall hearing about this part of your life. You did a great job of putting the history together which makes it so interesting to read. SUPER JOB,