Bricked into Henry Milligan's brain is the idea that he's about to become the next Olympic heavyweight boxing champ. Milligan has this notion even though he has been boxing only 2½ years and he's too short for his division, not to mention too light, too awkward, too slow and too nice. On top of that, he got creamed last month by Aurelio Toyo of Cuba. Still, Milligan is America's reigning amateur heavyweight champion and, though he weighs just 184 pounds, our best hope for a medal in the 201-pound class. And, despite his drawbacks, he's long on heart and athletic ability and has one great attribute: whamming fists. His 40-5 record includes 30 KOs, 20 in the first round.
The 26-year-old Milligan is surely the only world-class amateur boxer who has an Ivy League degree. His is in civil engineering, conferred by Princeton in 1981. The only other accomplished boxer to come out of Princeton was middleweight Robert Cohn, who punched out Jake Barnes in The Sun Also Rises.
"Henry has an unusual background for a fighter," says Sam Hickman, an Olympic boxing instructor who ran Joe Frazier's gym in North Philly for 12 years. "He hasn't held up any banks, he hasn't done any time in the pen, and his mother and father probably didn't beat on him when he was a kid."
Milligan plays down the novelty of his background. He describes himself in prosaic terms. "I'm a typical white Irish fighter," he says, peering down the crooked cliff of his nose. "I'm not fluid and I don't move real well."
March 19, 1984
Milligan got into boxing because of a newspaper story. He'd never even been in a ring until three years ago, although he was an All-America wrestler in college. When he graduated, he went to work for Delmarva Power and Light Company in Wilmington, Del., about 15 miles from the house he grew up in. But he wasn't happy.
"The one thing that I want to do is box," he told his younger brother, Mike.
"Then do it," Mike said.
"But what's Mom gonna think?"
"It doesn't matter. You're 23 and a big guy."
A Wilmington promoter and trainer named Charles Messina was quoted in the News-Journal as saying that he was looking for heavyweights. Milligan volunteered. Messina is a street-wise former state heavyweight champ, and he was skeptical because Milligan was born on the right side of the tracks.
"Being a Princeton grad, as Henry is, I thought I was getting a guy completely green," says Messina. "I was expecting someone on the timid side, you know, businessly inclined. Then I see him and I says, 'Jeez, with his hands I got myself a modern-day Rocky Marciano.' "
Milligan knocked out seven of his first eight opponents in the first round, and nine of the first 12. The other three went down in the third. He missed so much work because of boxing trips that early in 1983 the power-plant people told him to decide whether he wanted to keep his $25,000-a-year job or be a fighter.
"I never dreamed about becoming a doctor or a lawyer or an Indian chief," says Milligan. "All I really wanted was to be famous. Nothing drives me other than my desire to make a name for myself, and the fact that I love to win."
So much for his degree.
Milligan didn't lose until his 15th bout, a split decision in the semifinals of the 1982 nationals, six months after his ring debut. Last year he won the national title against an opponent three inches taller and 12 pounds heavier.
"I think maybe I have a complex about having to beat guys bigger than me," he says. As a 5'11" 185-pound college junior, he wrestled heavyweights and once gave away 140 pounds. He relied on two moves, the duck-under and the pancake, both aggressive takedowns.
But he's a little more tentative with larger opponents in the ring. Toyo nearly put him away with the very first punch of their bout at last month's U.S.-Cuba match in Reno. Toyo threw a straight right over Milligan's jab. Milligan took a standing eight-count. He was still dazed in the second round when he hit the canvas after absorbing another of Toyo's rights. Milligan gave away three inches and 16 pounds in that fight. And Toyo is only the No. 4 amateur heavyweight in the world. The favorite for the gold medal, Canada's Willie deWitt, is even bigger and meaner than Toyo. He knocked out the Cuban last year in the North American Championships.
The loss to Toyo was so shattering that Milligan considered losing six pounds and entering this June's Olympic Trials in Fort Worth as a light heavy. But it isn't likely he would make the Olympic team if he trimmed down. The 178-pound division is much tougher than the 201. Milligan lacks the skills and speed to beat the top light heavies, according to his trainer. "He'd get killed," says Messina.
Besides, the heavyweights may well attract more press attention, and with an eye to that Milligan has tried to develop a little color. He started giving everybody a big wink after he won the 1983 nationals. Now he punctuates all his conversations with a conspiratorial wink, as if possessed by some demonic tic. That sort of hamming is one way Milligan sets himself apart.
"Every time Henry has wanted to stand out, he has," says one of his old Princeton roommates, Tom Michel. "He wanted to go to one of the hardest universities in the country and take one of the hardest majors. And he did both. He wanted to get an A on his senior thesis, so he got an A. He wanted to be an All-America wrestler, and he was. He wants to be special. Any sane human being in Henry's situation would want to fight in a lower weight class. But Henry...."
Henry says being atop the heavyweights is "bee-you-tee-fal," which makes him sound more like a Wilmington cab driver than a cultivated Ivy Leaguer. And he spits too much for a Princeton man. You can't drive on the highway with Milligan without him sanctifying every mile marker with a spritzer.
But then no one has ever accused Milligan of being a preppy. Particularly not at Princeton, where a certain status is attached to an upperclassman's eating club. Milligan didn't belong to Cottage, which F. Scott Fitzgerald called "an impressive mélange of brilliant adventurers and well-dressed philanderers" or Tiger Inn ("broad-shouldered and athletic"), but rather Dial Lodge, a co-ed club that holds an annual Barbarian's Night in which the members roam the campus wearing loincloths and screeching like cavemen. When Milligan says he likes the Stones, he may mean Fred and Barney.
There's something rocky about his looks, too. He's built like a tree stump, though in the ring he's not nearly as animated. He's got a blocky wrestler's body, a pile-driver jaw and a nose that, he concedes, "doglegs to the right a little.
"I came out of my mother that way," he says, flashing the Wink.
His mother, Pat, knows differently.
"It was boxing," she says. "I thought he was crazy when I found out." Although Milligan's father, Hank, an executive with Du Pont, wholeheartedly embraces his son's new career, his mother is less than enthusiastic. "All I wanted him to be was an ordinary person," she says, "and he said, 'But, Mom, I'm not an ordinary person.' "
She worries about his features, but so does he. He actually likes to wear the bulky headgear mandated for U.S. amateur fights. "To tell you the honest to God's truth," he says, "I'd wear a catcher's mask if they let me. You only get one face. My goal is to keep my nose in the same place God intended it to be."
The oldest of three children—his sister, Maryanne, is a 19-year-old sophomore at Ursinus College—Milligan grew up in an upscale suburb of Wilmington. His maternal grandfather was one Johnny Oakes, written up in a 1925 article in the old Philadelphia Sun under the headline: THE GREATEST ATHLETE OF ALL TIME. Oakes was a semilegend in football, basketball and track at St. Joseph's Prep and later St. Joseph's College.
Young Milligan used to read a scrap-book his mother had put together about his grandfather. "That always kind of got to me," he says. "I wanted to be known as an all-around athlete like him."
He was. At A. I. duPont High School in Greenville, Del., Milligan made all-state in baseball, football and wrestling. He was the state's 1977 athlete of the year. At Princeton, he won 10 varsity letters. A cornerback on the football team, he got the game ball for picking off a pass, recovering a fumble and making 12 tackles in a 7-3 victory over Harvard in his senior year. He was a starting infielder on the baseball team, despite missing the first month and a half of the season because of wrestling, and hit .306.
Now that he's out of college, Milligan says he needs "either a girl friend or a microwave." Meanwhile, he lives alone in a North Wilmington apartment. He's a creature of simple appetites. His freezer is crammed with TV dinners, he relaxes by listening to Joan Baez tapes and he gets all weepy watching his favorite movie, The Sound of Music.
Indeed, Milligan's a sensitive guy. He has never been in a fight outside a ring. Schoolyard scuffles made him nauseous. He always ran away. He only learned to fight to show Mike how to defend himself.
Mike, now an insurance salesman in the Philadelphia area, says, "Henry's my best friend. We haven't had an argument since we were 12." In those days they watched fights on TV and pretended they were Ali and Frazier. They'd go to the basement, hold little beach balls they got from K Mart in each hand and whale away at each other. Mike claims his thumbs were permanently bent by the beach-ball bouts. When the Milligans sold their house to move to Bloomfield Hills, Mich. two months ago, the basement walls were still speckled with blood—all of it from Henry's nose.
"If ever Henry didn't win anything," says Mike, "he'd play until he won." Mike was an all-conference basketball guard in high school, but though his brother hasn't played competitively since eighth grade, Mike has never beaten him one-on-one. They still play dunkball with nine-foot baskets three nights a week in the summer. Mike calls it the most fun you can have with your clothes on. "I swear," he says, "if we've played 500 games, Henry's been on the winning team 490 times."
In the summer of '81 Henry worked for his brother as a painter on the Jersey shore. He slopped green paint on clapboard walls, dripping it on white cement porches a la Jackson Pollock. Mike was unmoved by his brother's art. "Henry couldn't paint," he says. "He couldn't grasp the concept. It's amazing that a kid that smart could be that stupid. He's like a lost puppy. You feel sorry for him and want to take him under your wing."
Mike eventually employed his brother as bait to hook "painter groupies." He had Henry take his shirt off and stand in front of the house to attract female sun-bathers. "Henry would pull in about eight or 10 a day," says Mike.
Boxing proved an easier art for Henry to master; trainers liked him because he learned quickly. "With other guys, you have to go all the way to Europe just to get across the street," says Hickman. Henry Tillman knocked Milligan out in the second round at the National Sports Festival last July by catching him with a right uppercut after a clinch. Four months later in a rematch at the nationals, Milligan closed up his elbows and hands instead of exposing his chin, and beat Tillman on a decision.
But Milligan still has a lot to learn. He tends to leap up to taller opponents, instead of working their bodies and making them come down to him. He gets tied up inside, which takes away his punching power. And Hickman says that in addition to being ignorant of boxing's fundamentals, Milligan lacks the killer instinct.
"Henry doesn't go in there and try to get mean on anybody," says Messina. "To make up for his height and reach disadvantage, he's got to physically and purposely try to hurt somebody. He's got to come out of this Mr. Nice Guy shell of his and just plain get nasty. Maybe I should feed him gunpowder."
True enough, when Milligan spars with Messina, he never quite ignites. Instead of coming in to overpower his trainer, Henry flaps his gloves as if they were butterfly wings.
"Henry," snarls Messina. "You got to get mean."
"But I'm not mean," says Milligan.
"Then fake it."
If Milligan does decide to build a career on faking it, Messina sees him eventually campaigning as a pro in the lackluster cruiserweight division. Of course, this is one boxer who can always fall back on his academic credentials. Although Milligan was rejected last June by the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Business, he has retaken his GMATs and has reapplied.
After all, who ever heard of a Princeton boxer winning a gold medal? Milligan's chances against the heavier field seem slimmer than he is. But even Messina didn't think Milligan would do well in his first Golden Gloves tournament, and he wound up winning the heavyweight class. "Now Henry's the heavyweight champ," says Messina. "I can't bring myself to doubt him again."