Boxers are supposed to fight their way out of the ghetto. But not Henry Milligan. This flaxen-haired Princeton grad is hooking and jabbing his way right out of the Ivy League stereotype. Twice a week Milligan leaves his tree-lined Wilmington, Del. neighborhood and heads straight for the wrong side of the tracks. In his blue Toyota Tercel, he drives to a downtown Boys’ Club, where he trains in a dark basement redolent of sweat. Other days he motors up to Philly and goes a few rounds with Dwight Braxton, an ex-con and former WBC light-heavyweight world champion.
The son of a Du Pont executive, Milligan, 25, is America’s top-ranked amateur heavyweight, and this week at the Olympic Trials in Fort Worth, Texas, he will defend his national title and attempt to make the team in an elimination tournament with nine other heavyweights. At 5’11” and 193 pounds, Milligan is both short and light for his weight class and, some would add, slow-footed as well. Nonetheless, he boasts an impressive 40-5 record. Boxing for less than three years, Milligan has scored 30 knockouts, 20 in the first round. “I win because I hit hard and I love to win,” he announces.
Out of the ring, Milligan’s not exactly a raging bull. A Catholic, he attends Mass at least twice a week. He hasn’t had a steady girlfriend since high school, and he rarely drinks (“Three beers and I have a hangover,” he confesses). Julie Andrews warbles over his car stereo when he’s playing the sound track from his all-time favorite flick, The Sound of Music. “I have no temper,” Milligan admits, “I’ve never been in a street fight in my life, and I’ve never swung at anyone out of the ring. Very few people can say that, especially boxers.”
Not only does Milligan lack the killer instinct, but the sweet science itself upsets him. “I really don’t like the atmosphere of boxing,” he says. “It’s like when I was a little kid and there was a street fight. I couldn’t watch. I’d have to run away because I would feel almost sick.” Why then isn’t this sensitive soul stroking squash balls or buffing his wing tips? He’s driven by a thirst for glory. “I always wanted to be famous,” he says. “I can’t sing or dance, so this is my best shot.” Raw athletic talent also plays a large part. A gifted all-round jock, in college Milligan won 10 varsity letters in football, wrestling (in which he was an all-American) and baseball. A civil engineering major, he was named Princeton’s 1981 Scholar-Athlete in his senior year.
Remarkably, Milligan had never set foot inside the square circle until September 1981, when he hooked up with a part-time fight promoter, Charles Messina, 31, the former Delaware state heavyweight champion who now manages him. In spite of his aversion to violence he had long yearned to master the manly art. Reports Henry, “My brother [Mark, now 24 and an insurance salesman] and I became interested at about 8 years old. We always liked AM and Frazier. We would watch the fights on TV and then wrap rags around our hands and grab little beach balls and bash each other,” he says sheepishly.
Had Henry’s mother known then that her son would today be having his baby blue eyes battered, she’d have squashed those beach balls. “She can’t stand my boxing,” Milligan sighs. “She wishes I’d taken up anything else…tiddledywinks.” Nonetheless, his mom and dad will be ringside in L.A. should he make the team.
Last April Milligan left his job as a civil engineer to train full-time. He spends his days running, lifting weights and sparring. An avid nutritionist, Milligan noshes on steamed vegetables and chicken, eschewing processed sugar, red meat and fats. He’s firmly convinced that his superior conditioning and diet give him a fighting edge over bigger opponents.
Whether Milligan decides to turn pro depends on how he fares this summer. The Soviet-led boycott diminishes the competition, but it doesn’t remove the world champion, Willie deWit, a 6’2½” 200-pound Canadian. Says Milligan: “I worry about my health when I go against someone that big and skilled.”
But he doesn’t fret about the path he’s chosen. In the bedroom of Milligan’s three-room apartment, near his crucifix and his college diploma, hangs a strip of paper removed from a Chinese fortune cookie. Milligan willingly admits it sums up his credo: “The great pleasure in life,” it reads, “is doing what people say you cannot do.” And the pugilist from Princeton is doing exactly that.