Colin McMillan: The man who defied convention

First published in Knockout London

The tassels dance; folding, bouncing and exaggerating the rhythm of his purposeful, often balletic movement. Pristine white boots travel distances measured in fractions of inches, from arm’s length to harm’s length. Mesmerising hesitant opponents, rendering them inert with speed, and precision, with timing and the bluff of feints and counter punches.

His hands act as gloved rapiers, his brain analysing, identifying weakness, processing the opponents’ ‘tells’. Busy too, these assessments done instantly, conclusions drawn, punches selected to capitalise are thrown naturally, the switch from offence to defence and back again is fluid, instinctive.

This isn’t the best of Sugar Ray Leonard or a delve into the prime of Muhammad Ali, but an attempt to capture the beauty and brilliance of a British Featherweight, a forgotten jewel, Colin ‘Sweet C’ McMillan.

If serendipity or nostalgia bring you to his fights on YouTube, even for those of us who marvelled at the skills he employed to win the British, Commonwealth and WBO Featherweight crowns at the time, it is akin to pushing through an overgrown forest and happening upon a waterfall.

A kind of numbed reverence falls and the air stills as your senses rush to recalibrate. Focussing tighter, your eyes are hypnotised by the blurring punches, the prancing feet, desperately trying to digest and understand how McMillan, in his glittering satin shorts, a trio of finger length dreadlocks teasing his forehead, is doing what he’s doing.

Barely ten years removed from putting on the gloves for the first time, McMillan conjured moments and entire performances, among the customary brutality of the squared circle, which evoked comparisons with his idol Sugar Ray. From the tassels to the hand speed, the similarities were more than superficial. Although his long time friend, and some time agent, the late, great Jonathan Rendall, revealed it was the film Bugsy Malone that first prompted his interest in boxing and not the 1976 Gold medallist, which is the story Colin prefers to tell.

In every aspect of his career McMillan took conventional tools and embellished them, found angles hidden from others, from the technical conformists he faced, and used them to beguile and bewilder.

Among those that fell were many good fighters; hard, proud, heavy-handed men, their plans and methods reduced to rubble. Dispirited and overwhelmed. Watching him now, a quarter of a century on from his pomp, it is impossible not to recognise the stylistic echoes and exaggerations present in Naseem Hamed, emerging 200 miles further North, and also to wonder, ‘what might have been?’

The latter question is not the usual whimsical reflection on a prodigious talent laid waste by distraction or lost drive but the result of the cruellest of interlopers into a sporting career. Injury.

By the time his trusted giant, Howard Rainey, himself a boxing eccentric, pushed and prodded at the protruding bone of McMillan’s left shoulder, hideously dislocated in an innocuous exchange with Ruben Dario Palacios, the 26 year-old was on the brink of a lucrative clash with Paul Hodgkinson and potentially, curtailing the rise of the Sheffield Prince too.

Colin McMillan; the Olympian that never was, the nemesis to a Prince he never fought and one of the most gifted fighters the country ever produced. His injury stole a year from him and much more besides; it stole momentum and the fullest use of his left hand. Never again would he throw it instinctively and the best of him was lost. He fought on, first in denial and then through adopted pragmatism as he sought to succeed despite, rather than because.

Paul Ingle, the oft-irresistible ‘Yorkshire Hunter’, brought the curtain down on McMillan’s career, stopping the Londoner in the 8th round of their British title fight. One can only speculate as to the outcome had the McMillan who beat Maurizio Stecca, 44-1 at the time, and the Olympic Champion from the Los Angeles games, been present in their 1997 encounter.

In retirement from a career throughout which he remained stubbornly self-managed, McMillan continued to eschew the traditional. In 2001, he returned to the public eye as an advisor to Audley Harrison, a fighter himself determined to be autonomous and do things differently. A journey that meandered and dispirited those that followed it but not McMillan, who retained a dignity he showed in the ring and a defiance of the assumption failure and loss would embitter him.

He remains, despite the broken promises of his boxing career, emphatically content with his accomplishments and positive in retirement.

It is a measure of his intelligence and heart that he has found such equilibrium and peace; to come so close to greatness and have it stolen from you would have broken most fighters.

But then, Colin wasn’t ‘most fighters’.


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