It was a golden era full of domestic stars. But even in an age where the likes of Lennox Lewis, Frank Bruno, Chris Eubank, Nigel Benn and others were drawing massive TV audiences and tabloid print, a young featherweight was also catching the eye and dazzling his way to the top of the sport.
Colin McMillan was threatening to draw the headlines away from the illustrious crop of British talent that was gracing boxing in the early 1990s. A sublime, silky smooth boxer, McMillan was a purist’s dream in a sport of blood, guts and thunder.
After 23 contests, British and Commonwealth champion McMillan earned a crack at the WBO featherweight title in May 1992. With only one defeat in 45 fights, Maurizio Stecca, a former Olympic champion, would tell us just how good McMillan could be. Glory was by no means certain, but McMillan showed everyone what a supremely talented fighter he was by cantering to victory. Two judges had him winning by eight points and big plans were already being made.
“At the time, Paul Hodkinson was the WBC champion, so there was talk of a big unification fight with him,” McMillan told Boxing Social. “There were quite a lot of big fights being talked about as the featherweight division was very strong at the time. I was looking forward to becoming the undisputed champion, that was my aim and objective.”
The passing of time has dimmed just how good McMillan was, a rare fighter who made the sport look ridiculously easy. His potential seemed sky high yet misfortune was just around the corner.
The East Londoner defended his WBO crown for the first and only time in September 1992. Colombian Ruben Dario Palacio wasn’t expected to trouble the emerging star unduly, but disaster struck. The champion suffered a dislocated left shoulder in the ninth round and had to be withdrawn. There was no prior warning of the injury, no signs or problems in training, but it was a freakish injury that would affect him for the rest of his career.
“Everything was going fine; it just came out of the blue. Basically, I threw a punch, he came underneath, and it just pulled the shoulder out of its socket and that was the end of the fight, unfortunately,” said McMillan.
McMillan was only 26 at the time of losing his title and, despite the injury, hope remained that his best years were still ahead of him. However, his shoulder would never fully heal, leaving us to wonder just how good he could have been.
“When you are that young, you don’t realise how serious the injury is. You think you can just go away, have a little rest, have some physio and a little rehabilitation and you can just come back,” he said. “But when I was on the road to recovery I realised it was a lot more serious than I thought. A year down the line, I realised it would never be the same again.”
Welshman Steve Robinson picked up the vacant WBO featherweight title in 1993 by virtue of an upset points win over John Davison and, in October of the same year, McMillan would challenge for his old crown. But he would soon realise his body just wasn’t the same.
“Before the Robinson fight, I had a pin put in the shoulder, but while I was sparring with Johnny Armour it came back out again. So I knew then, going into the Robinson fight, it wasn’t 100%,” he said.
“If you look at the fight, I turned southpaw quite a lot. When you have had that type of injury you are aware that anytime you throw and you miss, you feel as though it might come out again. It then becomes a mental thing because you can’t instinctively do the things you need to. You have to plant your feet a bit more, become a bit more deliberate with your combinations and everything else.”
Despite knowing his body wasn’t functioning the way it needed to, McMillan has no regrets about taking the fight with Robinson.
“I had already made plans to fly to America to get microsurgery on it to get it fully healed or better healed. I don’t regret taking the Robinson fight, at the time it was a calculated risk and, from a financial point of view, it was decent money,” he said. “Boxing isn’t like football where you can sit at home and recover, if you don’t fight you don’t get paid. If I had fought a lesser fight and the shoulder had gone in that fight, financially I would have been in a worse position.”
McMillan dropped a decision to Robinson, but despite his body failing him once again, there were no thoughts of retirement.
“It was an injury that I thought could still be healed. I had done a lot of research about key-hole surgery. We got one of the top doctors in America to agree to perform the surgery,” recalled McMillan. “So we went over there and we were hoping that, after the surgery, it would return to normal or at least somewhere near normal. It was expensive but sometimes you have to invest in your career.”
Sixteen months after the loss to Robinson, McMillan returned hoping to recapture former glories. A routine points win over Harry Escott in 1995 started the comeback, but even after the time out, surgery and further extensive rehabilitation, the problems persisted.
“It was difficult, it never ever felt like 100%. It was also difficult psychologically because I was aware if I missed a punch, or throw a hook at a certain angle it was likely to come out again,” said McMillan. “I think if you look at the videos of the fights, you can certainly see a difference between pre and post-injury. Like any major sports injury, it can take a long time to recover, but you keep grinding away in the hope that it will return to what it once was.”
The comeback rolled on and McMillan did go onto win the British featherweight title once more by virtue of a points win over Jon Jo Irwin in May 1996. Talk of a world title fight with rising star Prince Naseem Hamed gave McMillan hope of once again climbing to the top of the sport. But a British title defence against Paul Ingle in January 1997 ended those dreams.
McMillan (31-4, 14 KOs) fought bravely but would eventually succumb to an inspired Ingle in the eighth and that stoppage defeat signalled the end of his boxing career at just 29.
“I think I underestimated him a little bit, he was a good fighter, tremendous work-rate and technically very good as well,” said McMillan. “We had a good fight but on the day he was the better man.
“I took some time out, but I realised I had to more or less start again. Once you have competed at world level it is hard to get yourself motivated. My aim was always to be number one, and I didn’t want to stay around to just be the opponent for the younger fighters coming through.”
Despite the injury frustration that almost certainly cost McMillan his peak and a higher ceiling as a fighter, he is philosophical about those lost years.
“I’m happy the injury happened after I won the world title and not before,” he said. “I became British, Commonwealth and World champion, and even though a lot of people said I could have gone on to even greater things, it just wasn’t to be.”
Unlike many, McMillan let boxing go, he knew his day in the sun was over, the temptation to try again was easily resisted. Retirement has been kind to the former world champion and, in 2018, he was awarded the British Empire Medal for his years supporting charities helping disadvantaged children. He is currently passing on his knowledge as a technical advisor to WBO European super-welterweight champion Hamzah Sheeraz and his cousin Umar Khan.
McMillan left the sport with no regrets, maybe not 100% content, but satisfied. Not many can say that.
Main image: McMillan (left) schools Stecca in a virtuoso performance. Photo: John Giles/Press Association.