Colin McMillan: No Regrets
A ‘Golden Era’ full of domestic stars. But even in an age where the likes of Lennox Lewis, Frank Bruno, Chris Eubank and others were drawing massive TV audiences and tabloid print, a young featherweight was doing his best to draw the attention from the more established stars of the day and dazzling his way to the top of his sport.
Colin McMillan even with the vast array of British talent around him, was threatening to draw the headlines away from the illustrious crop of talent that was gracing our sport in the early 90s. A sublime, silky smooth boxer, a purists dream in a sport of blood, guts and thunder. Twenty-three fights, only one blemish early on his career and McMillan, already a British and Commonwealth champion, got a crack at the WBO featherweight title in 1992.
Maurizio Stecca a former Olympic champion would tell us just how good McMillan was. With only one defeat in 45 fights, Stecca would be the acid test at the Alexandra Pavilion. Pre-fight victory was no means certain, post-fight McMillan had shown everyone what a supremely talented fighter he was. The London fighter won going away, two judges had him winning by 8 points, big plans were already being made:
“At the time Paul Hodgkinson was the WBC champion, so there was talk of a big unification fight with him. 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 looked unlimited, superstar status looked a mere formality. McMillan would defend his WBO for the first time in September 1992. Ruben Dario Palacio was lined up, and the Columbian wasn’t expected to unduly trouble the emerging star. But disaster would strike, the champion would suffer a dislocated left shoulder in the 9th round and he was pulled out of the fight by his corner due to the injury. There was no prior warning of the injury, no signs or problems in training, 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.”
McMillan was only 26 at the time of losing his title, and despite the injury, the hope was 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. The former champion bravely fought on hoping to regain what might 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. 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.”
When Palacio had to vacate his title the Welshman Steve Robinson picked up the WBO featherweight title in 1993 by virtue of a points win over John Davison, and in October of the same year McMillan would get a chance of getting his old title back. But if McMillan thought he would quickly pick up where he left off, he would soon realise his body just wouldn’t be 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%.”
Sport is as much mental as it is physical, and having suffered an injury like McMillan did, and then the injury flared up again in training, McMillan had to cope with the physical and mental side of adapting his style when he got in the ring with the new champion:
“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 Steve 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. 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 worst position.”
McMillan would go on to lose on points 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 Dr’s in America to agree to perform the surgery. So we went over there and we were hoping that after the surgery that it would return to normal or at least somewhere near normal. It was expensive but sometimes you have to invest in your career.”
16 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. 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 1996. Talk of a world title fight with 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 1997 ended all his dreams:
In one of the best British title fights for many a year, McMillan fought bravely but would eventually succumb to an inspired Ingle, and that stoppage defeat signalled the end of his boxing career at the age of 29:
“I think I underestimated him a little bit, he was a good fighter, tremendous work rate and technically very good as well. We had a good fight but on the day he was the better man.”
The loss to Ingle, a future world champion in his own right, saw the inevitable decision reached:
“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 years, he is philosophical about those lost years:
“I’m happy the injury happened after I won the world title and not before. 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. McMillan is currently a technical advisor to the 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.