“That moment they announced I was world champion—that was unbelievable. That was my childhood ambition achieved. That was my journey complete and something nobody could ever take away from me. I was down in the history books forever.”
These are the words uttered by Colin McMillan as he cast his mind back to the moment he was crowned WBO featherweight champion. But how did “Sweet C,” as he was known, first get involved in boxing? “As a kid, I was always very sports-oriented. Basketball, football, athletics, table tennis, you name it. I just loved sport. I watched Muhammad Ali on TV, and he was the ultimate sporting icon. I ended up going to my local boxing club in Barking and kind of got captivated by the sport and thought, ‘I love this and want to dedicate myself to boxing.’ I was fifteen when I walked into Barking Amateur Boxing Club, which is quite late; but for me, that was ideal, because you see a lot of boxers getting burnt out when they join too young.”
As an amateur, McMillan accrued a record of sixty-five fights, with fourteen defeats. “I won the London ABAs four times and represented England on seven occasions,” he recalled. “Representing my country was a great experience. That’s something I can always look back on with pride. I thought deep down I’d won all the fights, but I had a pro style already as an amateur, and that wasn’t always good for the judges to watch. The amateurs is all about learning, so even though I lost a few, I learned along the way.”
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McMillan turned professional on November 29, 1988, at the age of twenty-two. After winning his first two fights, McMillan was stopped in three rounds by southpaw Alan McKay on January 31, 1989, at Britain’s boxing mecca, the York Hall in Bethnal Green, East London. “I’d beaten him twice in the amateurs already. He was quite a character, and there was a bit of bad blood between us. In the third round, we clashed heads, and I had a nasty cut over my eye. Blood started pouring down my face, and that was the end of the fight. Although it was my first loss, I didn’t consider it to be a genuine loss, because of the clash of heads and not being able to carry on.”
Despite a very visible scar over McMillan’s eye, he was quick to defend the repair work of the medical staff involved. “After the fight, Terry Marsh [former world light-welterweight champion] and Ambrose Mendy took me to a private hospital. Whatever the doctor did, it was a great job, because it never reopened. It’s not aesthetically pleasing, but the cut never reopened in my pro career.”
“Sweet C” went on to win his next fourteen fights before taking on the British featherweight champion, Gary De Roux. “As an amateur, I never won the [national] ABAs. I got to two finals and two quarterfinals, but never quite got that championship. For me, in this fight, it was the first time I had the chance to become a champion, and nobody could take that away from me. A lot rode on this fight.
“At the time, Gary was quite a feared fighter. He was a big puncher, won most of his fights by knockout, and a lot of people were trying to avoid him. For me, it was a chance to show I was for real.” McMillan certainly showed his worth, stopping De Roux in the seventh round.
Incredibly, after that tough British title fight, McMillan fought a further six times in just under a year, which would be unheard of these days at that level. Two of the fights were defenses of his British title, the second being against Anthony Joshua’s future amateur trainer, Sean Murphy, on October 29, 1991. “Sean was 20-2 at the time and previously held the title. I damaged my hand somewhere in that fight and couldn’t punch properly. He was a game fighter and kept on coming forward throughout the fight, but I just felt I was a bit too savvy to let him get control. He was tough, a decent fighter, but I won it pretty comfortably.” McMillan won a decision and in victory entered the history books by winning the Lonsdale belt outright.
Three months later, he beat Percy Commey to add the Commonwealth title to his trophy cabinet. “Now, that was a tough fight. Sometimes you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, and that was one of those occasions. He was skinny, and I thought before the fight, it won’t be a walkover, but I should be okay. It turned out he was much better than I thought. He was very awkward and made it a difficult fight for me. I had to put on a great performance to get the win.”
After a six-round stoppage of Mexican Tomas Valdez, on May 16, 1992, McMillan took on the former 1984 bantamweight Olympic gold medalist Maurizio Stecca for his WBO world featherweight title. McMillan had twenty-two victories in twenty-three outings but, incredibly, that was nearly half of Stecca’s résumé, which stood at 44-1. The twenty-six-year-old was the evident underdog. “I got a lot less than I thought I’d get to fight for the world championship, but at the time, it didn’t matter. I had the chance to become world champion, and when the time came, I took that opportunity with open arms.
“Stecca was a phenomenal fighter and former Olympic champion. My aim, when I first started following boxing was to follow the likes of Muhammad Ali and Sugar Ray Leonard, who went to the Olympics, won gold medals, and became world champions. That’s what I wanted to do. For me, to beat him [Stecca], would not only get me the world title but would help to make up for not having fought at the Olympics.” Against the odds, McMillan won a wide decision to be crowned the new WBO world champion.
Four months later Colombian Ruben Dario Palacio challenged for McMillan’s title. “We had the fight at the Olympia, London, and I was the heavy favorite after the Stecca fight. It was one of those that I should have won comfortably. He only hurt me a couple of times throughout the fight, and I was winning it very comfortably. Then in the seventh round, I went to throw a left hook, and he came underneath and moved up and, as he did, my shoulder popped out. I tried to fight on, but the referee saw what had happened and stopped the fight. Unfortunately for me, in my first defense, my reign as world champion came to a quick end.”
After a thirteen-month convalescence period, McMillan returned to the ring, taking on the new WBO featherweight king, Steve Robinson. Despite the rest period, the injury still proved to be problematic when the two clashed on October 23, 1993, in Robinson’s backyard of Cardiff. “After the Palacio fight, I had a pin put in the shoulder. Then, during one of my sparring sessions with Johnny Armour, I felt it move and knew it wasn’t 100 percent. But at the time, I was lined up to fight Steve Robinson, who had gone on to become world champion, so I knew I had to go through with the fight.
“I still believed I had enough to become world champion again, but it didn’t turn out that way on the night. Steve was very strong, and it was a close fight in Cardiff, but he got the decision and won the fight.”
Over the next two and a half years, McMillan bounced back, clocking six victories, before fighting the reigning British champion, Jon Jo Irwin. Just how satisfying was it reclaiming the coveted British title? “It was great. When you’re younger, you dream of fighting for the British title and winning the Lonsdale belt, so having the opportunity to fight for it the second time round, five years later and win it again was special. I’d proved that I still had something left.
“After that fight, it was looking like I was going to fight Prince Naseem Hamed who was world champion [Hamed stopped Steve Robinson in eight rounds to win the WBO featherweight title on September 30, 1995]. I’d sparred Naz before when I was on my way up to fighting for the British title. We had a lot of respect for each other, and it was a good experience. We only did body sparring, but it was very competitive. At the time, I thought we might meet somewhere later down the line, but it never happened.”
How would that fight have panned out? “I was always confident for that fight. Naz, throughout his career, was always troubled by fighters with good boxing brains, who were fast and could take a good shot. People like Kevin Kelley, Manuel Medina. I knew it would have been a hard fight, as he went on to become a tremendous fighter, but, at my peak, I was confident in my ability to beat him or any fighter in my division.”
After beating Irwin, McMillan beat Trust Ndlovu, before suffering his first and only stoppage loss on January 11, 1997, against future IBF and IBO featherweight world champion, Paul Ingle. “At the time of the Ingle fight, we were chasing the Hamed fight. Frank Maloney was promoting me, and we knew that in order to get the fight, we had to get through Paul Ingle, who was young and hungry and really up for the fight. I certainly didn’t look past him. For me, that was my first genuine defeat [McMillan was stopped in the eighth round], and Ingle went on to prove himself as a genuine world champion.”
At the age of thirty, riddled with injuries, McMillan retired with a very respectable thirty-one wins in thirty-five contests. “From where I started, I’m very happy. A lot of people know that I didn’t reach my full potential in the sport and if the shoulder injury hadn’t happened, I could have been involved in some cracking fights. But I’m still very happy with what I’ve achieved and thankful. I’m happy that the injury I had happened after I became world champion, otherwise I may not have gone on to do what I did. I look back on my career with a lot of pride.”
Since hanging up the gloves twenty-two years ago, McMillan has tirelessly dedicated himself to several charities in his own time, raising thousands of pounds for well-deserving causes. Thankfully his efforts did not pass unnoticed, and in January 2019 he was awarded the BEM (British Empire Medal). “It was nice to get the recognition, but, ultimately I’d never done it for that. I’ve always felt that if you are in a situation where you can help other people, you should. Fortunately, in my life, I’ve been able to help a number of people less fortunate than myself, and it’s nice to be able to do that little bit to help out.”