Boxing: 'Sweet C' strives to regain top note: McMillan must put misfortune behind him in WBO featherweight title fight. Giles Smith reports

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The Independent Online
BEFORE it all went wrong, people had high hopes for Colin 'Sweet C' McMillan. Barry McGuigan called him 'Britain's most exciting prospect in a long time'. The promoter Mickey Duff said, 'Any fight he has is going to be a mis-match.' He was a fast fighter, sharp and elegant. Cute nickname, too. All in all, he had everything going for him. Except luck.

This is the shape of Sweet C's career to date: rapid success followed by a tedious series of set-backs, injustices and altogether unnecessary panics. Mr Fortunate, he is not. In fact, on the evidence so far, there is a sizeable chance that if his ship does eventually come in, McMillan will be at the airport.

Alternatively, this weekend he could reverse his fate for good. Tomorrow night in Cardiff, McMillan will fight the Welshman Steve Robinson in an attempt to regain the World Boxing Organisation featherweight title which he lost in questionable circumstances in September last year. Against Reuben Palacio of Colombia, McMillan dislocated his left shoulder in the eighth round at London's Olympia. The rules state that, in the event of accidental injury, the referee should award the fight to whoever is ahead at that point. All three judges were marking McMillan well up, but the referee awarded the fight to Palacio and no amount of appealing to the authorities afterwards could change the result.

That was not all. Being McMillan, his was more than a simple dislocation and surgery was required, involving the insertion of a steel pin and a bone graft. As a result, Robinson is McMillan's first opponent since Palacio.

McMillan lives in Barking and struggled hard to get his comeback staged in front of friends in London. But no suitable venue could be found to fit in with television schedules. So, it is off to the Cardiff Ice Rink, where a noisily pro-Robinson crowd can be expected to extend McMillan the warm fist of welcome. In what is just about the archetypal McMillan scenario, he will be fighting to regain a title he was unlucky to lose in a venue that he was unlucky to be lumped with.

Last week, on his own patch in a small gym in the East End, watched over by a terrifyingly large attendant in a white T- shirt, a sweat-soaked McMillan carried on with his training. Shadow-boxing, he flipped about the ring at high speed, pushed back into the ropes, sprang forward in a flurry of hands. Twenty-seven now, he seems to be in hot shape, though perhaps the haircut is a mild disappointment. The man who once entered the ring with the word 'Bad' stencilled across the back of his head, currently settles for a close crop with a small sprig of three-inch dreadlocks off to one side. ('I might get something put in before the fight,' he warns. 'I'm still thinking about it. Any ideas?')

When he takes a break and walks down the gym, everybody says 'Hey, Colin' and bumps fists with him or cuffs him on the shoulder. They all seem to like him, but how could you not? He has a fast and slightly lisping voice and a stuttering cartoon laugh, which he is apt to let loose at any moment.

McMillan says he can still replay the moment when his shoulder went out, followed shortly after by his world title. 'He came underneath me and lifted himself up. My first reaction was to throw a jab. I said to my brain, 'Throw] Throw a jab]' But there was no response. I couldn't understand what it was at first. You've got so much adrenalin going, you can't really feel the pain until you slow down. I carried on fighting and then it was stopped and the doctor came over and started playing with the hand. That was when it started getting really painful.

'They took me into hospital and put me to sleep. And during the night, they must have put the shoulder back in. I still don't count that fight as a loss. I count it as a feak accident. But to lose your championship and everything you'd dreamed of . . .It took some weeks to get accustomed to.'

But even as he tried to forget and concentrate on regaining his fitness, that bout returned to him in a particularly grim form. The fight with Palacio had been a bloody one. McMillan was cut over both eyes; Palacio sustained a deep split above his nose. Their heads clashed and rubbed repeatedly. And then, ahead of a defence of his title in April this year, Palacio tested HIV positive.

'The first thing I felt was sympathy for him,' McMillan said. 'I didn't think at first that I was in danger. It was only when I got home and started thinking about it. Then I got a little worried and talked to some people about it. But to contract the disease that way is very difficult, virtually impossible. In truth, it was blown way out of proportion. For the first time in my life I was on the front of two national newspapers. And that's why I had to go and take a test. I was satisfied in my own mind, but there was pressure to do that.'

McMillan has three A levels, does work for the Professional Boxing Association and handles his own management, with help from advisers. He recently applied to manage the young Briton, Adrian Dodson, but the British Board of Boxing refused him on a technicality which McMillan still cannot make sense of.

'They said I didn't have enough experience with cuts. Quite ludicrous really, because how many times have we seen Barry Hearn or Frank Warren or any of the major promoters in the corner dealing with cuts? That's what you've got a trainer for and seconds.'

Asked to break the habit of a lifetime and sell himself on his strengths, he does quite well for a while. 'I think I've got a good tactical brain. I've got fast hands, fast feet and good reflexes. I think I take a good shot. I've got good balance.' But then it all breaks down. 'And I think I've got heart,' he said and laughed loudly at himself.

He says he has done his research on Robinson, been through the fight videos, isolated the areas he can exploit. 'You try to visualise what winning the title means to you: all the years you've sacrificed, all the things you've given up, all the times you've got up in the morning, all the times you've run in the rain. All the people who want to see you fail . . .'

Are there really such people?

'Whoever you are, there are people who like you and people who don't, regardless of what they say. That's the nature of humans. Sometimes it gives me the strength to fight harder.'

(Photograph omitted)