They had begun mentioning the little man from Barking in the same breath as the giants of the ring. Barry McGuigan, rarely moved to hyperbole, even likened him to Sugar Ray Leonard,because of his hand speed, technique and eloquence. "Sweet C", they called him, an artiste on canvas. But suddenly on a September night at Earl's Court, London, in 1992, it all turned sour.
As McMillan went to throw a punch in the eighth round against the Colombian Ruben Palacio, his shoulder snapped out of its socket and he was unable to continue. Five years, two operations, another world title challenge, one comeback and a dozen fights later, McMillan finally retired, his potential never really fulfilled but his passion for boxing remained unrequited.
Two and a half years on, McMillan, the self-motivated fighter who spurned the services of a manger throughout his 35-bout career, is back - as a manager. Or rather, he should have been if events of the past fortnight had not underlined that it can be just as perilous taking care of someone else's business outside the ring as it can your own inside it.
McMillan's first signing, the former British and European cruiserweight champion Terry Dunstan, was due to have challenged for the European title again in Moscow on Wednesday. But last week the engagement with Alexei Illiin was called off because of the spate of bombings in Russia. "The promoters reckoned they couldn't guarantee our safety," McMillan said. "But I was beginning to suspect they couldn't guarantee the money either."
So McMillan the manager went to work to try to get a British promoter to stage the bout. The phone and fax lines have been humming at his Essex home, but to no avail. "It's been a nightmare. It wasn't just a question of no dates being available. Illiin was willing to come but the trouble with promoters here is that they want contracts which tie you to a number of fights. I believe in being independent and always have done. It gives you more bargaining power. So we haven't been able to reach a deal."
However, displaying some of the cuteness which made him such an attractive fighter in his heyday, McMillan has now pulled off a smart deal which is worthy of the wiles of more celebrated managerial figures, not least Don King. Without pulling on a glove, Dunstan will receive more money for not fighting Illiin than for fighting him. McMillan has agreed that the Russian can go to Germany to defend against their national champion, Thorsten May, in November, with Dunstan meeting the winner within 90 days.
Dunstan will receive compensation - it is known in the trade as step aside money - and can also go ahead with a British title fight against Manchester's Carl Thompson in December, after a warm-up contest. It seems good business, though both manager and fighter reckon they would rather have had the action than the cash. "I can't wait to get this first fight under my belt as a manager," says McMillan. "Since I retired I've been itching to get back into boxing."
He is still only 33 and in terrific nick, running and working out regularly, but has wisely resisted the temptation of another comeback. "Deep down you know when you can't do it any more." While he's not exactly walking on air at the moment, he's not walking on his heels either. He operates from his elegant detached house in Chadwell Heath which backs on to stables, with a sports car and a four-wheel adorning the driveway. By today's megabucks standards he wasn't a prodigious earner, though he did well enough, and invested shrewdly.
"For a featherweight I got decent money and but for the injury I would have got a lot more. I'm not saying I'm a millionaire or that I'm financially secure for life - after all, who is? - but I don't have to get up and go to work from nine to five." McMillan also had the advantage of not having to hive off 25 per cent of his earnings to a manager. Apart from a brief association with the former world light welterweight champion Terry Marsh - they never signed a formal contract - he always looked after his own interests, assisted by a journalist friend, Jonathan Rendall, and a seasoned trainer, Howard Rainey.
Being self-managed did not exactly endear him to promoters nor, one suspects, the British Boxing Board of Control, whose Southern Area Council turned down his original application for a manager's licence, which he made while he was still an active boxer. McMillan was furious at the time, and vowed to get out of the game but was encouraged to reapply recently by the board secretary John Morris. This time he sailed through the interview, yet it seems somewhat perverse that the fighter who had no time for those 25 per centers has decided to become one himself.
McMillan explains: "What it boils down to is that I believe I can manage fighters the way they should be managed. My own background means I know the score inside and outside the ropes. In boxing it has always been perceived that the fighter works for the manager, whereas it should be vice versa. I always wanted to be in complete control of my own career because in the past there have been too many fighters who have been exploited, not compensated enough for the pain and trouble they have to endure.
"There was a time when I was being hyped up as the greatest thing since sliced bread, but I was on the breadline. Fortunately this changed. So many boxers have little to say in their careers, but I believe it should be a partnership. There are a lot of good people in boxing but there are a lot of villains, too, and a lot of murky politics. Fighters come and go but managers and promoters seem to go on forever. Looking after the fighter should be the number one priority, but that is not always the case.
"I don't see myself as earning fortunes as a manager just yet, or becoming the next Don King or Frank Warren. What I want to do initially is pass on my experience." He says he has been approached by several boxers but is concentrating on looking after Dunstan, an old amateur colleague whom he has sent to train in Sheffield with Rainey. "I want to get Terry sorted out first. Obviously, I'd like more top fighters but I'm going to be selective. I don't want to be managing eight or nine fighters, all complaining they can't get work."
McMillan was also the thinking fans' fighter, using his mind as well as his muscle. The son of West Indian parents, he left comprehensive school with enough Os and As to go to university or pursue a less hazardous occupation. But boxing has always been in his blood.
He is secretary of the Professional Boxers' Association and has contributed thoughtful essays on the sport to the broadsheets. Recently he completed his first book which is part biography but also a study of the contribution made to British boxing by black fighters since the days of the colour bar, which he researched with the late Harry Mullan.
Racism, he reckons, has yet to be totally eliminated from sport. His wife Sue is white, and they have two children but he says he has not experienced racism himself: "Probably because I'm quite well known." But he says while it is less evident, it is more subtle. "There is a desperate need for black faces on the administrative side of sport, more black managers in boxing, more black promoters. But boxing doesn't take that kindly to change."
The sport has changed, of course, and not necessarily for the better. He agreed it was less fun now and, sadly, less popular. "When I was boxing there were quite a few quality guys around like Benn, Eubank, Watson and Bruno. You saw them all and you knew them all because their fights were shown on terrestrial TV. They were big personalities. Now people don't know who the champions are. Sky have pumped a lot of money into boxing but in a sense they've marginalised it. Some of the titles are worthless and we see some awful mis-matches. The public aren't fools. They want to see fights that are credible and competitive."
McMillan's own career embraced British and Commonwealth titles and he won the world title by defeating the Italian Olympic champion Maurizio Stecca. He was beaten only four times. "But for that shoulder injury I believe I would have been in the same position that Naseem Hamed is in now, but that's the way things go. With boxing you never know what's around the corner. One day you are on top, the next you are knocked out and you are nothing.
"That's why it's important to take care of yourself, or have someone who will. One of the most important things in boxing is timing and even more important is knowing when the time is right to get out."Reuse content