BEING on the wrong end of a unification showdown can break a fighter. And Milton McCrory, 35-4-1 (25), admits losing one of the most anticipated scraps of the 1980s to Donald Curry all but finished him. Yet it’s unfair to hang McCrory’s career off that result.
McCrory stumbled into boxing as a boy, the brutal sport was not his dream vocation but the gifted youngster eventually caught the eye of legendary Emanuel Steward. A prize product of the halcyon days of Kronk Gym, the peak “Ice Man” was a spidery slayer in the mould of stablemate and sparring partner, Tommy Hearns, to whom he would draw constant comparison. His professional career spanned 11 years, where he won five from eight world title fights. Here he talks in detail about the highs – winning the WBC welterweight title after two fights with brilliant Welshman, Colin Jones – and that crushing low of losing for the first time, long after his spindly frame should have been stripping down to 147lbs.
Today the bespectacled McCrory is following the path that was laid by Steward, his mentor.
You came through two tough fights with Colin Jones (draw pts 12, w pts 12) to take the vacant WBC welterweight title. What were your thoughts on Colin prior to those fights?
I had no idea Colin Jones was as good as he was. He was three or four years older than me, and I knew he had been in the 1976 Olympics, but I wasn’t expecting him to be so skilled. Even so, that first fight, I thought I outhustled him, I thought I won. But they called it a draw. The second fight was pretty much the same fight except I knocked him down early. But they were hard fights. They were the hardest fights I’ve ever had in my life. It was very tough, it was two guys who really wanted to be world champion. It was the greatest feeling in the world. I never got into boxing to be a world champion, I never got into boxing to be a boxer, I just did it to kill time. I was good at all sports but what I liked was that it was an individual sport, and it turned out I was very good at it.
At that point you were sparring with Tommy Hearns. Who was coming out on top?
I always sparred Tommy. They were very good competitive workouts. Tommy thanked me for all the fights he won because of the gym workouts we had. We had absolute wars, and lots of them, in the gym. When I first started Tommy was a world champion so I knew I had to make a good impression. I saw what he was doing to other people in the gym and I thought, ‘No, I am going to show you I want to be a world champion too’.
Being stablemates, a fight with Tommy was never going to happen. But how close were you to fighting Sugar Ray Leonard or Roberto Duran?
There a few who turned us down. Pipino Cuevas turned us down. We asked to fight Duran but he turned it down. I guess after what Tommy did to him, he didn’t want any part of me, another tall fighter. I have no regrets about that, but what I do regret never getting the Sugar Ray [Leonard] fight. And people forget I was in line to fight Leonard. When he came back in 1984 and fought Kevin Howard, he was doing so because he wanted to ‘get my WBC welterweight belt back’ which I had. People overlook it, but that was supposed to be tune-up fight for Milton McCrory. It didn’t happen but I wish it had. I would have shocked the world.
How was the build-up to the 1985 Donald Curry fight? People now forget how big that fight was at the time.
Every time you get two champions coming together it’s always going to be big. I don’t want to make excuses but I had outgrown welterweight. First time I ever fought there was in 1979 and I stayed for six years and I was killing myself to make the weight. I was killing myself when I fought Jones the first time, and Curry came along almost three years later.
How did you cope with being stopped in two rounds?
That was hard. I had never lost as a professional, and it had been six years since I last lost a fight at all. I lost my world title and it was the first time I had ever been knocked out. Part of me quit boxing after that fight. I didn’t really love boxing anyway, but I was good at it, and I was not a fool to retire because I was making a lot of money out of it. My name was still out there, I knew I could make more money so I stuck around for a little bit longer. But part of me quit after losing to Curry. I didn’t want to be a boxer, I wanted to be a baseball player but life changes, and I was just moving with the flow.
You make it sound easy.
I suppose it was. In that era, as a black man being born in the early sixties, I felt that my only way to make it in society was to play sports. I was good at baseball, I was good at football, I was good at basketball – just like boxing too. God had blessed me with being a good athlete and I believe God gives everybody a gift.
I found out, in 1972, that sports was my ticket to the top. I didn’t know then it was going to be boxing. [Future IBF lightweight champion] Jimmy Paul tricked me and my brother Steve [McCrory]. Jimmy had just started to box, and he told us that in order to watch him box, we must bring gym shorts and gym gear just to get in the gym. So we went to the gym together on the Monday, and we all fought on Saturday. Within five days me, Steve, and Jimmy had all won our first fights. After that we started travelling to box and I fell in love with winning and travelling. I was seeing the world as a young boy. I became amateur world champion, I turned pro, and everything was just click, click, click. It was like it was meant to be, and I would have been a fool to walk away.
Did you miss it when you eventually retired, and do you miss being a fighter now?
No. I was just good at it. I look back on all that training I was doing, all that running. I couldn’t do that now! I look back on basketball and maybe I miss playing that. I was like a better version of Dennis Rodman, I could shoot better, and I could play defence, and I liked that. In football I liked defence, and the same with boxing, defence. The only fights I lost was when I got hit [laughs]. I only lost four fights.
Do you regret those losses? You’ve already spoke about the loss to Donald Curry. What about the loss to Mike McCallum?
I took that fight at short notice and we went 10 rounds [before I got stopped]. I thought I won the first four or five rounds but I was getting tired because I took it with two weeks’ notice. The reason I did that was because I’d spent time in the gym with him and I thought he was kind of scared of me. But I was tired in that fight, and t was scheduled for 15 rounds. But regrets? No. Why would I? I was champion of the world. I am a success.
How much of your success do you attribute to Emanuel Steward?
A lot. Even now, I owe him a lot. I’m the head coach at Kronk, and I see what’s involved in doing that, what happens in boxing, and I realise what Emanuel went through for us. It was a lot. Not only was I world champion, he had a number of world champions, he was special. Out of all the sports I played, he was the coach who stands out because he believed in me. I will always love him for that, he saw things in me that a lot of people didn’t see. Even though I was skinny, I was very tough.
Being head coach at Kronk, where Emanuel made his name, must be a tremendous honour. Yet it must have been exceptionally hard when he died.
It was so hard when he died. It’s always hard to lose someone when you’re that close to them whether you’re family or not. I’d known him since I was 12 years old, and we travelled the world together. And I became amateur world champion, professional world champion, I did it all. Who better to be head coach? Some of the kids I get that are 10, 11 years old, the ones that really try to do what I tell them are special and I’m proud of that. There are four or five kids that I’m very proud of.
What is left for you to achieve as a coach?
Well, I don’t think I’ll train 40-something world champions [like Steward] but I’d just like to get one kid to experience what I experienced. To rule the world as an amateur and a pro, and to see the world like I saw the world.