Any serious collector of boxing ephemera will have seen the name Mike Milligan many times on British programmes and handbills of the 1930s to 1960s. He was, at various times, a pro boxer, trainer, second, whip and matchmaker. Although his own ring career was brief and unremarkable, he was present in those other roles for many major British fights.
Born in London’s East End in around 1908, his Boxing News obituary states that his real name was Mark Vezan. However, I can find no listing for that name in the official birth or death indexes, so it’s probably a misspelling. At age 15, Milligan joined the Victoria Working Boys’ Club in Whitechapel where British and European champion Harry Mason had his first boxing lessons. At 16, Mike turned pro, making his debut at the famous Premierland, where he earned the princely sum of 17s 6d (88 pence) for a six-rounder. He had several more fights before turning to training and linking up with the emerging East End managerial kingpin, Johnny Sharpe. Johnny put Mike in charge of his “45” gym in the Mile End Road. Two of Milligan’s early pupils were Moe Moss and Kid Farlo, both of whom he passed on to Sharpe to manage, and they became leading pros. Others Mike trained at the 45 gym included Jack Hyams, Archie Sexton, Laurie and Sid Raiteri and Billy Mack.
After a few years with Sharpe, Milligan went to work for Joe Morris, manager of such stars as Teddy Baldock and Dick Corbett. Mike was still working for Morris in 1934 when Joe, backed by a small syndicate, bought the lease of an old church in Devonshire Street, Hackney, converting it to a boxing hall. The Devonshire Club, as it was called, fared dismally, prompting Morris and the other investors to sell their shares to future promotional supremo (but then little-known) Jack Solomons. Milligan stayed at the Devonshire and worked as the ‘house’ whip and Jack’s assistant until 1940, when the venue was obliterated by a Luftwaffe bomb.
In that short time the Devonshire became east London’s leading small hall. It was during this spell that Mike, who had a gift for spotting talent, unearthed his greatest fistic discovery. Milligan took future British lightweight champion Eric Boon [pictured above right with Milligan] under his wing after seeing him box as a 15-year-old on a Devonshire Club bill. Mike trained Eric and was a crucial guiding influence in his early years, travelling with him wherever he fought.
In 1940, Milligan joined the army as a gunner in the RA and also served as a PT instructor. He was invalided out of the army after an injury on a gun site and spent six months in hospital. From there, he went back to working as a whip for Solomons and many other promoters, and became a permanent fixture in that capacity at the wonderfully quirky Mile End Arena, an outdoor venue housed within crumbling brickwork and corrugated iron walls. From 1951, Mike worked as a matchmaker at venues such as the Mile End Arena and Epsom Baths, and for many years was a member of the Southern Area Council.
“A dynamic personality with a pleasant manner and an enthusiasm for boxing that positively radiates from him” was how one newspaper described him in 1940. And that enthusiasm for the game never abated. “Mike worked as a bookmaker, but boxing was his life,” noted his Boxing News obituary in 1964. “He ate, drank and slept boxing… He rarely missed a show, big or small.”
Milligan’s sudden death, aged 56, shocked the British fight fraternity. A host of leading boxing figures – Solomons, Sharpe and Benny Huntman among them – were at his funeral in Rainham, Essex, to pay their respects to a man who’d made his mark behind the scenes in one of British boxing’s most colourful eras.