By Nigel Collins
A JEEP CHEROKEE pulled into the MacDonald’s parking lot located at the intersections of Broad and Diamond Streets in North Philly, and former WBA cruiserweight title-holder Nate “Mr” Miller stepped out. He had suggested we meet there for the interview, but when asked if he would like some lunch, Miller said, “I don’t eat in places like this,” so we decided to conduct the interview in his car.
Except for a few pounds and sprinkling of grey in his beard, Nate didn’t look much different than when he retired in June 2001. As we reeled back the years, he proved a candid and eccentric interviewee. The first hint of the latter was the voicemail message on his phone: “This is Nate ‘Mr’ Miller, cruiserweight champ of universe.”
“I was raised in foster care,” Miller said. “I was put into the first one at the age of four until 12, and then in the second from 12 to 18. Both [foster] families were very nice. Later I did meet my birth parents and found out I was related to former light-heavyweight champion Harold Johnson and bantamweight champion Jeff Chandler.”
Nate was the class clown in school, a foster kid starving for attention. He was 17 when he found his calling at the Happy Hollow boxing gym in Philadelphia’s Germantown neighborhood, housed in a 100-year-old recreation center that’s still operating. He also met Stan Williams who became his trainer and co-manager throughout his amateur and professional career.
“Stan and I had a father-son relationship. He showed me the positions and how to stand but didn’t teach me a particular style. Unlike a lot of trainers who want you to fight the way they want you to, he just let me be free. I guess I was just a natural. I got into boxing to make money, but once I found out I could win a title, I thought I might as well step up my game.”
After a brief amateur career, he turned pro September 30, 1986, at the Blue Horizon, scoring a first-round stoppage of Tony Jackson. All told, Miller was undefeated in 17 fights at the iconic venue, all but three inside the distance. “The Blue Horizon was a great place,” Miller said. “It was historic and close to home, so many people I knew came to see me fight.”
Miller was a long way from home when he suffered his first loss on October 21, 1988. It came in his 13th fight, against Boubakar Sonogo in Bordeaux, France. J Russell Peltz promoted both IBF light-heavyweight titlist “Prince” Charles Williams and Miller, and while Williams defended the title with a third-round knockout of Rufino Angulo, Miller lost an eighth-round decision to Sonogo.
“Besides loading up on French pastry, which made him sluggish in a fight he should have won,” wrote Peltz in his book, Thirty Dollars And A Cut Eye: 50 Year In Boxing, “Miller was also up to his class-clown tricks. At dinner, he put a rubber mouse on the waitress’ shoulder with the expected results. He also put one in Linda’s [Peltz’s wife] empty wine glass which was covered with a linen napkin.”
Miller’s high jinks continued during the flight home. One leg of the journey was in a 12-seat puddle jumper. “There was terrible weather, and the turbulence was so bad I was scared and couldn’t stop sweating.” said Peltz. “The flight attendant was applying cold compresses to my head. Meanwhile, Nate was running up and down the aisle, laughing at me.”
Miller’s first significant match was against murderous punching Bert Cooper, February 15, 1989, at Pennsylvania Hall, with the NABF cruiserweight title on the line. “We had sparred together, so I kind of knew his capability and stance,” said Miller. “Therefore, I was pretty much prepared when I got in the ring. I just knew I had to stay focused and not take a big punch.” Cooper didn’t answer the bell for the seventh round.
Nate’s first defence of the regional title was against Andre “Big Daddy” McCall. The Philadelphian suffered a broken jaw in either the second or third round (he doesn’t recall which). “I knew my jaw was broken because I heard it crack after McCall landed a left hook. I said to myself, if he hits me like that again, he can have the belt. Believe me, it was painful.” Miller credits adrenaline for keeping him going until he stopped McCall in the seventh round.
The injury kept Nate out of action for eight months. He returned on March 26, 1990, and successfully defended the NABF title with a unanimous 12-round decision over Tyrone Booze in Atlantic City. In December of that year, he made his final successful defence, stopping Michael Greer in the fifth round at the Blue Horizon. Miller lost a 12-round decision and the belt to James Warring, December 2, 1990, in Atlantic City.
“In the final seconds of the first round, after Miller motioned to referee Joe Cortez about a head butt, Warring landed a right hand and Miller went down,” wrote Peltz. “He got to his feet at nine, wobbled back to his corner, managed to last 12 rounds, but lost by scores of 114-113, 116-114 and 116-112.”
“That was a rough one,” said Miller. “He hit me so hard in the first round I thought a horse had kicked me. I went down on my face and saw stars. People who get hit like that usually don’t get up, but I was in good shape and lasted 12 rounds.”
Next, Miller challenged Al Cole for the IBF USBA cruiserweight title, another regional belt, losing by unanimous 12-round decision on May 1991. Two of the judges had Cole winning by scores of 115-113, which were much more indicative of the fight than 118-110 tally from the third judge. “Al Cole was tough and relentless,” said Miller. “We had the same style. It was like fighting a mirror image.”
Miller rebuilt with five consecutive wins, the two most significant victories were a seventh-round stoppage of previously undefeated Jade “The Jewel” Scott and a unanimous 10-round verdict over former WBC light-heavyweight champ and WBA cruiserweight title-holder Dwight Muhammad Qawi. Although Qawi was well past his prime, he had won 11 of his 14 most recent bouts going into the Miller fight, held at the Blue Horizon, October 13, 1992.
“He was still slick,” Miller said. “I had never fought a guy like that before. He was agile, bobbing and weaving. He was hard to hit, and I was trying to take his head off.”
Cole was the full-fledged IBF cruiserweight title holder by the time he fought a rematch and Miller, July 23, 1994, in Bismarck, North Dakota. The result was another unanimous decision in Cole’s favor. It was starting to look like Miller was good but not good enough. Nate didn’t think so and neither did Stan Williams.
“My manager wrote a letter to Don King, who was my promoter at the time, asking him to give me a second chance to win the cruiserweight title,” Miller said. “Don must have liked the letter because in my third fight after the second Cole fight, I fought Orlin Norris for the WBA world cruiserweight title on July 22, 1994, in London. We planned to hit [Norris] with a straight right, and in the eighth round I hit him with two in a row and he went down. I knew he wasn’t getting up. There’s nothing like winning a world title. Man, the feeling was unbelievable. It was like I was in heaven.”
Miller made four successful defences, turning back the challenges of Reinaldo Gimenez, Brian LaSpaza, James Heath and Alexander Gurov, all inside the distance. The Philadelphia slugger lost the belt to Fabrice Tiozzo, November 8, 1998, in Las Vegas, via unanimous 12-round decision.
“I had a lot on my mind,” said Miller. “I had two women there, my wife and a friend. I didn’t know one of them was coming and I was trying to keep them apart. I guess I wasn’t focused. If I wasn’t going through that stuff, I think I would have knocked him out.”
Nate only won one of his final four fights and retired after losing a 10-round decision to Vincenzo Rossitto in Italy, June 23, 2001.
“When I didn’t get any more wins, I knew it was time to call it quits. I think if I didn’t have punching power, my career might have been different. I wasn’t fast. If I didn’t knock you out, I would probably lose,” said Miller, who won four bouts by decision. His final record was 31-9 with 27 wins inside the distance. Miller was never stopped and four of those losses came in his final five bouts.
The 60-year-old Miller is unlike so many boxers who become lost souls after their career is over. Nate worked for the Philadelphia Housing Authority throughout his career and now receives a good pension. Nate is no longer the class clown but certainly has some unconventional notions. The one I like the most is his belief that science has discovered a way to restore everybody to 30 years old.
Before we parted company, he told me he could play keyboard, harmonica, saxophone, flute, guitar and violin. At the time it seemed just one of Nate’s riffs, but just two days later the phone rang early in the morning. It was Mr Miller. He asked if I wanted to listen to him play the guitar, right then and there. I was still sleepy but agreed to listen. How could I not? This was the first and probably the last time a boxer has asked me to listen to him or her play an instrument, over the phone no less. Maybe I’ve just been lucky.
It was kind of like acid jazz, but not really. Ornette Coleman maybe? No, that’s going way too far. The best I could came up with was the soundtrack for a spooky movie. “Play some blues,” I said. It sounded pretty much the same. A few days later, I received a flurry of emails containing dozens of links to conspiracy theories, from the United Nations’ plan to rid the planet of undesirables to the World Economic Forum plot to collapse the financial structure.
Miller plans to publish his autobiography, Nate “Mr” Miller: The Quiet Champion, and even though boxing books are a hard sell, it might be a better bet than the money he’s invested in African currency – but what do I know? Nate’s easy-going demeanor make his tales of conspiracies, shady politics, and dastardly plots to end the world sound plausible. He’s not ranting. He’s sincere. The same as when he said he was never ripped off by the judges, admitting the decisions he lost were all fair verdicts.
Miller is well known for taking his WBA and NABF belts with him whenever he attends a boxing function and sometimes just strolls around the neighborhood with them. “It is to inspire, to show the youth what you can do.” said Miller. “Neighborhood kids like to touch the belts and sometimes they want to put them on.”
“I live right across the street from Happy Hollow gym,” Miller told Peltz. “I had fun. I loved it and the people I met. I loved every aspect of boxing.”