Fighter remembered for persistence, dedication to kids
COLUMBUS, Miss. (AP) — When Shannon Miller stepped into the boxing ring at Trotter Convention Center on the evening of Jan. 6, he hadn’t won a fight in almost six years, a string of nine consecutive losses that had dropped the 42-year-old light-heavyweight’s record to 25 wins, 56 losses and eight draws, according to BoxRec.com.
No one knew it at the time, but it would be Miller’s last fight.
A couple of months after that fight, 39-year-old boxer Anthony Walker, for whom Shannon Miller had always been a hero and mentor, asked his friend a simple question.
“I’d always heard when boxers turned 40 it was time to quit,” Walker recalled. “I was getting close to that, but Shannon was 42 and he was still going. So I asked him, ‘When do you stop?’
“He didn’t really answer,” Walker said. “He just said it’s different for everybody.”
For Shannon Miller, the time to stop came Thursday before dawn when Miller died in his sleep, apparently from a heart attack.
“We think that’s what it was, a heart attack,” said his father, Oliver Miller. “But we haven’t seen the autopsy.”
Oliver Miller said his son was working out at his gym — Miller’s Tae-Kwon-Do on College Street — early Wednesday evening when he got sick.
“He was throwing up, so I took him to the hospital,” the elder Miller said, “but Shannon didn’t want to stay. He wanted to go home. He died sometime overnight.”
Miller’s gym, located at 1800 College Street, is an old nondescript brick building, not much more than 1,000 square-feet.
Its location is notable in one respect, although probably not by design. The gym sits between the Lowndes County Juvenile Justice Center and the Lowndes County Adult Detention Center, less than a mile away.
For many troubled kids, Miller’s gym interrupts the path from the former to the latter, and both Oliver Miller and his son, Shannon, have become heroic figures here in this part of town known as the Sandfield community.
Oliver Miller is 63 years old, but aside from a dusting of gray in his hair, he looks like a much younger man. Miller himself fought well into his 50s and his body retains the attributes of an athlete -- he is trim, solid. He does not sit for an interview. He stands, shifting from foot to foot, always moving. As he speaks, he will occasionally throw a light jab at a heavy bag at the gym he has operated since 1977 where he’s taught hundreds of kids tae-kwon-do, karate and boxing -- and keeping them out of trouble, in many cases.
“Kids get frustrated, too,” he said, flicking a jab to illustrate his point. “They come in that door one way -- frustrated, agitated, mad. Whatever it is they bring in here, they get it out. They come in one way, they leave another.”
Walker nodded in agreement.
“I’m one of those kids he’s talking about,” said Walker, who works at PACCAR as he continues boxing. “I don’t know what my life would be if I hadn’t come into this gym 15 years ago.”
Shannon, the eldest of Miller’s three boys, was 2 when his father opened the gym. He started karate training at age 4 and was a black belt by 7.
“He was the best I ever had,” Oliver Miller said.
Over the years, Shannon set himself apart for his speed, his mastery of fundamentals and his understanding of the craft. He competed in karate and kick-boxing events through his early teens and transitioned to boxing at age 17. He never fought an amateur fight and made his professional debut on April 6, 1996 at Jaycee Fairgrounds Arena in Tuscaloosa where he fought to a draw against Willie Dollard.
But there were two other qualities that separated Shannon from all of the other young men Oliver Miller has taught over the decades -- an unshakable confidence and a stubborn resiliency.
For many boxers, the ego is their most vulnerable spot. An early loss can rob the fighter of his confidence. Discouragement often follows. That is why, in most cases, fighters are brought along slowly, matched with opponents they can beat as a means of building their confidence.
It was never, ever, that way with Shannon. His record could have -- probably should have -- been much better, his father said.
“The one thing he didn’t do well was pick his fights,” Oliver Miller said. “He would fight anybody, anywhere. It didn’t matter.”
Shannon would lose fights -- many of them -- but he never lost his confidence nor his passion.
In their own way, those losses -- and Miller’s response to them -- may have been the most important lesson he could ever share with the poor kids of Sandfield, where life never seems to pull any punches.
“You’re gonna get knocked down in life,” Oliver Miller said. “But will you get up and keep going? That’s what Shannon did, over and over again. He always got up. He never quit. He never even thought about quitting.”
In his 42 years, there was one thing that Shannon Miller seemed incapable of doing -- being idle.
In his regular job, he drove a garbage truck for Waste Management while keeping a relentless workout schedule in his father’s gym. A father of five -- three girls and two boys ranging in age from 3 to 19 -- he poured his energies into his children, too, encouraging them in their interests.
“When his daughters got into dancing, Shannon starting helping out with their dance teams,” Oliver said. “Whatever it was they were doing, he wanted to help out.”
But his interest in kids went beyond his own children.
“He was an assistant coach for a kids football team and a baseball team. He helped with the dance team and, of course, he helped a lot of kids here in the gym,” Walker said. “He was working at this job and training, too. I don’t know how he found the time, but he was there. He loved kids and he loved seeing them play sports. He wanted to help. It was never about him. It was always about the kids.”
Walker said Shannon was more than an encourager.
“Whatever it was you decided you were going to do, he expected you to work hard at it,” Walker said. “He didn’t take it easy on you. I remember when his son, Tyran, first came into the gym and wanted to learn. Shannon asked me to work him out. I said, ‘OK.’
“Tyran was just 11 years old, so before we started, I’m thinking I’ll take it easy on him since he’s just beginning,” he continued. “I told Tyran that I’d take it easy. Well, Shannon overheard me say that and he said, ‘No, you won’t. He’s not going to learn anything that way.’”
On the night of Jan. 6, carrying a nine-bout losing streak into the ring, Shannon Miller pummeled his opponent, Anthony Greeley, winning by a technical knockout in the second round.
It was just his 26th win in 90 professional fights.
A boxer is judged by his record.
But a man is judged by his character, by his generosity, by his spirit.
On that January night, Shannon Miller won the last fight of his life.
The hometown crowd roared in approval.
Forget the records.
They knew a champion when they saw one.