“It’s always nice to be recognized,” said Milton, 77, a two-time NCAA national heavyweight champion at San Jose State who will be part of a 10-member class inducted into this year’s Peninsula Sports Hall of Fame class on June 11 at the San Mateo County Events Center. “It’s an honor to be thought of in that fashion.”
The first to ever think of him as a fighter was Julius “Julie” Menendez, the San Jose State boxing coach who built a Spartan fighting dynasty in the South Bay that rivaled any in the country, winning three consecutive NCAA national team titles in 1958, 1959 and 1960.
But boxing didn’t bring Milton to Menendez. Wrestling did — by accident.
As a freshman in 1957, Milton was asked to work out with a heavyweight from an opposing school. Menendez didn’t want to expose his San Jose heavyweight to the visiting rival, so Milton stepped in.
“When it was over, Julie says to me, ‘Well, I think you’re a boxer,’” Milton said.
Menendez was right.
As a 20-year-old sophomore but boxing rookie in 1958, Milton captured his first NCAA heavyweight title by beating defending champ Hal Espy of Idaho State in the semifinals. He then outpointed Wisconsin’s Ron Freeman for the championship.
Milton would lose to Espy the very next year in the NCAA heavyweight title match, but regained his crown in 1960 by besting Stanford’s Ed Rothman, going unbeaten his entire senior year.
“I surprised myself that I was that successful, and to do it that way, and to do it twice,” Milton said. “It was really a feeling of accomplishment.”
Milton fought in his final collegiate bout in that championship-winning night in 1960. College boxing soon terminated after University of Wisconsin’s Charlie Mohr died of injuries he suffered in the ring the same year.
Mohr was knocked out by Milton’s 165-pound teammate Stu Bartell in their title bout. Mohr died eight days later.
Menendez folded the Spartans’ boxing program later that year, but landed the honor of coaching the 1960 U.S. Olympic boxing team — a team Milton came within eight seconds of making.
“I would’ve loved to go to Rome,” Milton said. “I think I got careless.”
Milton was beating Percy Price, a marine, in the semifinals of the Olympic trials at the Cow Palace when Price knocked Milton out cold with a right hand. Instead of Milton, it was Price who fought alongside a light heavyweight named Cassius Clay, later known as Muhammad Ali, in Rome.
Milton’s boxing career ended soon after that. Prizing his bachelor of arts and master of sciences degrees more than his boxing titles, Milton never considered a pro boxing career. Instead, he opted for a 35-year career in the probation departments of San Mateo and Santa Clara counties.
“It’s was always a sport with me,” Milton said, whose parents abandoned segregated Texas for the West Coast when he was a child. “That’s where it stayed.”
Also part of the induction class are Brett Barron (international judo standout), Leo Biedermann (former NFL offensive lineman), Jennifer Bloom Creinin (competitive gymnastics), Peter Diepenbrock (basketball coach), Valerie Fleming (Olympic bobsled), Jim Gaughran (swim coach), Jabari Issa (former NFL defensive lineman), Paul Pickett (basketball standout) and Terry Stogner (commissioner of the Peninsula Athletic League.