Coast Guard Feature Story

He was six feet tall and weighed more than 200 pounds when he punched his commanding officer.

And it wasn’t the first time.

Phillip Miller, a second-class Coast Guard Storekeeper, had sparred with his commander many times on the deck of the Coast Guard Cutter Vigorous, based in Cape May, N.J.  Both men shared a passion for boxing and at the time neither expected to become a professional fighter – but one of them would.

Miller happened upon the sport with no intention of fighting. In May, 2004, he wandered into a boxing gym in Wild Wood, N.J., to shed some weight. At nearly 250 pounds, he was outside of the Coast Guard’s standard.

“When I put on the weight, I found a boxing gym and started training there just to lose the weight,” he recalled.

As it turned out, the term “heavy weight” took on an entirely new meaning for him. “One day I ended up sparring and found out I just really wanted to fight.”

Miller said his first introduction to the sport was one that most amateurs don’t get.

“It was a Friday I’ll never forget,” he said, speaking of sparring for the first time. “He beat me up!”

Surprisingly, he had been paired that day with a professional fighter.

“He beat me up, but the whole weekend I thought about it, and I said, ‘this is what I want to do,’ so I was back there on Monday.”

He’s been at it ever since.

Miller has fought 10 amateur fights including the 2007 Golden Gloves Tournament and in 2006, he won the highly esteemed Rocky Marciano Tournament, named after the 1952 to 1956 heavyweight champion of the world.

But Miller’s greatest victory was on Wednesday, July 18, 2007, when he made the leap from amateur to pro.

It was a muggy night in Boston when he ducked under the ropes and into the ring at the Park Plaza Castle.

His opponent was just yards away. Both men paced and circled in their corners looking back and forth at their trainers and down at the bright blue mat. While avoiding eye contact, they shot looks toward each other taking in as much as they could in a short amount of time.

“It’s like a blind date. You’ve never seen this guy before,” he said. “You’re going to spend the next 12 minutes with him, so you’re just trying to size him up.”

Miller said he immediately knew he had an advantage because of each man’s reach.

“My arms are very, very long, and I looked at him and just said, ‘He’s not going to be able to hit me.'”

Further, Miller was fully confident in his secret weapon: his jab.

Miller likens his fighting skills to those he’s absorbed from being in the Coast Guard. “I’ve been on ships and when you look at evolutions, whether it’s picking up migrants or doing a boarding, they don’t just go right in and do it – they sit back and brief.”

Just like his days at sea, Miller said when he’s in the ring, he sets a plan and sticks to it.

“Even if I see an opening I’m not going to rush right in. I don’t go out there like a mad man. We have a plan and we have to go out there and execute the plan.”

After four rounds, each lasting three minutes, Miller’s fierce fighting and relentless jab had gained the judges favor and in a unanimous decision he stood for the first time as a victorious professional fighter.

Although it was a great personal victory, he wasn’t the only one celebrating the win. Miller, now assigned to the Coast Guard Naval Engineering Support Unit in Boston, had gained the support of more than 100 fellow Coast Guardsmen and women.

In a twist of irony, many of the units and members that Miller has supported in service had come to cheer him on in the ring.

When the referee clutched Miller’s wrist and raised it high into the air, the crowd’s approval was evident by its burst of applause.

“It felt good,” Miller reminisced. “To look out there to see how many people came out to support me was one of the best feelings.”

Moreover, citing personal victory, Miller looks back and relishes his success along the path he’s traveled.

“When I walked into that boxing gym, my initial goal was just to lose weight and feel good about myself,” he said. “But it was the best feeling [to win] because only a few people get to fight a professional fight. To come in the ring and do that – and actually win – it was really fulfilling.”

Above all, Miller says he gleaned much of his fighting skill and determination from his former commander and fellow boxer aboard the Vigorous, Capt. Glenn Grahl.

“He helped me more than anything,” he said. “To have someone of his rank, busy on patrol, to take a few hours out of his night every night to come down to the flight deck to help me – that really boosted my career.”

It is challenging for a young boxer to be underway, he said. When he was in port he had the convenience of the gym and his trainers. But at sea, he said he wouldn’t have had anyone to guide him as a boxer in training.

That all changed the day Grahl took command of the Vigorous.

“When he became CO (commanding officer) on the ship, it was awesome,” he said.

Grahl is also an avid amateur boxer and during their last patrol together, Miller and he worked the jab nearly ever night on the flight deck.

“He showed me how to jab correctly,” Miller said.

It was a technique that won him his professional championship.

Miller said he hopes to add to his list of pro victories. He estimates he has about eight to 10 years left and has set his ultimate sights on boxing in a world title fight.

But that, he admits, is a long way off.

Until then, he said he’s going to keep training hard and soak in the encouragement from some of his strongest supporters: his coworkers.

“One of the toughest parts of being a boxer is – and this has happened at every unit I’ve been at since I started boxing – people constantly throw punches at you,” he said.

“They think because you’re a boxer you’re supposed to take punches. So it happens all the time on base. They put their hands up and start throwing punches at me.”

They won’t let him put his guard down.

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