The Life of Tommy Morrison
Tommy Morrison could have had everything. In many ways, he did. And that almost certainly cut his career and ultimately, his life short.
Morrison was talented, he had that left hook, he was good looking, Morrison had everything he needed. But Morrison couldn’t stay in the gym long enough or often enough and he couldn’t stay out of trouble. There were unsavoury headlines for much of his adult life, trouble seemed to follow Morrison, or maybe, he followed or craved that sort of life. There were always two sides to the character of Morrison.
The heavyweight hope needed to live the life of a boxer, he chose to live life. Morrison liked to party, he liked to drink and much more. His mother told him to stay away from women. Morrison didn’t listen. He rarely did. Akin to someone who filled his boots at an all you can eat buffet, Morrison didn’t have to go looking, they came to him.
Born in Arkansas in 1969, Morrison was a product of local Toughman contests, a survivor of them even, a fake ID saw Tommy trading punches for cash when he was just 13. Morrison earned $300 for his first venture into the land of fighting the local tough guys. He would later claim he had sixty such fights and lost only one. The willingness to trade leather eventually developed into something more, a reported 200+ plus fight amateur career peaked when Ray Mercer ended any lingering hopes of going to the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
Morrison turned professional later in 1988, against the usual suspects of little hope or ambition. The opponents could be criticised but Morrison largely did what he was supposed to do. He was raw, but he had power and was getting seen. Bill Cayton who had done a similar job in the early stages of Mike Tyson’s career, came onboard and hoped to put Tyson and Morrison together at some point in the future. Once Cayton had long left the circus, Morrison came very close to fighting Tyson.
A supposed long lost relative of John Wayne, the press never bothered to check the validity of the claim. They didn’t care. A good story can do that. It got much publicity and Morrison got his nickname, ‘The Duke’ was born.
Morrison then got noticed by Slyvester Stallone and was cast in a leading role in the latest instalment in the Rocky franchise. Playing Tommy Gunn in Rocky V, Morrison impressed in a film that was panned by the critics and very nearly killed the Rocky series forever. But Morrison was already drifting and the bright lights of Hollywood only enhanced the ‘Babe Magnet’ reputation. There were also steroid accusations after the Rocky V experience. Morrison came back a bigger heavyweight, but at what cost.
Morrison kept winning until the careful planning came undone when he was matched with his old amateur foe Ray Mercer for the WBO heavyweight title in 1991. Now 28-0 Morrison had the first true test in his career. For four rounds the million-dollar gamble looked like paying off, looking sharp and landing at will, as Morrison looked like a real star. But the tide turned in the 5th as Morrison faded away quickly and conclusively, Mercer aware of the steroid rumours said he knew this was how the fight would play out. Mercer stopped Morrison in brutal fashion, unleashing a salvo of unanswered punches on a helpless opponent. It was a horrible watch, the referee was too slow in stopping the now one-sided fight. Morrison took three or four heavy shots he didn’t need to take. As bad as it was, it could have been worse. Much worse.
But heavyweight boxing has a short memory, you are only one punch away from resurrection. Morrison was still marketable, and when he had the chance to fight George Foreman in 1993 for the then-vacant WBO title Morrison had his chance of redemption.
For one of the few times in his career, Morrison knuckled down and prepared properly. Foreman might have been closer to his pension than his peak, but he had proved in his unlikely comeback that he could still punch. Foreman brought fear, Morrison knew he had to be better.
There was movement and plenty of it, and there were boos and plenty of them. Morrison brought something different, the crowd didn’t like it, the ever-critical press even less so. Even on the greatest night of his career, it still wasn’t enough for the masses.
But the win gave Morrison the boxing equivalent of a lottery win. A $7.5 million dollar contract to fight Lennox Lewis was signed and sealed. But Morrison couldn’t deliver. Morrison wanted to wait, gain a little more experience, against the same kind of opposition he had already shown he could bludgeon to defeat. It was pointless and in many ways, risky. The problem was, keeping Morrison on the straight and narrow. All involved failed.
A routine defence against Michael Bentt was the disaster of all disasters. Stories of Morrison at a rock concert and consuming alcohol the night before the fight did the rounds and when Morrison was stopped inside a round by the unheralded Bentt it was hardly a tale of the unexpected. You didn’t need the mythical powers of a clairvoyant to have seen it coming. Morrison blew it big time.
After another rebuild and a series of wins over the usual willing and not so willing opponents, Morrison would eventually face Lewis. But it was for far less money, and Morrison was by then a lesser fighter. Brave as ever, Morrison was dropped multiple times and stopped in 6 rounds. It was a sad watch. But a predictable one.
The career looked dead in the water, a third conclusive stoppage defeat looked to have put the final into the career of Tommy Morrison. But Don King saw life. And money. King had always courted Morrison, and with Mike Tyson fresh out of prison, King saw an opportunity to put Tyson and Morrison together. But the party lifestyle would cost Morrison again. A supposed routine tune-up fight in 1996 against Arthur Weathers turned into something more. Morrison was asked to take an HIV test hours before the fight. Everything changed for Morrison in an instant.
Morrison tested positive for HIV, despite an uncomfortable comeback fight in Japan the following year in Japan and two more many years later, his career was effectively over at that very moment. Morrison initially accepted his future, but just seven months later it turned into denial and conspiracy theories and numerous arguments in court over many things around that initial failed test even after his death. Morrison claimed the initial test was a false positive and subsequent tests in 2007 came up negative, although those results were disputed amid claims it was not Morrison’s blood that was used for the test. But is Tommy Morrison a victim of one of the greatest cover ups in boxing history? Or did all the denial and delusion shorten his life? Another story for another day.
The life of Morrison slowly unravelled. Always articulate, he blew a chance of a career as an onscreen analyst when he was arrested for DUI. Another lost opportunity. The subsequent years were hard, he became a bigamist, he spent time in prison, the drink and drugs consumption worsened beyond repair and ‘The Duke’ aged beyond his years. A mugshot in 2010, one of many he would pose for in his life, highlighted the enhanced ageing process. The film star looks were assigned to history. The fast lane had finally caught up with him.
Morrison died in 2013, he was just 44. It was a life that was very much lived, often on the wrong side of right. There would have been regrets and many of them. The final years were sad and avoidable. Morrison was a much better fighter than he was given credit for, his career certainly didn’t reach the heights it should have. In 52 fights Morrison only lost three times, and each defeat cost him millions, but boxing always found a way to repackage him and to try and save him from himself. The fight with Foreman was the pinnacle, it was a night he got everything right. Sadly, there were too many nights and times he got it badly wrong.