“Tommy Morrison. I remember the press conference before our fight in Kansas City in 1991. He was this strong, young, good-looking kid. A little cocky, just came off the Rocky movie and very motivated to make a name for himself. Then we got in the ring. Tommy Morrison hit harder than anybody I’ve ever fought. After the first round I had to get 18 stitches. It’s unfortunate he left us so soon… he was a good guy and a great puncher. My condolences to his family and friends, he will be missed.”
Pinklon Thomas, former WBC heavyweight champion.
Morrison’s final bell came at 11:50 p.m. CT on Sunday, 1 September, 2013 – he was 44 years old & will occupy a uniquely varied page in the chapter that was heavyweight boxing in the latter part of the 20th century. Something more than another Great White Hope/Hype yet tragically something far less than any who are acquainted with his marvellous talent & natural gifts will attest he could have become.
From the age of 13, Morrison began entering “toughman” contests utilizing a fake ID (the minimum age was 21). The New York Times quoted Tommy as saying that he lost only one of these contests:
”I was only 13,” Morrison said, ”and you were supposed to be 21. I got a phony ID and fought in about 15 tough-man contests. For each one of them, I’d have three, four, five fights. I only lost once. The guy was stronger and bulled me. But most of the time, after 45 seconds, these guys would get winded; they hadn’t the strength to hold up their hands. They were easy to beat. You paid an entry fee of $20, $25, and the winner wound up with anywhere from $150 to $1,000. I guess $300 to $500 was typical. Through those tough-man contests, I’d buy my fair share of groceries.”
1988 saw Morrison win the Regional Heavyweight Title – Kansas City Golden Gloves. Morrison then participated in the Western Olympic trials in Texas where he won the Heavyweight Title and the “Most Outstanding Fighter” award at the tournament. At the Olympic Trials Morrison would lose a split decision to future & fateful professional rival Ray Mercer. Mercer would subsequently win gold at the Seoul Olympics.
The May 3, 1989 edition of the New York Times noted, “Bill Cayton, the embattled manager of Mike Tyson, has signed another heavyweight as an apparent hedge against the day in February 1992 when his contract with the heavyweight champion expires. ”I was fascinated,” Cayton said. ”Tommy has a lot to learn, but he definitely has natural talent, and a left hook with leverage.””
Morrison’s professional boxing debut came on November 10, 1988, with a 1st Round KO of William Muhammad. Morrison fought 19 times in the calender year of 1989 – winning them all; 15 by way of. That’s 4 times more than Mike Tyson’s busiest year of 1985 (15 fights).
In 1991, Morrison beat James Quick Tillis and former champion Pinklon Thomas. This paved the way for his most fateful & ultimately devastating experience in a professional boxing ring against the then undefeated & Olympic trials rival Ray Mercer on October 18, 1991. Morrison suffered the first loss of his pro career, losing by the most brutal of 5th round knockouts imaginable.
Morrison attempted to get his star’s trajectory back on course during a 1992 that saw 6 wins, including vs. Art Tucker and Joe Hipp – later to become the first Native American to challenge for a world heavyweight title. The June 19, 1992 fight with Hipp saw Morrison suffering from what was subsequently diagnosed as a broken hand and broken jaw. He somehow continued & achieved a 9th Round knockout in a show of toughness that was more Muhammed Ali than Victor Ortiz.
1993 included a win over two-time world title challenger Carl “The Truth” Williams. Morrison then challenged for the WBO strap once more this time against legend George Foreman. The clash of two of heavyweight boxing history’s most powerful punchers unexpectedly went the distance with Morrison avoiding a brawl with Foreman by boxing from long range. Morrison successfully hit and moved and after a very close fight he won an unduly wide unanimous 12-round decision.
Morrison went 48-3-1 with 42 knockouts – many if not the vast majority of them highlight-reel classics. Owner of one of boxing’s best ever left hooks, Morrison held wins over Foreman, Razor Ruddock, Carl “The Truth” Williams, Pinklon Thomas and James “Quick” Tillis. The three losses came against Lennox Lewis, Michael Bentt & most memorably (& devastatingly) Ray Mercer.
Morrison was found to be HIV positive prior to a 1996 fight with Arthur Weathers in Las Vegas.
‘You prepare for things like this, and still you feel like you got hit by a truck when you hear the news.’ Tony Holden
Tommy Morrison’s death came after a lengthy battle with a publicly undefined illness. Former promoter, Tony Holden, declined to talk about the cause of death but after being diagnosed with HIV in 1996 Morrison spent years denying the condition’s existence while his wife insisted he had Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
‘I don’t know what the official cause of death at the hospital will be,’ former promoter Tony Holden noted.
After his initial HIV positive diagnosis, Morrison had his own doctor perform a test that also showed that he was HIV positive. Morrison held a press conference that was televised live and admitted to a promiscuous & reckless lifestyle. In the years ahead he would come to dispute his HIV positive status or that he had subsequently contracted AIDS. Tommy fought as late as 2007 in fairly low profile comeback promotions – winning his last three by Technical Knockouts all inside 3 rounds; but his glory days of awe & thunderous adoration were by then a distant & never to be relived memory.
June 2007 saw Morrison make his Mixed Martial Arts debut. The fight was being held at the Yavapai-Apache Nation reservation — outside the State Boxing Commission’s jurisdiction. This meant Morrison did not need to take a blood test. He stopped his opponent in Round 1.
The Duke incurred multiple convictions for offences ranging from driving under the influence, assault, to drugs and weapons charges.
Tommy’s mother told ESPN.com just last month that her son was dying of AIDS. According to ESPN.com’s Elizabeth Merrill recent article:
She says he has full-blown AIDS. She believes he’s in his final days. His skin is jaundiced; his liver is failing. “He’s too far gone,” she says, flashing an incredulous look when asked whether he could recover. “He’s in the end stages. That’s it.” She says Morrison has been bedridden for a year, can’t speak and is being kept alive with the help of a feeding tube and a ventilator.
“Tommy Morrison lived the way he fought…tough, hard and straight forward. He was always a great interview and very accessible and accommodating. He will be missed.”
Randy Gordon, former editor of Ring Magazine (1979-1983) & Chairman of the New York State Athletic Commission (1988-1995).
Matt Hamilton, for ESNewsReporting.com