Tommy Morrison, Tommy 'The Machine' Gun, AIDS And The Death Of A Complicated Champion

(Ed's note: Tommy Morrison passed away on Monday, and two of the scribes on TSFJ penned reflections on the troubled former heavyweight champion. Paul Navarro and Jason Clinkscales discuss the life of "The Duke.")

Tommy “The Duke” Morrison died yesterday at the age of 44. He may have been the best white American heavyweight of the 1990s. By the time he appeared in Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky V, the Duke’s come-forward style and thunderous left hook had taken him to a 24-0 (20 KOs) record. With the power and surprising defensive skills he’d demonstrated by then, many in the boxing world, and in the society at large, had tagged him as the latest Great White Hope in boxing.

That hope was tested almost exactly one year after Rocky V debuted on big screens across the country. The Duke faced off against then WBO Heavyweight Champion Ray “Merciless” Mercer. The fight was not just for the title, but an opportunity for revenge. Morrison had faced Mercer in the 1988 Olympic Trials and had come up short. It would have been a sweet story of vengeance if Morrison had been able to strip Mercer of his title. But broken dreams and comeback tales in boxing are more common than any other in the sport.

For the first three rounds, Morrison was in control of the fight (leading on all the unofficial scorecards) with effective aggression. In the fourth, Mercer came on strong and laid the groundwork for what in the fifth became a devastating barrage of uncontested punches that today often find themselves on highlight reels for brutal knockouts.

The possibility that Mercer’s onslaught would end Morrison’s career, or even his life, was very real, but neither became the truth.

Even though Morrison only lost twice more before his death (earning a record of 48-3, with 42 KOs), he never managed to reach the heights he and throngs of fans expected him to. In February 1996, as he was on the brink of collecting a $40 million payday to fight “Iron” Mike Tyson, Morrison tested positive for the HIV virus.

Initially, Morrison took responsibility for the test results, telling the public in an emotional press conference that he was no longer a role model. As time went on, he stopped blaming his own, as he called it, “reckless lifestyle” for what had befallen him and instead started to believe that he may have caught the virus in a boxing match. Years later, he’d tell Chuck Johnson of USA Today that it was likely steroids that caused him to test positive. And in the last years of a sad comeback to boxing, Morrison repeatedly, and vociferously, denied having ever had the virus.

Before the test, in 1993, Morrison earned a decision victory against George Foreman to win the vacant WBO Heavyweight title. That same year he had his first public run-in with the police, when he was arrested for assaulting a college student. After Morrison tested positive for HIV, and thus lost his license to box, his run-ins with the police and rumors regarding his drug use spiked, culminating in a yearlong prison sentence in 2000.

The Duke’s comeback in 2007 only lasted two fights, each held in locations that must have reminded him of the small venues he’d fought so hard to forget. While his career may have ended on the comeback trail, most will rightfully remember him in the boxing conversation of the 1990s. In a time when most American sports fans today can barely list five active American boxing heavyweights, being remembered alongside greats like Mike Tyson, Ray Mercer, Lennox Lewis, Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield is a special place to be, even if Morrison never was able to take the place of such champions. — @FightLikeSugar

I remember the news in February 1996 — not yet 14 years old (months later), yet a growing interest in boxing — and wondering ... well, wondering a lot.

HIV and AIDS were informally introduced to the 'hood through the exaggerated stories and urban legends of the late '80s and '90s. Maybe on your street as well as mine there was a rumor of someone contracting the disease, though the stigmas we quickly exasperated didn’t help our education of the illness.

So when Tommy Morrison tested positive for HIV prior to his bout with Arthur Weathers, it was a bit of a shock for a completely different reason. Around my way in a black and Latino-dominated housing project in the Bronx, you didn’t hear much about white athletes contracting the virus. Yes, there were white entertainers who were afflicted: Rock Hudson, Freddie Mercury and Robert Reed died from complications of the disease. And because of their statures in films, music and television, there was far more of a cleaner backstory whereas boxing rarely, if ever, presents a fighter with the clichéd, All-American profile.

I recalled the slight shock in comparison to how Magic Johnson and Eazy-E were discussed as telltale stories of HIV and AIDS awareness in the hood. If you watched basketball, you at least respected Magic. If you loved rap, you might have stashed a copy of Straight Outta Compton. Those were men some boys wanted to be like until they learned about the world’s deadliest acronym.

For better or worse, I remembered that the Morrison diagnosis really introduced me to the ignorance about HIV/AIDS. There was the unfortunate few who were too enthusiastic to say, “See, that’s what that white boy gets! He’s overhyped anyway!”

Yes, because a life-shattering diagnosis is a just reason to disparage a guy for getting knocked out by Lennox Lewis the previous summer.

He did endure a personal shame very few could ever understand. License suspensions by boxing commissions who feared the faintest of open cuts were only the beginning, but he essentially became a pariah by his closest friends and his own making, as well explained almost two weeks ago by ESPN’s Elizabeth Merrill.

Morrison’s death received attention yesterday because how he was going to die was known long ago. In the public realm of sports, we don’t often know people whose fates were sealed until the end is very near.

He is not a cautionary figure in the way that Eric Wright became after very well-known promiscuity or a redemption story written by a publicly reborn Earvin Johnson. In fact, his sudden denial of his status as part of his attempted comeback in 2007 was a reminder of everything he was not: that very Great White Hope, that next great heavyweight, that All-American boy from hardscrabble beginnings, that guy on his way to crossover superstardom if he kept on winning.

Instead of a significant chapter, Tommy Morrison is a footnote in sports history. We’ve seen lights fade as quickly as they flashed in the sports world, but not quite like this. Not in such a way that it defined him far more than even his potential. — @asportsscribe

10 Replies to “Tommy Morrison, Tommy 'The Machine' Gun, AIDS And The Death Of A Complicated Champion”

  1. Rest in Peace, Tommy Morrison.
    RE:"best white American heavyweight" - Morrison's mother is native american, Otoe and Ponca tribes. Sports Illustrated covered the story in the mid 1990s, it was common knowledge amongst boxing fans.

    1. Bradguy, thanks for the comment. A thought to that, while it appeared to be common knowledge among boxing fans (I actually forgot, so thanks), you know how boxing promoters are; start with the lowest common denominator of selling a fight or fighter to the public. It seemed as if the Native American heritage was phenomenally underplayed. I'll look for that SI article.

    2. Bradguy, your mistake is that you think "white," in as far as public perception is concerned, is mutually exclusive of actual native American roots. Despite the fact that Morrison was half native American, he was branded, represented, took advantage of, and embodied the "Great White Hope" title.

  2. I also wondered why Morrison's native roots were downplayed, but realized the boxer really believed that Great White Hope hype. When he tested positive, I recall "other"rumors but I guess that's all they were!

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