By Mark Workman
In February of 1996, the boxing world was shaken to its core when ex-WBO/IBC heavyweight champion and Rocky V star Tommy “The Duke” Morrison failed a pre-fight physical examination, testing positive for the HIV virus. He immediately announced his retirement from the ring. Now a decade later, Tommy Morrison plans to take on the Nevada State Athletic Commission that banned him from the sport and launch a comeback.
Morrison had just signed a three-fight 38.5 million dollar deal with promoter Don King. His first fight was to be against journeyman Arthur “Stormy” Weathers, and then he would fight another tune-up fight against stronger opposition, and then finally take on ex-undisputed heavyweight champion of the world Iron Mike Tyson who had just been released from prison.
“The first fight was going to be Stormy Weathers, who I would’ve took out during the National Anthem,” Morrison told me during a long two-hour interview. “And then we’d fight another journeyman, someone a little tougher. And then I would’ve fought Tyson right out of prison.”
Mike Tyson had recently been released from prison after serving three years on a rape conviction and had already fought Peter McNeeley and Buster Mathis Jr. when Morrison was scheduled to fight Weathers. Morrison’s mega-clash with Tyson was planned for the latter part of 1996. Morrison and his advisors had spent nearly three days in Florida negotiating their multi-million dollar deal with Don King.
“Here’s the deal with Don King,” Morrison said. “I don’t mind being in a room full of snakes as long as the light’s on. Turn the lights off, I start getting a little nervous. He threw a million dollars in cash on the table when we had our meeting. We spent three days with him down in Fort Lauderdale. Million dollars in cash. First time I ever seen that. We heard he’d do that.”
“He gets those guys with world class ability that can’t read and throws a couple hundred thousand dollars at them,” he said. “More money than they’ve ever seen in their life, and they sign their life away. I knew what I was worth. I wasn’t going to sign my life away for a million bucks. You kidding me. The IRS or the FBI, they’re going to nail King eventually. If they have to invent the law to throw him in prison, they’re going to.”
But then Morrison failed his physical exam for the Weathers match and the news broke two days later about his medical condition, killing the entire contract and any hope of him fighting Mike Tyson for the biggest payday of his career.
“Every sparring partner that I worked with that had worked with Tyson said I’d beat him. It took eight years of my life to get to that point,” Morrison said. “I was going to cash in. I was going to leave boxing with a good example to follow. That was my whole plan. And it just didn’t happen. That was the first time they started testing for HIV.”
“I’ve always felt like there was some type of conspiracy going on,” he said. “I would’ve beat Tyson. I have no doubt about that. Everything was clicking. I worked eight years of my life to get to that one pinnacle fight, and they yanked the damn rug out from under me.”
Morrison (46-3-1, 40 KOs) now wants to launch a comeback at the age of 37 and attempt to pick up where he left off nearly ten years ago. But he’ll be faced with strong opposition when it comes to regaining his boxing license in America because of his illness.
“I’m a young 37,” Morrison said. “I didn’t get beat up. Hell, I only lost three fights out of fifty.”
“I’m looking forward to fighting someone,” he said. “I can do it. There’s no doubt about it. It pisses me off that they won’t let me, but I’m going to try and change that. There’s no way they should be able to kick me out of the sport for something that’s harmless, unless you believe the government.”
Morrison is planning to file a lawsuit against the Nevada State Athletic Commission on the grounds of AIDS discrimination for refusing to grant him a boxing license and preventing him from making a living as a boxer.
“I’m going to Phoenix to talk to this big attorney who’s going to take on my case on a contingency basis against the commission,” Morrison said. “He’s pretty certain it’d be worth something. I’ll never get the forty million dollars because they’ll say, ‘Well, what if you’d lost.’ One thing I can get, for sure, without a doubt, and that’s the amount of money that I was going to get for the first fight (Weathers) with Don King. I can’t remember what it was. Two or three million dollars. That, plus interest on that money for the last nine years is what I’ll get. But you never know.”
With the help of George Foreman, Morrison did fight one last fight in Japan in November of 1996 after his license was revoked in America. He knocked out Marcus Rhode in the first round and formed his Knockout AIDS Foundation that he’s still trying to keep alive.
“I could go overseas, but who the hell wants to do that,” he said. “I would just be doing it for the money. I love to fight. I’ll do that shit at the drop of a hat. I’m thinking about going and applying for a license. They probably won’t even let me in the door.”
When his license was revoked in Nevada ten years ago, all other states with boxing commissions upheld the indefinite suspension, and it’s doubtful that any state will allow him to fight in America unless he first wins his battle in court.
“About a year ago, I was going to do an exhibition down in West Virginia,” Morrison said. “The commission wouldn’t even let me do that. I’m talking about headgear, everything. They wouldn’t even let me spar. That’s bullshit.”
“I’m about 215lbs now,” he said. “Sometimes I get down around 208. I haven’t been in the gym for probably eighteen months. I’m going to get back in the gym. This is going to be my year. I’m going to burst back onto the scene.”
Before leaving the ring in 1996, Morrison fought memorable fights against Lennox Lewis and Donovan “Razor” Ruddock. He was stopped by Lewis in the sixth round after suffering a severe cut over his right eye, fighting for most of the fight with an eye that had been battered shut.
“I never was impressed with Lennox Lewis,” Morrison said. “I didn’t think he hit hard worth a crap. He had no power. I didn’t think so. I’d never been more confident for a fight in my life. I figured I’d blow him out in three rounds. Lennox Lewis fights scared.”
“He was really watching Tommy’s left hook,” Morrison’s mother, Diana “Flossie” Good, said to me. “And he had a lot of reach on Tommy, too. And you can’t fight with one eye. Once he cut that eye, he was smart enough to keep working on it. That was a good fight. Tommy lost that fair and square.”
Four months before the Lewis fight, Morrison fought Donovan “Razor” Ruddock for the IBC heavyweight championship. Morrison was floored in the first round by a hard uppercut from Ruddock but got up from the canvas and brutally floored Ruddock with his lethal left hook. Morrison eventually stopped Ruddock in the sixth round and won the IBC heavyweight title, proving once again that he had a heart the size of Oklahoma.
“My favorite fight was two of them, Joe Hipp and Razor Ruddock,” Morrison said.
In June of 1993 Morrison fought ring legend George Foreman for the WBO heavyweight championship that had been vacated by Michael Moorer. In what was Morrison’s finest boxing performance, he won a unanimous decision by a wide margin on all three judge’s scorecards and became the WBO heavyweight champion of the world.
“The Foreman fight was one of the easiest fights I ever had,” Morrison said. “I mean, it was hard because I wasn’t used to going that many rounds.”
“He threw his heart into that fight,” Morrison’s mother said.
“After Foreman beat Michael Moorer and won the title, I was supposed to fight the winner of that fight for the WBO title again,” Morrison said. “Foreman ended up winning and he hauled ass. He didn’t want to fight again. I don’t blame him because the same thing would’ve happened in probably a little better fashion. I had his number. I exposed him. I showed the world how to beat him.”
After the Foreman fight Morrison would easily put away Tim Tomashek in four rounds. Tomashek had been pulled out of the audience when original opponent Mike Williams refused to enter the ring minutes before the fight was to begin.
Morrison’s next fight was expected to be another easy title defense against Michael Bentt, a fighter with a record of only 10-1-0 and 5 KOs; but Morrison was stopped in the first round in a shocking upset in front of his hometown crowd in Tulsa, OK.
“I had just signed like a 9.5 million dollar fight with Lennox Lewis,” Morrison said to me. “But it was like six months down the line. And I was at a point where I knew I was improving a lot. I just didn’t think it would be a wise move for me to not fight for six months. So I wanted to stay active. So I told them to get me somebody. I don’t care who it is. Just get me somebody. And they brought me a Michael Bentt tape.”
“I put it in and I watched about a round-and-a-half of it,” he said. “I said, ‘Yeah, this guy’s perfect. This guy couldn’t beat me with a ball bat.’ I actually said that. Then you know the rest of story. I didn’t take him lightly. I just walked into a punch. I was maybe a little overconfident. Yeah, Christmas came early that night.”
“If I fought Michael Bentt a hundred times, I’d beat him a hundred times,” Morrison said. “He caught me with a great right hand, bounced off the ropes. It was a hard straight shot right down the pipe. And it dropped me. Flash knockdown. That was at a point in me career where I really didn’t know how to fight any other way than coming forward and throwing heavy shots. It’s just one of those things. It was the most humiliating moment of the whole eight years I fought professional. It was in front of my home crowd.”
“Like I tell everybody, if you stick around long enough, I don’t care who you are, sooner or later you’re going to get your ass handed to you,” he said. “It happens to everybody. It’s happened to the greatest fighters in history.”
A few days ago I exchanged a couple of emails with ex-WBO heavyweight champion Michael Bentt who refused to be interviewed for this story but allowed me to use his thoughts from our emails.
“Nothing that I say is going to offer those who fashion themselves boxing 'experts' and a 'Tommy fan' a better or a more useful comprehension of the events of October 29, 1993,” Bentt said. “Simply put, sometimes you/me/we just gotta’ chalk it up to one man’s or one team’s 'magic' being realized against insurmountable odds. I don't know what Tommy's doing now, but as a fellow warrior I wish him all the best.”
“I'm inspired not to let boxing or the night I fought Morrison define me,” Bentt continued. “I'm more than just the guy that 'derailed' Tommy Morrison, just as Tommy is more than just the white guy that beat George Foreman and lost to the guy with ten pro fights and five national championships and four New York City Golden Gloves titles, but who’s bragging.”
Before winning the WBO title against George Foreman, Morrison fought numerous fights including wars against Carl “The Truth” Williams and Joe Hipp. Morrison had Williams on the canvas in the first and third rounds but suffered two knockdowns himself in the fifth before stopping Williams in the eighth round.
In what was one of the most brutal wars of the 90’s, Morrison fought Joe Hipp. Morrison broke both of his hands in the fight and suffered a broken jaw and severe cut over his right eye. Morrison also broke Hipp’s jaw in the fight.
“I had two broken hands, a broken jaw, and a twenty-stitch cut over my eye in the Hipp fight,” Morrison said. “I broke my left hand in the second round, my right hand in the fourth. And I got cut; I think, in the fifth, something like that. And everything was stacked against me. I had to overachieve. I could never see myself losing.”
“I was up screaming at the screen,” Diana Good said. “You find a fighter today that can finish a fight with a broken jaw and two broken hands and come out a winner.”
Morrison endured what could be called the most brutal knockout ever seen on television when he fought “Merciless” Ray Mercer in October of 1991 for the WBO heavyweight championship of the world. Morrison was winning the fight through the first three rounds but started to run out of gas in the forth. Mercer unloaded on Morrison and had him out on the ropes when unleashed more than a dozen brutal punches upon him before the referee finally jumped in and stopped the fight.
“I’d like to have that fight over again,” Morrison said. “I was kind of pushed into that fight too early, all for money’s purposes. Half a million dollars. Nobody knew Mercer could take that kind of punch. I didn’t.”
“That was the first time I ever got mad at Virg and his corner men,” Morrison’s mother said. “It took three people to hold me down in my seat. I felt they should’ve stopped it. You don’t let your boy get hit that many times after he’s out. I was so angry. That fight there was the most upsetting time with a fight that I have ever experienced. I was three rows back from his corner. I jumped one row of seats before Tim caught me, before Tommy’s dad grabbed me.”
Looking back to the time when Tommy Morrison was active and comparing it to the heavyweight division today, there’s no denying that there was a deeper talent pool in the 90’s. Fighters such as Mike Tyson, Riddick Bowe and Evander Holyfield would have certainly been future opponents for Morrison had he not had to leave the sport.
“Riddick Bowe, I sparred him one time,” Morrison said. “We were supposed to go four rounds. After three rounds he quit. I would’ve killed him. He’s lazy. Eddie Futch was on his ass from the time I got there until I left.”
“When Holyfield fought Foreman, I fought on the undercard,” Morrison remembers. “I fought a Russian dude, another southpaw, by the name of Uri Vaulin. Helluva’ boxer. Like every other southpaw I ever fought, he had good skills, good boxer. He didn’t hit very hard. He beat my ass for four rounds until I caught up with him. Then I landed a body shot and it was all over. But had I had a better showing that night I would’ve fought Holyfield next. I don’t think he could’ve held up to my power. He would’ve for a few rounds, but I would’ve caught him. I think he knew that.”
“Tyson’s made for me,” Morrison said. “Our styles are similar. But I’m faster than he is. My left hook is shorter, quicker and he’s not the same anymore. He hasn’t been since he lost to Douglas. He didn’t have a passion for what he was doing. The same passion I didn’t have towards the end.”
Looking at the heavyweight division today and its fighters such as James Toney, Chris Byrd and white heavyweight Joe Mesi, one wonders how Morrison would’ve done against them.
“If God came down here today and told me that I could punch just one person in the mouth, it’d be James Toney,” Morrison said. “I can’t stand him. He’s a thug gangster. He’s nothing more than a blown up light heavyweight.”
“Chris Byrd is the odd man out,” he said. “Nobody wants to fight him anyway because he’s slick. He can’t hurt you. But he’s slick. He’s a southpaw. My management threw me in there with every southpaw who came down the pike. And I always looked like shit against them until I caught up with them. They were susceptible to a left hook.”
“Tony Holden (Morrison’s ex-promoter) was promoting Joe Mesi,” Morrison said. “He called me up and flew me up to Buffalo, NY. He wanted me to watch Joe Mesi and tell him what I thought. I told Tony he doesn’t have it. He doesn’t hit hard enough and he’s too good looking! He’s not tough enough for the sport. Who was it, Monte Barrett that put him into retirement? That guy couldn’t crack an egg. Some people just aren’t built for the game.”
“About a year before Jones got knocked out by Tarver, I was up at the Boxing Hall of Fame in Canastota,” Morrison said. “And I was having drinks and stuff one night there in the bar, and Roy Jones’ dad was there. He’d had quite a few to drink. And I got to talking to him. He told me, ‘You know, if Roy ever gets his ass handed to him, he’ll never fight again.’ And I was like, wow, that was odd for his father to be sitting there telling me this. I wasn’t going to be fighting him. Everybody knew I was retired. I don’t know if it was the alcohol talking or whatever. But sure enough, that’s exactly what happened. He’s never been the same. Some people can’t recover from that. Pass the torch."
Morrison gives his thoughts on the state of the heavyweight division today.
“Boxing is in the same condition it was,” Morrison said. “It goes through this about every ten or twelve years. Back in 1985 when Tyson came along, Larry Holmes had been champion for eight years. And Tyson came along and was wading through these guys. Everybody thought he was Superman. After three rounds he was an average fighter. He’s got the still to come back and clean up if he’d do it. But he just doesn’t have the desire. He doesn’t want it.”
“I’m going to challenge him (Tyson) to a fight,” he said. “Just a four-rounder. Do it on pay-per-view. Get Bowe, Holyfield and make a four-round tournament. Do it in Mexico. I don’t know why every heavyweight that’s put on the gloves in the last ten or twelve years that’s retired is not back in the sport. That’s why I don’t understand why there’s not a fire under Tyson’s ass. It’s wide open.”
Tommy Morrison’s many plans for the future include training other fighters, doing boxing commentating again and spearheading a movement to create a pension plan for fighters.
“Branson, MO is like a little Vegas there,” Morrison said. “Gambling’s coming. I’d like to have me a stable of fighters. I’m going to open me up a professional fight gym there in Branson. It will give me an opportunity to get back into the game in a different arena. I just have to find the right guy. I’ve always wanted to train somebody.”
“One thing that I have done before in the past and certainly want to get back into when the opportunity presents itself, and I believe it will, is boxing commentating,” he said. “I worked for Fox for a couple of months back in like ’97, ’98, somewhere. Back when I was still part idiot. I got a DUI and, of course, they fired me. But that’s something I got my feet wet in and I enjoyed it.”
“I can put things in terms that people can understand, because not everyone understands boxing,” Morrison said. “People up there trying to sound like Einstein, like Larry Merchant and Jim Lampley who are supposedly boxing experts and have never laced up a glove in their life. That’s crazy.”
“I want to create a pension plan for fighters,” he said. “I want to win my lawsuit. I don’t know what interest on two or three million dollars is over nine years. But a portion of that, I want to use to start a pension plan for fighters. Hell, every sport on the face of the planet has one except boxing. And I cannot think of a sport that needs it more. Everybody says the same thing; the reason why it hasn’t happened is because of the promoters.”
When Tommy Morrison was fighting he endured the same criticism about a lack of skills that every white heavyweight seems to endure. Many questioned his skills as a boxer but he gave a masterful boxing performance against George Foreman. And no one can deny that Tommy Morrison has more heart than many of the heavyweights today combined.
“I’m starting to get the credit I deserved back then, a little recognition,” Morrison said. “People are starting to say, ‘Yeah, maybe he wouldn’t too bad after all.’ Being a white heavyweight in this world today, you’re still a commodity, especially if you can fight. There’s just not many of them that can. I was the last white American heavyweight champion since Marciano.”
“Even in my training, I would always wait until the last possible day to show up at camp,” he said. “That way my back was against the wall. And I preferred it that way. You got the best out of me.”
From a career-ending illness to fourteen months in prison to his life without boxing today, Tommy Morrison continues to get up from every knockdown that life throws at him.
“I think I’ve only really scratched the surface on what I was supposed to do here in this world,” Morrison said. “One thing that inspired me was that I kept surprising people. The only two things that have ever inspired me in my life is someone believing in me, number one, and number two, someone telling me I can’t do something. I’ve just got that spirit about me that just motivates me.”
“Everything was going great and I’d gotten to that one point,” he said. “And it was like God said, ‘Umm, not right now.’ I could sit around and beat myself up about it, but life’s too short to be unhappy. I just want to inspire people, particularly fighters in the game. I want to do everything. I want to act. I want to commentate. I’d like to get a couple of racehorses one day.”
“I didn’t have the right spirit about me back then,” Morrison said. “I was young. I was a wild man. I didn’t go as hog wild as I could’ve. It was a little overwhelming how people treated me. I don’t like people kissing my ass. I was never real big on being popular. I just like doing normal things.”
The life and career of Tommy Morrison contains the makings of a compelling hit movie and best-selling biography, both of which are still on the table to be produced in the future. But the life of Tommy Morrison is far from over and the final chapter is yet to be written.
If there’s one thing that we can all be sure of, it’s that Tommy “The Duke” Morrison can be knocked down but never knocked out for good. He’s gotten up from more of life’s knockdowns than most people could possibly endure, and he’s still walking tall.