As one of the most exciting punchers in the heavyweight division in the 1990s, Tommy “The Duke” Morrison toppled foes like a tank running over sandcastles.
Morrison’s failure to knockout his personal demons though cost him his aura of invincibility and, ultimately, his life.
The former World Boxing Organization (WBO) heavyweight champion passed away on September 1 at the relatively young age of 44. A report from ESPN a month ago indicated that Morrison had developed full-blown AIDS and was only being kept alive by a feeding tube. Morrison stood a spritely 6’2″ and weighed a rock-solid 212 pounds during his heyday; he was pencil-thin and looked 20 years older at the time of his demise.
Morrison’s harrowing demise pales in comparison to his glamorous arrival in boxing.
Bill Cayton, the millionaire and fight-film collector who handled the career of Mike Tyson in the 1980s, introduced Morrison as the pug-next-door: an honor student and a former linebacker who was on the verge of entering college on a football scholarship when he decided to lace on the gloves and follow in the footsteps of his brothers all of whom boxed in the amateur ranks.
At his father’s urging, Morrison started boxing at age 13, initially participating in several “Toughman” contests in his native Oklahoma. The contest featured about 15 participants who boxed each other’s head off until only one was left standing. The legal age for this contest is 21 but Morrison was considerably big for his age and was able to take part using a fake identification card.
Morrison entered pro boxing in 1988 by demolishing his first five opponents in the opening round. Two years later, Morrison’s popularity received a major boost when he appeared in the movie “Rocky V” opposite Sylvester Stallone. Being the grand nephew of movie icon John Wayne, acting came natural for Morrison, but down the road the lure of Hollywood consumed him.
Morrison bankrolled close to US$ 10 million in a pro career that stretched from 1988 until 1996. In June 1993, he won the vacant WBO heavyweight title by outboxing George Foreman but lost the crown the same year in a stunning one-round knockout loss to Michael Bentt. Morrison fought Briton Lennox Lewis in a high-profile match in 1995 but was demolished in six rounds. Morrison had just signed a million-dollar contract (which included a proposed megabuck showdown with Mike Tyson) when he was diagnosed with HIV before his February 1996 showdown with Arthur “Stormy” Weathers in Las Vegas. Morrison retired in 1996, but his last documented boxing match was a third-round knockout win over Matt Weishaar in 2008 in Mexico, where blood tests were not required. He finished his career with a record of 48-3, 1 draw with 42 knockouts. All of Morrison’s three losses (against Ray Mercer, Bentt and Lewis) came by knockout.
Away from boxing, the real story of Morrison came out in the open. Tommy’s father Tim Sr. was an alcoholic who treated his wife Diana like a punching bag. An older brother, Tim Jr., was convicted of rape and served 15 years in the slammer. Morrison threw away the millions of dollars he earned in wild parties that included women, booze and drugs. At one point, Morrison was married to two women at the same time.
Not surprisingly, Morrison’s partymates vanished the moment the money was gone.
Morrison refused to seek treatment for the HIV virus and insisted that he was a victim of a false-positive test. The drugs or the disease apparently going to his head, he once claimed that he teleported himself from a bar to avoid a fist fight. Down the road, Morrison was arrested for charges ranging from drunk driving to possession of illegal drugs. Morrison talked about making another boxing comeback in 2010, but an arrest a year later for drugs showed that he would have been knocked out in the ring by one sneeze. Bald, gaunt and barely recognizable, Morrison was a pathetic figure.
Morrison had the world at the palm of his hands but allowed it to slip through his fingers. In the end, life is not about the opportunities coming your way; it’s about what you make out of them.
* * *
For comments, the writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.