By Jackie Kallen
They called him The Duke” because he was distantly related to the old actor John Wayne. At 6’2″ and handsome as a movie star himself, Tommy Morrison burst on the heavyweight scene in the late 1980s and made his mark.
White heavyweights were always a rarity and one who could fight was even more unique. Tommy was blessed with a wicked left hook and he unleashed it as often as he could. A troubled kid from the midwest, he had fighting in his blood. He loved it and always fought like he had something to prove.
Two out of his first four fights were here in the Detroit area, one of which was on a card with James Toney in 1989. Our paths crossed back then and continued to merge and overlap throughout the years. He was a good guy and he lived hard and played hard.
I worked with former heavyweight champ Pinklon Thomas for awhile and he fought The Duke back in 1991 in Kansas City. It was a great trip and everyone had a lot of fun before the fight, but it was a short night. The Duke was 22, and in great shape, and 33-year old Thomas had little left that night. After getting badly cut in the first round, he quit on his stool before the second round started.
Tommy was fun to watch. Every decent white heavyweight gets dubbed “The Great White Hope” and even Sly Stallone bought into it, casting him as “Tommy “The Machine” Gunn in “Rocky V.” This brought even more fame and recognition to Morrison, who loved the limelight.
Things were going along nicely until he ran into Ray Mercer, who knocked him out in the 5th round of their WBO title fight. He came back and fought Big George Foreman for the vacant title a couple of years later (Mercer relinquished it) and won a nice, lop-sided decision. Unfortunately he lost the title four months later when Michael Bentt KOed him in the first round.
He was really depressed about the Bentt fight. And embarrassed. James Toney fought Tony Thornton on the same card in Tulsa and we were all going to go out after the fights and celebrate. As you can imagine, The Duke had nothing to celebrate.
He beat Razor Ruddock in 1995 to win the IBC title and he defended it four months later against Lennox Lewis. Morrison got stopped in the 6th round and without knowing it at the time, his ride was over.
He was set to fight Art Weathers in 1996 in Nevada and his pre-fight blood work came back positive for the HIV virus. The boxing world was stunned. How could this big, strapping heterosexual man have AIDS? He blamed his wild lifestyle, others blamed infected needles from steroid use.
That was that. The Tommy Morrison era was ended and he was supposedly never going to fight again. Fast forward about a decade and I get a phone call. The Duke was now living in LA (as was I) and wanted to resume his career. We met for dinner.
“I am totally HIV negative,” he insisted. He claimed that those 1996 Nevada tests were incorrect and he had since had several clean tests. He looked terrific and his story was almost believable. But how does one totally eliminate the HIV virus? I admit I was skeptical.
Sadly, he managed to get a 4-round fight in 2007 against a 4-2 kid in West Virginia. Hard to imagine any commission allowing a former champ who was HIV positive to fight a guy with 6 fights. But it happened and Morrison scored a 2nd round TKO.
Fueled by that victory, Morrison managed to get another 4-round fight a year later in Mexico against a 3-0 guy, stopping him in the 3rd round. That was the last time The Duke ever tied a pair of gloves around his wrists.
I was able to get him a couple of paid appearances, but the man who showed up was not the same Tommy Morrison we knew and loved. The future did not look bright for him. He did manage to get remarried (to Trisha) in 2011 and put up a good fight. But the cards were stacked against him.
Last summer I learned from a close mutual friend that the end was looming. He was pretty much bed-ridden and although he was trying to struggle against it, the prognosis was not good. This summer it was evident that he would not make it until the end of the year. His family was told to prepare for the worst.
Now the end has come for The Duke and so many of his friends are processing the loss. We all have our memories of the happy, robust Duke who laughed easily and was a total party animal. He will be missed.
Jackie Kallen is a boxing manager who has been in the business for over three decades. Her life inspired the Meg Ryan film “Against the Ropes” and she was a part of the NBC series “The Contender.” www.JackieKallen.com, www.facebook.com/JackieKallen