Rough Life of Ex-Heavyweight Champ Tommy Morrison Ends at Age 44


By Ivan G. Goldman

Tommy Morrison, a formidable heavyweight of the 1990s, died Sunday night at the age of 44, a close friend reported Monday.

Morrison, a smooth talker with pretty-boy looks, could easily pass as the product of a white-bread suburban life, but he was a trailer-park kid who grew up in hardscrabble Oklahoma and was the family breadwinner at age 15, competing in rough saloons against grown men in “tough man” contests. He’d learned the sweet science early and was a formidable amateur.

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What kept Tommy in fights was a neck-swiveling left hook that came fast and hard out of nowhere. It turned off a lot of heavyweight lights.

In his short life, Morrison defeated Big George Foreman at the tender age of 24, starred in Rocky V (as a villain) with Sylvester Stallone, held the WBO title, tested positive for HIV, and did time in an Oklahoma prison. He compiled a pro record of 48-3-1 (42 KOs) with victories over Carl “The Truth” Williams, Joe Hipp, and James “Quick” Tillis. He suffered a brutal knockout at the hands of Ray Mercer, who’d earlier beaten him in the 1988 Olympic trials. He was also stopped by Lennox Lewis.

Morrison’s nickname, “The Duke,” is based on his disputed claim that he was a grandnephew of Hollywood superstar John Wayne. Morrison’s professional boxing career ended for many years when he tested positive for HIV in 1996 in Nevada. Back then, there was no cure and significantly more stigma attached to the condition. He quit boxing but returned years later, claiming the Nevada test result was false. He ended his career fighting in smalltime contests for small purses wherever he could get a license to compete, including Japan, West Virginia, and Mexico.

His 1993 bout with Foreman was closer than the scores indicated. At several points in the contest, Morrison turned his back and walked to another part of ring to set up again. Foreman didn’t take advantage of the odd tactic and lost by lopsided decision.

Morrison had a long record of assaults, DUIs, and transporting weapons and drugs. He could almost have you believing him as he tried to explain it all away. Morrison died Sunday night at a Nebraska hospital, said Tony Holden, his longtime promoter and close friend. The family would not disclose the cause of death.

Morrison made millions during his pro career, and no doubt would have made many more millions if he hadn’t been forced out of the sport. But when I last spoke to him about ten years ago, he was living in a trailer park again.

Sick Justice: Inside the American Gulag, by New York Times best-selling author Ivan G. Goldman, was released in June 2013 by Potomac Books. It can be purchased here.

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