Tommy "The Duke" Morrison went for a walk on the Las Vegas strip one cold February morning in 1996 thinking of ways to spend the $38.5 million that was in his new contract. An hour later he was in a hotel suite surrounded by the people who loved him; everybody was in tears as he had just been told that he had tested positive for HIV in a routine pre-fight medical.
Morrison was 27 years of age, a former world heavyweight champion, the grand nephew of John Wayne and the star of Rocky V, in which he was Sly Stallone's protégé, Tommy Gunn. He was a good ol' boy, a man with an Elvis tattoo on his hip; he owned a mountain lion and the third and final fight in the new contract was a showdown with Mike Tyson. He was one of boxing's genuine attractions.
"It was shattering. It didn't happen to people like me," Morrison said. "I didn't live in LA. I lived in Oklahoma and I liked to do normal things with normal people." In his home town people stopped shaking his hand, instead crossing the road when they saw him, and his name was taken from the town's sign. Morrison responded by shooting gaping holes in the new sign.
Morrison's initial shock at the diagnosis faded, and after immediately acknowledging that he had lived a promiscuous lifestyle, he started to deny that he was HIV, or that HIV even existed. "I'm cured," he had repeatedly told people since that February morning in Las Vegas. He has also claimed to have the ability to vanish and appear in another place and that his failed test was a government conspiracy.
"I don't think I have HIV, I don't think that I ever had HIV," Morrison told me in 2008 when he was preparing for yet another doomed return to the ring. "I think I had hepatitis. I got rid of the hepatitis and since then every single time I have tested for HIV it has been negative. The original test was a false positive."
However, the arrest mugshots of Morrison during the last 15 years make ghoulish viewing, and his repeated short and long stays in a variety of prisons highlight his decline. Morrison appears to have loved guns and marijuana as much as he loved women, and had constantly been arrested for small crimes, compounded by his repeated failure to comply with bail restrictions. He was, make no mistake, a wild man.
In the ring Morrison could really fight, and his early contests, when the knock-outs are played back-to-back, resemble a Rocky trailer – Morrison, with his bleached blonde hair, dropping a variety of hopeless men in grim knock-outs in which the men are often lifted clean off the canvas.
It is perhaps too convenient to dismiss Morrison's ring credentials by pointing out he lost three times, was dangerous to know and that he had acted strange since February 1996 with repeatedly violent and crazy outbursts and claims. He beat George Foreman to win the WBO heavyweight title in 1993, having failed two years earlier to win the same title in a brutal slugfest of unbeaten fighters when he met the Olympic gold medallist, Ray Mercer.
Morrison's wins against Carl "The Truth" Williams, Joe Hipp and Donovan "Razor "Ruddock were all savage brawls in which both men looked close to defeat on several occasions. His brutal loss to Lennox Lewis was breathtaking from ringside and Lewis was quick to praise Morrison, calling him "one of the hardest punchers I ever met." Lewis is telling the truth, and I have heard him say the same thing for years. Mercer, incidentally, claimed that Morrison hit harder than Lewis.
The third defeat was a genuine shock and it cost Morrison $7.5 million; it was also probably the result of sleeping with too many women during training camp. In 1993, with Morrison having signed to fight Lewis, a warm-up against the unknown Michael Bentt went wrong and Morrison was beaten in one round. His long-suffering trainer, Tom Virgets, dubbed his fighter a "bimbo magnet". Morrison's fee for the Lewis fight was reduced by 80 per cent. The failed test was just two years away; Morrison had last taken an HIV test before the Foreman fight in Las Vegas in 1993, which had been clear.
Since the HIV result various women have appeared at Morrison's side, all quick to claim that they have unprotected sex with him. His last wife was Trisha "The Duchess" Morrison, a Britishwoman who, according to Morrison's family, was by his side for over a year as he was moved from secret location to secret location. She denies that Morrison was ever HIV-positive and said he died from respiratory problems. He also contracted Miller Fisher syndrome, his wife says, following complications after a surgeon left a 12-foot strip of surgical gauze in his chest during an operation to remove a faulty pectoral muscle implant. It was an omission that explains how good his body looked as his face had sagged and collapsed over the last few years. Morrison was certainly more than just a pretty face and an impressive chest.
Tommy David Morrison, boxer and actor: born Gravette, Arkansas 2 January 1969; married; died Omaha, Nebraska 1 September 2013.