Morrison plans to have a brawl

On Saturday Lennox Lewis will climb into the ring to fight a former golden boy trying to live down a tarnished image. Ken Jones reports from Atlantic City
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The Independent Online
Until Tommy Morrison was flattened in one round by Michael Bentt almost two years ago the tawdry idea of a Great White Hope lingered in heavyweight boxing. The picture was of a solidly constructed, intelligently directed blond barnstormer with natural power, Irish blood and John Wayne perched on his family tree.

That the Morrison who is training to fight Lennox Lewis in Atlantic City on Saturday went unrecognised this week by people who had not seen him since the disaster in Tulsa is sufficient to suggest that reality now prevails over the wildness that brought a reputation for relentless party- going.

The golden boy image, created by promoters who deserted when Bentt put paid to the $8m (pounds 5.3m) purse Morrison was to receive for a contest against Lewis in March last year, has been so altered by severe barbering and a tuft of beard that he was required to pose for a new set of photographs.

According to Morrison's trainer, Tom Virgets, there is also what he considers to be a significant change in attitude. "I've never had a problem with Tommy in the gym," he said, "but I could never be sure what he was getting up to. There was always a distraction, another bimbo to take his mind off boxing and the gap between fights became one long party. Half the time we couldn't find him. Trouble is that Tommy still hasn't found himself and even now some asshole could come along and ruin all the work he has put in for this contest. Tommy not only drinks too much but he simply can't handle alcohol."

If it is unusual for a boxing trainer to be so forthright about his charge, Virgets is something of an exception in the business. An impressively fit man of 43 years he gained a doctorate in exercise physiology and held university posts as an athletic director before working full-time with Morrison.

In the five years they have been together, Virgets has more than once been close to giving up on the fighter from Gravette, Arkansas, especially when receiving reports of yet another spectacular rampage. "It's no exaggeration to say I've often feared for Tommy's life, that he would end up dead in some bar," he added. "No matter how hard I preached, Tommy was deaf to the warning that no man is indestructible and his fists would not be much use if somebody came at him with a gun or a knife. Plenty of people told me that I was wasting my time and when he lost to Bentt I almost packed my bags."

A professional since the age of 19, by the time Morrison challenged the 1988 Olympic champion, Ray Mercer, for the World Boxing Organisation title in October 1991, a record of 29 straight victories fuelled the notion that he might become the first white American since Rocky Marciano to reign as the undisputed champion.

It didn't survive the fifth round. Utterly exhausted, Morrison was stopped when helpless on the ropes. "I'd grown so used to blowing people away that seeing Mercer still there after taking my best shots left me with nowhere to go," he said this week. "To be honest the referee should have stopped the fight earlier because I took a lot of unnecessary punishment."

While that experience implanted in Morrison an understanding of serious limitations in technique and stamina it did nothing to curb an appetite for entertainment in the sort of locations that police officers approach warily. "I don't think I did more drinking than was good for me," Morrison said, "but if I had a bottle in my hand it was always where people could see me. I guess that was the silliest part because guys were always calling me out, looking for trouble. Ever since I was a kid I've been confident of coming out on top in a brawl but the ring is a lot different from a bar. That's been my problem."

It was about three o'clock in the afternoon and Morrison was stripped down for light sparring in a hotel by the Jersey shore. He looked in excellent shape, the results of two months training evident in a hard torso and the clearly defined ridges of his abdomen. He is encouraged by the impression that Lewis is lacking in resolution. "From what I've seen and the things Tommy [Virgets] saw when he watched Lewis fight Frank Bruno, I don't think he has the balls for this business. I see in him what I saw in some of the footballers I came up against [Morrison was sufficiently effective as a high school linebacker to be offered a college scholarship], like he promises more than he's got to offer."

Morrison's sixth-round knockout of Donovan "Razor" Ruddock three months ago encouraged Virgets to believe that better days lie ahead. "The fifth round has always been a crisis point for Tommy so you can imagine how I felt when he got up from the floor to get rid of Ruddock. Not that there is any point in trying to change his style. I think I've managed to make Tommy more relaxed in the ring so that he he doesn't burn up all that energy, but he is what he is, a go-forward guy who is always looking to end things quickly."

Morrison's body is not entirely the one he started out with. Football injuries resulted in four leg operations including the total reconstruction of one knee and following the victory over Ruddock he underwent shoulder surgery. "Getting the shoulder fixed has unquestionably improved Tommy's scope," Virgets insisted. "He's known for the power of his left hook but there is plenty in the right and if it lands Lewis will go."

As for the widespread notion that Morrison is better at knocking people down than getting up, it doesn't figure on Virgets' agenda.