By Steve Kim
Word spread quickly on Labor Day that Tommy Morrison had died at the age of 44 in Nebraska. Many eulogies have been written about the charismatic fighter who held a portion of the heavyweight crown in the early 90's only to have his career derailed when he tested positive for HIV prior to a fight in 1996 -- and they tend to focus on his troubles outside the sport. But not enough has been written about what a compelling and entertaining career he actually had inside the ring.
It began in November 1988 with a first-round knockout of William Muhammad, a big statement from a young fighter, He was managed by Bill Cayton, best known for handling the nascent career of Mike Tyson (alongside co-manager Jim Jacobs), and the early storyline fed to the masses was that Morrison was somehow related to John Wayne (he was even nicknamed "The Duke").
As Morrison racked up early victories against the assorted array of no-hopers and hand-picked cannon-fodder like David Jaco, Aaron Brown, Harry Terrell, Ken Lakusta and John Morton, he seemed to appear on ESPN as much as Chris Berman. And why not? Not only was he a big, strong, strapping guy from America's heartland with rugged good looks, he also just happened to possess one helluva left hook. Like every other Caucasian fighter who shows even a bit of promise, he was labeled a "Great White Hope."
His profile was such that he was given a co-starring role opposite Sylvester Stallone in Rocky V in what was the most forgettable edition of the iconic series. But it was clear, whether in real life or in Hollywood, Morrison was a star. Many boxers are rated by the likes of the WBC, WBA or IBF -- here was one with an actual Q-rating.
Morrison eventually defeated more high profile fighters like James "Quik" Tillis and Pinklon Thomas, Morrison before he was matched with Ray Mercer in October 1991. After building an early lead after four rounds, "The Duke" was viciously knocked out in the fifth. But there's an old axiom in boxing that says that your career doesn't really begin till you lose. And that may have been the case for Morrison, who could launch a lethal left hook from his heels, but whose chin and stamina seemed to be weaknesses.
There was never any real dominance with Morrison, but there was always sure to be some drama. He was the type of prizefighter who could beat most contenders on any given night -- and also lose to any journeyman just as easily. Either way, the bouts were usually exciting and unforgettable.
Morrison had to overcome a broken jaw to subdue Joe Hipp in nine rounds in a national televised affair on ABC in 1992 and then, two fights later, he and Carl "The Truth" Williams each hit the deck two times before Morrison stopped Williams with a barrage of punches in the eighth round of their slug-fest on HBO. Morrison actually captured the WBO heavyweight title versus George Foreman, boxing cautiously to a 12 round decision in Las Vegas in June of 1993 (ironic, considering his usual hard-hitting, aggressive style). But it wasn't a long title reign; with a shot against Lennox Lewis -- a more highly regarded belt-holder at the time -- looming, Morrison was shockingly stopped by Michael Bentt, a relative unknown, spoiling a multi-million dollar payday.
After winning six of his next seven contests -- his lone blemish a draw versus the 8-8 Ross Purrity in 1994 -- he was paired with Razor Ruddock in the summer of 1995. A kindred spirit of sorts in the summer of 1995, Ruddock was a fighter who was as flawed as he was heavy-handed and he seemed to have things well in hand as he scored a knockdown of Morrison early on. But just as he seemed to have taken complete control of the proceedings, Morrison's trademark weapon - that left hook -- scored a shocking one-punch knockout in the fifth round at Municipal Auditorium in Kansas City. (The fight was called in the sixth.)
His reward was his long-awaited opportunity to face Lewis, who summarily dismissed him in six one-sided rounds.
Just several months later he tested positive for HIV. But while that may have effectively ended his career, it did not stop him from fighting. There was his rogue bout in Japan in November of 1996 against Marcus Rhode (where he scored a first round KO) and then, more than a decade later, Morrison claimed to have never contracted the virus at all, claiming that the positive tests were tied more to his own steroid use. These efforts to convince boxing officials on a clean bill of health brought about two comeback bouts that served more as an indictment on the fractured nature of the sport than any real springboard for Morrison ever regaining a foothold in the business.
But his Quixotic quest to prove he was HIV-free and how he eventually withered away shouldn't overshadow his accomplishments as a prizefighter. You could argue that he competed well in what is perhaps the second best era of heavyweight boxing. The period of time in the early-to-mid 70s that had combatants like Ali, Frazier, Foreman, and Norton, among others will always be considered the Golden Age. But the 1990s, featuring Lewis, Riddick Bowe, Evander Holyfield, Foreman (again) and Michael Moorer will be looked upon fondly as well.
The easy -- and, perhaps -- lazy comparison to Morrison in looking back at those two generations would be Jerry Quarry (being they were both white). But Quarry was the far superior craftsman. Morrison more closely resembled the hard-hitting Ernie Shavers and Ron Lyle, who were crowd-pleasing thumpers, but simply too one-dimensional with their power to ever topple the elite in the division.
And that's the way we'll remember Tommy Morrison. A crowd-pleaser to the end, who may not have been the greatest fighter, but was certainly memorable. And sometimes, that alone should be appreciated.
Steve Kim began covering boxing in 1996 and has been writing for Maxboxing.com since 2001. He is also a regular contributor for Boxing News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and he tweets (a lot.)