THE good looks came from a patented Hollywood bloodline. As the grand nephew of movie icon John Wayne, Tommy 'The Duke' Morrison barged into professional boxing like Wayne's famous cowboy characters — with both guns blazing.
Introduced to boxing at age 13 by way of several 'Toughman' competitions in Oklahoma, Morrison turned pro in 1988 by knocking out his first five opponents in the first round. So exciting a slugger was Morrison that a year later, actor Sylvester Stallone tapped him to play the role of boxer Tommy 'The Machine' Gunn in the movie 'Rocky V.' The movie did not earn serious money at the box-office in 1990, but it made Morrison the most popular heavyweight contender at the time.
The 6-foot-2, 212-pound Morrison was advertised by his drumbeaters as the ideal package; a former honor student and high school linebacker who was set to enter Emporia State University in Kansas on a football scholarship when the boxing bug bit him. Morrison laced on the gloves supposedly to continue a family tradition, his older brother Tim and two younger brothers Trent and Troy having all won Golden Gloves titles.
At the peak of his popularity, Morrison earned an estimated US$10 million in fight purses. In June 1993, he boxed cleverly and won a unanimous decision over George Foreman to win the vacant World Boxing Organization (WBO) heavyweight championship. He made one successful defense of the WBO crown before getting knocked out in one round by Michael Bentt in the same year. Fed with a collection of patsies and tomato cans, Morrison rebuilt his career by winning seven of his next eight fights, but he was finally exposed as a fraud in 1995 when Briton Lennox Lewis butchered him in six rounds.
Morrison was scheduled to fight Arthur Weathers in Las Vegas in February 1996 when the fight was cancelled after he tested positive for HIV. At age 27, and having just signed a contract that was supposed to net him US$30 million, Morrison was forced to retire. Surprisingly, he returned in 2007, telling anyone who bothered to listen that he never really had HIV; that he was a victim of a false-positive test. Morrison's last recorded fight was a third-round knockout of Matt Weishaar in 2008 in Mexico, where blood tests were not required. Morrison compiled a record of 48-3 with 42 knockouts, the setbacks coming at the hands of Ray Mercer, Bentt and Lewis.
Detached from pro boxing, Morrison's true story began to unravel. As it turned out, Morrison's father Tim Sr. was an alcoholic who regularly beat up his wife and Tommy's mother Diana. Elder brother Tim Jr. ended up serving 15 years in jail for rape. For his part, Tommy squandered the millions of dollars he earned in a life of parties, booze and sex. Tommy's entourage vanished the moment the money was gone.
Morrison refused to acknowledge that he had acquired HIV and insisted that a rival conspired to put him in a bad light. But as his health deteriorated in candlelight fashion, there was no denying Morrison was losing his toughest battle. As he struggled to find life after boxing, Morrison was arrested on several occasions for driving under the influence, assault, and drugs and weapons charges.
A month ago, ESPN reported that Morrison had developed full-blown AIDS and was knocking on death's door. Morrison had been bedridden for a year, unable to speak and being kept alive by a feeding tube.
On September 1, Morrison passed away. He was only 44 years old, but looked 20 years older at the time of his demise. A truckload of lessons can be learned from the fighter's story, but Morrison arguably summed it up best when he addressed the media after his forced retirement in 1996: "To all my young fans out there, I ask that you no longer see me as a role model, but see me as an individual who had an opportunity to be a role model and blew it. Blew it with irresponsible, irrational, immature decisions. A decision that would one day cost me my life."