Remembering the Tragic Legacy of Former Heavyweight Champion Tommy Morrison

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Remembering the Tragic Legacy of Former Heavyweight Champion Tommy Morrison
Tommy Morrison passed away at the age of 44. Photo Credit: ESPN.com

The boxing world was extremely saddened to hear Sunday of the passing of former WBO heavyweight champion Tommy "The Duke" Morrison.

Morrison, 44, had battled HIV during a life cut all too short, and according to the Associated Press, passed away late Saturday night. His family has not allowed the release of the cause of death. 

It was a tragic ending for a fighter who spent much of his life in the fast lane.

Morrison was born in Gravette, Ark., in 1969, but shortly after, he moved to Delaware County, Okla., where he was raised and began his boxing career.

He was born into a boxing family—his older brother and uncles had both fought—and he quickly found success in the amateur ranks, winning local toughman contests and regional amateur tournaments. 

Morrison turned pro in 1988, and he immediately developed a reputation as a power-puncher, winning 17 of his first 21 bouts by knockout.

His meteoric rise led him to the role of Tommy Gunn in Rocky V, where he played a hotshot heavyweight prospect on the rise—modeled after his real life—that comes under the tutelage of former champion Rocky Balboa.

Almost a year to the date after the movie was released, Morrison would earn his first world heavyweight title shot, and suffer his first defeat, against "Merciless" Ray Mercer. He was ahead on the scorecards, as the fight entered the fifth round, but he found himself on the receiving end of a brutal barrage of punches from Mercer that forced the stoppage.

Morrison rebounded well from the defeat and reeled off eight consecutive victories by knockout—including wins over Joe Hipp and Carl "The Truth" Williams—to earn himself a second shot at a heavyweight championship. 

That shot would come against boxing legend George Foreman—who was making a comeback—with the vacant WBO heavyweight title on the line. The battle was hotly anticipated because both men were known as huge punchers, but Morrison flipped the script and boxed at distance to win a wide unanimous decision and his only world title.

Unfortunately for "The Duke," his title reign was extremely short-lived. He would drop the title in his first defense against the virtually unknown Michael Bentt. 

Bentt, who carried a professional record of 10-1 into the bout, easily blasted through Morrison, dropping him and stopping him in the opening frame. 

It was shortly after this defeat that some of the legal troubles, and personal demons that would haunt him for the remainder of his life, would begin to surface.

Morrison was arrested and charged in December 1993 with public intoxication and assault. He would later plead guilty, but maintained that he was innocent of the charges. 

As for his boxing career, it would never be the same after dropping the title to Bentt. 

Seven fights—and a 6-0-1 record—later, Morrison would find himself in the ring with former No. 1 contender Donovan "Razor" Ruddock.

Ruddock, who by that point had already been stopped by Mike Tyson and Lennox Lewis, would drop Morrison in the opening frame, but couldn't hold on and would find himself stopped in the sixth round.

Despite Ruddock's relatively diminished state, it was still a big victory in—what was then—a sputtering career. It would earn Morrison one last shot at glory and a match with WBC No. 1-ranked contender, and former champion, Lennox Lewis. 

The Lewis-Morrison bout had been discussed for some time before actually becoming a reality. At one point, it would've been a highly lucrative unification bout, but when it actually took place, it was for little more than a No. 1-contender slot and a chance to, once again, capture heavyweight gold.

The fight itself was pretty anticlimactic, with Lewis dropping Morrison four times, cutting and closing his right eye and delivering a one-sided beating that ended in a sixth-round TKO. 

Following the defeat, Morrison would score a first-round knockout victory over journeyman Marcus Rhode in Japan before receiving devastating news that would define the remainder of his life.

It was revealed in February 1996 that Morrison has tested positive for HIV during routine blood screenings for a bout scheduled to take place in Nevada later that year. A second test, conducted days later by Morrison's doctor, confirmed the result. 

It was a stunning twist in a life, already by that point, beginning to come off the rails. 

Initially, the then-27-year-old Morrison accepted treatment for his illness, but he would again begin to run into problems with the law, and each incident seemed to increase in severity.

Just months after his diagnosis, Morrison was arrested in Oklahoma for transporting a loaded gun, and then in 1997, he was charged in a DUI that resulted in several injuries. 

It would be an ugly pattern for the former heavyweight champion, and several other DUI's, drug and weapons charges would come later.

By 2006, already 10 years from his last fight, and with a life, by that point, firmly heading in the wrong direction, Morrison had resurfaced—and with a claim that all medical experts said was impossible.

His HIV was gone—the result he claimed over several false-positive tests—and beyond that, he was planning on resuming his career.

The test results were "iron-clad," according to the Nevada State Athletic Commission, but Morrison maintained that he was healthy and disputed that original tests ever existed.

He was able to pass medical tests in Texas and actually obtained a boxing license in West Virginia—a state known for it's lax regulation of the sport—and scored a second-round knockout of John Castle in his return to the ring in February 2007.

In order to obtain the license, Morrison was forced to submit to blood testing that indeed showed no HIV in his blood, but at the time, experts questioned his assertions, and some argued that the blood being tested wasn't his own.

His final fight, at least in a boxing ring, would come late in 2008, when he scored a third-round stoppage of another unknown fighter in Mexico.

Morrison was scheduled to fight again in Quebec, Canada, in 2011, but was forced to pull out when he refused to take the local boxing commission's standard blood tests. The commission had required the tests to take place at an approved facility and in the presence of one of its members.

It was the last time we would hear about Tommy Morrison, until earlier this month, when ESPN reported in August that the former heavyweight champion had been bedridden for over a year with what his mother described as full-blown AIDS. 

Even the most hardened of hearts would have a hard time holding back an emotional reaction to her words, as she described her son's tragic condition and lamented that she no longer wanted him to keep on fighting but to go. 

A mother's pain at her son's tragic final days can never truly be captured. It's something that we all hope to never encounter ourselves, but it's a devastating situation which is captured in all of its haunting color through her words.

Morrison lost his final fight on Sept. 1, 2013. In the end, he was beaten by a disease he refused to believe he had, even up until the end. 

His life is a tragic tale and one that was cut short all too soon.

He'll be remembered as a compelling fighter and an even more compelling personality. And he'll be remembered as a cautionary tale.

Life in the fast lane always catches up to you. Sometimes, it's faster than others. 

Tommy Morrison lived his life on his own terms—he was hard-headed, stubborn and reckless. He was a troubled soul who was taken far before his time.

Rest easy champ. Your fight is finally over.

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