At 16, I didn't know enough to be afraid for the men in the ring during a boxing match. They were living and breathing superheroes, a muscle-bound embodiment of the id—nothing more, nothing less. Rock 'Em Sock 'Em robots with no discernible purpose other than my entertainment.
That all changed with what might have otherwise been a garden-variety knockout, a staggering hook from the power-punching Ray Mercer. But Tommy Morrison, as fate would have it, got stuck in the ropes. And suddenly, just like that, there was a realization, grand and terrifying, that boxing is more than a sport.
It's something sacred, profound and very scary.
Mercer didn't just knock Morrison out in their 1991 WBO heavyweight title fight—I swear you can see his soul leaving his body, if only for an instant.
It was a left hook that did him in, a punch delivered in the fifth round.
But that's not the punch that stole a man's soul. If you pause the tape just right, there is an instant after he was already finished when all human thought and function cease. Trapped in the ropes as the hard-punching Mercer delivered blow after blow, Morrison's eyes didn't show pain, regret or even suffering.
They were completely dead.
But Morrison didn't fall. It's not that he refused; this was no heroic act of defiance. It was instead the brutal act of the inanimate ring ropes thwarting gravity's steady pull. Richard O'Brien was on the scene for Sports Illustrated:
Caught in the storm of punches, Morrison sagged, suddenly helpless. A crashing hook sent him reeling into the ropes, and he seemed to hang there for a second, slack-jawed, the life gone from his face. Mercer then connected with four more vicious rights and a final left, like an angry man working on a side of beef.
Referee Tony Perez stopped the fight at 28 seconds of the round, dangerously late, as Morrison, now no longer a promising heavyweight, just a frighteningly battered young man, toppled forward.
This kind of thing didn't happen in the Rocky movies, like the one Morrison had starred in the previous year as Tommy "The Machine" Gunn. In that film, like in every other boxing movie ever made, the coup de grace was quick, brutal and satisfying.
This? This was brutal and unending savagery, the kind of thing that makes you question the position of the planets and the meaning of life.
Finally, the hapless referee stepped in to stop the fight, allowing Morrison to fall face-first to the mat. What should have been a glorious moment for Mercer felt a little like sweet relief.
After the fight, as Mercer celebrated, Morrison sat in the corner with his hands up protecting his face. Dazed and confused, he thought the fight was still going on.
It was one of the saddest things I'd ever seen in my life.
Television producers don't often focus on the victim of a brutal knockout in the aftermath of a fight, and for good reason. To see such a vibrant man, who just moments before was dancing a grim dance with another larger-than-life physical specimen, reduced to feeble incoherence is almost too much to take.
Better, I think, to stay with the winner.
Of course, for Tommy Morrison, there would be happier days, too. Two years later he would again fight for the WBO title, this time dispatching with "Big" George Foreman over 12 rounds. Others who fell victim to his power-punching and speed included Donovan "Razor" Ruddock and Carl "The Truth" Williams.
Morrison, in his all-too-brief prime, was a reckless and daring figure. Boxing, for most competitors a sport that required monastic discipline in the weeks leading up to a fight, had never seen a man quite like Tommy.
While others celebrated and gloried in their pre-fight abstinence, Morrison, according to Richard Hoffer of Sports Illustrated, carefully plotted his own peccadilloes in the days leading up to a fight with Michael Bentt that would put a $7.5 million payday with Lennox Lewis within his grasp:
...he posted a map of Tulsa that was divided into quadrants, marking the location of the four girlfriends he was importing for prefight preparations. Whereas the little-known Bentt could be taken lightly, Morrison didn't feel he could afford to be confused in this particular application of geography.
Morrison went on to lose that fight with the unknown Bentt in the first round. That was Tommy, constantly in the process of disappointing. While peers with less talent and more focus exceeded expectations in the ring, Morrison had a gift of losing his way at the worst possible moments.
Still, there was always the promise of better things. He was preparing a comeback, still just 27 years old, when he tested positive for HIV in 1996 before a Las Vegas fight and was suspended. At the time, he took full responsibility for a decade of bad choices. Morrison, who never gave up his desire to return to the ring, died Sunday at the age of 44.
In the coverage of his passing, we witnessed many moments of him in his glory—forever young, muscles popping cartoonishly as he delivered the left hook that, along with his skin color and movie-star looks, made him famous.
But for me, despite that walk down memory lane, it's this fight and its aftermath that will endure. Defeated, utterly and totally, the eternal victim, Morrison was made small by another man's fists.
Boxing, I learned that night, should never be classified with other mere games. The stakes were, and remain, too high. Tommy Morrison taught me that as he lay face-first on the mat.
Even then, his mind temporarily broken, he never gave up fighting. Sunday night, he finally did.
Rest in peace, Tommy.