He had never been a cautious man, and that may have been part of
his appeal. A big and reckless guy, he careened through life
with the kind of abandon that tends to get celebrated in the
popular press. That he happened to be blond beefcake was
considered a box office plus. But that didn't entirely account
for the public's persistent fascination with him, a boxer who
all too often couldn't win the big fights or, maddeningly, even
the small ones. America always holds out hope for the human
torpedo, the full-speed-ahead guy who is born without the kind
of wiring that causes the rest of us to slow for stop lights, to
keep our mouths shut when we're mad, to live our small lives in
safety behind closed doors.
The stories they tell about Tommy Morrison: Cut as a senior from
the high school baseball team in little Jay, Okla., Morrison
returned to the diamond hoping to scorch an obscene message into
the infield grass; instead, the fire got out of control and the
field and outfield fence burned down. In 1994 he got arrested on
assault charges for a fight outside the Kansas City police
department; he had gone there to post bond for a friend. How
about this one: Before his October 1993 bout against Michael
Bentt, the one that was supposed to set up a $7.5 million fight
with fellow heavyweight Lennox Lewis (until Morrison was KO'd in
the first round), 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
It's true that, often enough, things went wrong. And at 27,
because of his poorly timed stumbles, he remained little more
than a hard-hitting contender of a certain promotional appeal,
while his peers were garnering titles and standing in line for
the huge paydays that fights with Mike Tyson could generate.
Yet there's always room in boxing--room everywhere, really--for
that explosive personality, the kind of person who swings large
enough to make victory possible and defeat entertaining. So it
was, coming off a bloody loss at the hands of Lewis last
October, that Morrison's career was being rehabilitated by
promoter Don King. Morrison was scheduled to fight Arthur
Weathers on Feb. 10 and then two more opponents by the middle of
March, with the possibility, down the road, of a bout with Tyson.
February 26, 1996
Then, last Thursday, less than a week after he had been told
that he'd tested positive for HIV--thus forcing cancellation of
the Weathers fight--and less than an hour after he had been told
that the retest confirmed that result, he faced the country in a
press conference from a Tulsa hotel. Staring somewhat vacantly
into the abyss that now formed his future, he said, in a
surprisingly eloquent seven-minute address, that he had become,
by his own unchecked desires (he's 95% sure he got the virus
through sexual activity), a disaster area, a danger not just to
himself but to the entire communities of women he had slept
with, including his girlfriend, Dawn Freeman. Life without
consequences? He looked into the blinking lights in the hotel
ballroom, his voice trembling but his knee unbuckled to the end.
"I have never been so wrong in my life."
The news occasioned a brief debate in the press, the usual
columnistic cross fire that boxing always inspires, concerning
the routine testing for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Up
until Morrison's announcement, only eight U.S. boxing
commissions--in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, New Mexico, Oregon,
Puerto Rico, Utah and Washington--mandated HIV testing for
professional boxers. Politics and concerns of privacy and cost
have prevented other jurisdictions from requiring the exam, even
though it's a quick and reliable test that can be done for $25.
But last week New York announced plans to start HIV testing of
boxers, and other states may follow suit, if only to avoid
becoming a refuge for fighters who carry the virus (at least
seven boxers worldwide have tested HIV-positive, including
Morrison and one other in Nevada, which has been testing
fighters for the virus since 1988).
Ultimately, though, this is not a boxing story, except that, as
usual in the fight game, arrogance and ignorance are rewarded in
outsized tragedy. It's mostly the story of a young man who was
reckless and irresponsible, who now wonders if he has "five, 10,
15 years to live," and, suddenly more important, if he has
endangered anyone else. It's the story of a young man who,
because of a blood test, has been totally deconstructed and who
must, in the glare of the public's leering interest, recover
whatever parts of his personality might survive.
Here is who Morrison was: a relentless partyer, a determined
womanizer who took advantage of every possible sexual
opportunity. And there was always opportunity, especially after
he appeared in Rocky V as Sylvester Stallone's hunky foil (the
film role was masterminded by his former manager Bill Cayton,
the same man who handled the much-publicized launch of Tyson's
career--a career that also disintegrated in sexual calamity). "It
was unbelievable," says Morrison, finally alone, sitting in the
home of co-promoter Tony Holden last Thursday in Tulsa. He had
just finished subjecting himself to the demands of celebrity
journalism--Dateline, Larry King Live, PEOPLE magazine--and was
ready to duck into seclusion on his 100-acre spread in Jay. "It
was all right there. You could feed yourself as fast and as much
as you wanted."
His trainer, Tom Virgets, who once called him a "bimbo magnet,"
remembers autograph sessions during which Morrison would receive
the most astounding proposals, so frank, Virgets says, "that you
just couldn't repeat them."
Morrison's attitude toward women was, at best, hopelessly
juvenile. His hardscrabble youth--he was illegally entering
toughman contests by the time he was 13--seemed to him an
entitlement to the so-called good life that was at his feet by
the early '90s. Leaving Jay for Kansas City, where he lived off
and on from 1988 to 1994, the small-town boy was, by his own
admission, "a kid in a candy store."
"At that time," he says, "my priority was getting laid." But his
escapades lacked the innocence that some of his supporters
ascribe to "any red-blooded American boy." He ran with a pack in
Kansas City that Morrison acknowledges was just there for free
drinks and "the overflow" of women. They cut a wide and careless
swath. John Brown, Morrison's first manager in Kansas City, says
there are "some stories that are legendary. Tommy and his
entourage would get a limo and load it up with women, and they'd
all take turns with them."
Morrison admits that there were plenty of "one-night stands" and
a steady rotation of eight to 10 "girlfriends" at any time. "If
I met a girl," says Morrison, "I'd tell her straight up, 'I
might run into someone else I want to go out with; don't be
offended.' Was that acceptable to them? It had to be. There were
enough girls. They were expendable."
He didn't have relationships; he had sex. His attitude was
barely adolescent. Several years ago the message on his
telephone answering machine was a woman's orgasmic moans--"As you
can tell," Morrison's voice would conclude, "I'm busy right now."
Morrison says that in the past two years he had been in the
process of reforming himself. He had found religion. He had
committed himself to Freeman, his high school sweetheart. He had
won her back on June 6, 1993, the eve of the greatest victory in
his 45-3-1 career, a decision over George Foreman that earned
him, however briefly, the WBO championship. At times Morrison
will say he was monogamous from that point on, but it becomes
clear that he means it in a relative sense. "I have had a couple
of situations," he says, "where I wasn't the strongest person in
the world." But his lifestyle was "changing a huge, huge amount
compared with what it had been."
As he continued his old lifestyle to whatever degree, he
remained blind to the dangers of his promiscuity. "I could tell
you what safe sex is," he says. "But I never practiced it." He
was adamantly ignorant of sexually transmitted diseases,
including AIDS. "I associated the virus with people that
subjected themselves to certain types of lifestyles--IV drug
users or people that practiced homosexual lifestyles. Never did
I associate it with people like myself, a normal guy, a good ol'
boy who likes to do normal things with normal people. I don't
live in Los Angeles. I live in Oklahoma, little Jay, Oklahoma.
It's not supposed to happen here."
There have been reports that AIDS hot lines in Tulsa have been
ringing actively, with many queries specific to Tommy Morrison.
In Kansas City one free clinic brought in additional staff to
handle the increased demand for HIV tests. "It may be now," he
admits, "that people won't think it's safe to live in Jay,
Oklahoma." Or wherever it is that Tommy Morrison has been.
Think what you will of Tommy Morrison, perhaps a sexual monster
who may have infected scores of partners in the three years
since he was last tested for HIV, maybe just an arrested
adolescent whose disturbing drive to become a "stud" turned him
into a one-man community hazard. But suddenly he is behaving, at
least speaking, like an adult. Unlike others of HIV celebrity,
Morrison did not have the luxury of coming to grips with his
medical predicament before it became public. Yet, under
pressures of time and health, he has reacted bravely, asking
others not to pray for him but for children born with the virus.
"I had a choice," he says. "They don't." And following a quick
consultation with Magic Johnson, he has promised to become
useful in spreading the news.
So far he knows of nobody, neither sparring partners nor sexual
partners, including his girlfriend, who has tested positive. Of
course, he admits, there are several women still out there,
unknown. "Too many," he says, and the shame seems real. But he
can certainly help others. "Speaking at high schools, college
campuses," he says. "There's a message to be delivered, one I
obviously never got."
Still, even as the questions from the outside world began to
subside, he was starting to fully understand the consequences of
his behavior and how alone he was going to be with them. The
crew from Dateline was breaking down equipment in Holden's
living room, and NBC's Maria Shriver, her work done, was posing
for snapshots with different family members. The media horde
would all be gone soon, and it occurred to Morrison that,
really, everybody could be gone soon. There was suddenly no
reason for anyone to stay. He was no longer a popular contender.
He was, in fact, damaged goods who might be considered
contaminating. "My girlfriend," he says, "she's free to go, and
I wouldn't blame her if she did." He shakes his head. "I was so
The big, reckless guy is suddenly and profoundly subdued, but
this comeuppance is, surprisingly, no pleasure for all of us who
bite our tongues, slow down at intersections, live safe lives.
No pleasure whatsoever. "All those things that were going to
happen," he says, holding his head in his hands, "they never