This story originally appeared in The Star on Feb. 13, 2011.
Tommy Morrison is cutting into a cheap rib eye steak on a plate he has covered in ketchup. The ideas come out between bites. You have to listen carefully. The rough Oklahoma twang will spell out all kinds of ideas, things that would blow your mind if they existed outside his reality.
Telekinesis, for instance. He hasn’t quite figured it out, but he’d rather be invisible, anyway. Just think of all the stuff he could learn. One time he teleported himself out of a bar, and did you know the human body can re-grow limbs?
His face is worn and his skin sags in places, but he insists he’s in the best shape of his life. He’s going to be heavyweight champion again if boxing lets him back in, and this brings up HIV. It always comes back to HIV with Tommy, even over breakfast, so he chops up his $12 steak and eggs and tells you he is the victim of a wild conspiracy.
They stole his career, he says, at least a $38 million contract and who knows how much after that? They stole his good name, too. Made him admit to the world he has HIV. But that was before he found out that HIV doesn’t exist. It was invented to control people, he tells you, and he can go on and on about this all day.
He takes another bite and looks at his girlfriend, a woman from England named Trisha.
"We have unprotected sex," she says.
Tommy is still chewing, but laughs.
"Every day," he says. "We’re wild."
Five years ago, Tommy told anyone who would listen that he was launching a comeback. He was fit and sharp and seemingly committed, ready to take on the world.
In the time since, he’s had only three fights of dubious quality and created a desperate reality consumed with an unwinnable debate against the medical community.
You have to squint hard to see the man who once fought Lennox Lewis and beat George Foreman for the heavyweight championship.
Trisha answers the phone and hears that Tommy didn’t show up at the gym today. He is supposed to be here -- was supposed to be here 15 minutes ago -- to work out and pose for a photographer.
Trisha doesn’t know where he is, but she warns me not to give the photographer Tommy’s cell phone number. She’s asked why.
"Would Mike Tyson give his cell phone number to a photographer?" she asks.
Tommy Morrison thinks about that old life sometimes, the one when a comparison to Tyson’s fame and skills didn’t sound so silly. The old life is still vivid in Tommy’s memory. Back then, he had what felt like an endless supply of money and what looked like an endless supply of women.
He told friends he wanted to be as famous as Elvis, and for a while, boxing was his way. His first fight came when he was 5 years old, on his mother’s orders over a Coke at a drive-in movie. Tommy beat up the older boy and realized he found something special.
When he was a teenager he came to Kansas City to train, and the stories are legendary. Westport became something like his playground, his trainer pleading with him to cut the alcohol and drugs, or to have sex with just one woman per day, not three.
Tommy says he was "all balls and brawn" back then, clubbing opponents on his way up the boxing ladder. Blonde, tan, and built like a brick house, he became a cultural phenomenon. Sylvester Stallone cast him to co-star in "Rocky V." The boxing highlight came in 1993, when he beat Foreman for the vacant WBO heavyweight title. This was Tommy’s masterpiece.
Everyone expected him to trade punches with Foreman, but instead Tommy used his agility to fight at a safe distance and won a unanimous decision. A tattoo on his bicep is a reminder of the day Tommy stood on top of the world.
The rest is a sad fall that began the night of a tune-up fight before a hugely anticipated bout with Tyson. Two hours before a scheduled fight with Arthur Weathers, Tommy’s manager told him he had failed the prefight blood test. He couldn’t fight.
Back home in Oklahoma, a bunch of his buddies sat at a watch party, stunned. Most of them figured it was steroids.
"But I thought right off the bat there that he could have HIV," says Brian Elder, a childhood friend. "I thought that immediately. I think he had ideas that he had it before then, so it wasn’t that big of a shock to him."
For a while, Tommy tried the speaking circuit, talking about the dangers of unprotected sex and HIV. But it didn’t feel right to him.
That wasn’t the reality he wanted, so he created a new one.
Tommy Morrison figures you won’t believe him, but he’ll tell you anyway about the time he teleported himself out of trouble.
It was in a dark and shady bar in Springfield. Daytime. A group of people sat around a table in the back corner, and Tommy instantly felt like he’d walked in on something. He says there was "an overwhelming feeling of evil" in that room, and he knew he had to get out. So he lowered his head and shut his eyes and when he woke up he was standing outside in bright daylight.
"I know it sounds (messed) up," he says. "But I’ll tell you what, it happened to me. It’s real. But things like this don’t work for anybody that doesn’t believe it."
Tommy has spots all over his hands and arms. They’re distracting when you meet him. You can’t miss them. He blames his boxer puppy. Only the spots aren’t bite marks or scratches, and so now Tommy says they’re mosquito bites. Mosquitoes love him, he says.
Except it’s the middle of winter, and the marks look a lot like the HIV symptom of lesions or Kaposi’s sarcoma.
Tommy wants to talk to you about HIV. It’s a farce, he says. An invention by a scientist who wanted to make money, a lie kept alive by a government that wants to scare people. He doesn’t have HIV, never did, and besides, it’s not the deadly disease it’s been made out to be.
What he says sounds crazy, but there is an obvious and undeniable fact sitting in front of you: Tommy Morrison is still alive and apparently healthy, 15 years after testing positive for HIV. Magic Johnson tested positive five years before Tommy, but Johnson has wealth and the very best medical care.
Tommy isn’t broke, exactly, but lives a paycheck-to-paycheck sort of life and says he’s never taken any medication for HIV. In fact, he served 14 months in prison for drugs and weapons charges in the early 2000s, talks of past methamphetamine binges, and was arrested on another drug charge as recently as last year. This is not a man who follows doctors’ orders.
He speaks with such certainty, such conviction, and even has a negative HIV test from last year to show you. That test has been disputed. It could be someone else’s blood, and his name is on failed tests, too. Still, it’s hard not to wonder enough to call a doctor.
Joel Gallant is a professor at Johns Hopkins University and one of the leading HIV specialists in the country. He says there are slow progressers, people who do fine without treatment, so Tommy’s apparent health "doesn’t tell you much one way or the other," and that "he’s not cured; that’s not one of the possibilities."
Tommy has been divorced at least twice, and it’s Trisha now who is by his side every day. They talk about getting married someday, but for now they fight together. She and Tommy look up Gallant on the Internet and send him an e-mail.
They correspond nine times over six hours, Morrison at one point insisting that a poppy-seed bagel could trip an HIV test. Gallant calls it "a silly debate" and "the works of various crackpot former scientists."
He cannot be clearer. Morrison reads something else entirely.
"You have just confirmed to me that there does not exist a test that confirms or dispels whether I or anyone has the HIV VIRUS 100%," he writes to Gallant.
If you felt out of options, how would you react? This is Morrison’s path.
Tommy Morrison is on time for his second meeting with the photographer. He apologizes for the earlier mix-up, says he got caught up running some errands. He’s exceedingly nice, even charming, but, damn, he forgot his boxing boots at home.
He gets in the car and almost immediately comes back and sticks his head out the window. He can’t remember why he left.
"Your boots, Tommy," the photographer says.
"Right," he says, and scribbles "BOOTS" on his hand in black ink.
He says he’ll be back in 20 minutes. It takes an hour.
Tommy Morrison says he’s in the best shape of his life. If taken literally, that’s ridiculous, of course. He was heavyweight champion of the world at 24 years old and is now 42 with mangled hands and reflexes that he admits aren’t what they once were.
This isn’t the man whose announced comeback five years ago raised at least a curiosity in the boxing world. Muscle memory and natural talent mean he can still beat the stiffs he finds to fight him. The last one came two years ago in Wyoming, a first-round knockout for Morrison that looks staged and sad.
You can watch it by searching for "Tommy Morrison fake fight" on YouTube.
He has had a handful of fights scheduled and cancelled since. He says he can beat anyone in the heavyweight division, and names the Klitschko brothers specifically. They’d be easy, Morrison says. All he needs is a chance, for boxing commissions to stop singling him out. He has applied with the Nevada Athletic Commission but is frustrated they ask for additional tests.
He won’t do it. Sometimes he says it’s because other boxers aren’t required to do the same.
"If I do that, that’s letting them win, don’t you think?" he says.
Other times he says it’s because the tests are meaningless, that they don’t detect HIV.
"So why would I do that?" he says.
In this way, Morrison has built a comfortable and eternal conflict for himself. This is a perpetual fight to prove the unprovable, a man with a scrap of his former name recognition joining what’s looked at by most everyone else as a rogue HIV denialist movement.
He speaks passionately, occasionally contradicting himself, but continues to work out and train and find boxing matches in places that will put him in the ring against fighters who look past the potential risk. A scheduled fight next week in Montreal is now likely cancelled.
Fighting is what he’s good at, and he figures he’s got two more years to be good. He’s assigned a bigger meaning to all of this. Calls it "unfinished business," which he thinks will be a good title for his autobiography someday. He wants so badly for everything he’s saying to be true, and to him, there is no doubt that it is.
Even if the boxing and medical worlds won’t take him seriously, Tommy does, and for now that’s all that matters. So he’ll keep promoting.
He’ll keep fighting.
"I think about boxing more now. I’m better," he says. "They’re not used to that. A white guy that has hand speed, power, charisma, and can talk in complete sentences? (Shoot). Sounds like a gold mine to me."