This story originally appeared in The Star on Oct. 15, 2006.
The sign says no left turn, and Tommy Morrison pokes his gray Malibu into oncoming traffic and pulls a U-ey. Radio off, air conditioner cranked, this is where he does his best thinking. A pile of clothes and boxes is stuffed in the backseat because he’s just fired his executive personal assistant, a woman he’d been living with who keeps calling his cell while he maneuvers through pre-rush-hour traffic.
He’s going to the nutrition store to get a strawberry-banana-double-protein glutamine shake. He’s on a roll about God, Russians and boxing until he realizes he’s gone 40 blocks past his destination.
"Where am I going?" Morrison says. "I can’t believe I did that.
"I get talking, and my wheels get smokin’. "
Shirtless, tan and toned from the waist up with a sweat-stained Everlast cap pushed over his blond hair, Morrison looks nothing like the shell of a man who became boxing’s poster boy for HIV. He runs into people at the airport, and they do a double-take.
Dude, I thought you were dead.
Morrison’s still kicking, but he may have a death wish. He pulls into the parking lot and leaps out when he eyes a rumble between a rusty old station wagon and a car full of kids. The wagon peels out. Morrison thinks it’s a drive-by and rushes to intervene. Ten years and 10,000 soul-searches later, it’s still true -- Tommy Morrison never could avoid a fight.
His latest bouts are in the desert, far from his old stomping grounds in Kansas City, in a strip mall next to a drugstore. Morrison is training for a comeback. He’s saying he never had HIV -- that it was a conspiracy by the government, a rival promoter or just a plain mistake. He wants to fight again, and promises the biggest comeback story the boxing world has ever seen, a cross between "Rocky," "Rudy" and "Slap Shot."
He says he’ll apply for his boxing license within the next week or so. He knows that tests in the state of Nevada and Arizona involve bloodwork that will ultimately bear out whether he carries the virus.
"People think I’m crazy," Morrison says, "and it’s been written in the papers that I’m off my rocker.
"I beat them with heart. They can’t stand to get hit to the body; they don’t like pain. They’re weak-minded. That’s why I roll over everybody who gets in my way. I don’t believe in past lifetimes, but if there was one, I had to be a gladiator."
Two years after the death sentence, various news reports had Morrison fading fast. One said he dwindled to 170 pounds, more than 50 down from his fighting weight. His hair was falling out. He had a persistent cough, and his doctor gave him a year to live if he refused to take his HIV medication.
"He’s an American tragedy," his first manager, John Brown, said at the time.
Morrison sips from his shake and pours another glass out of the blender.
"God spoke to me and told me not to take it, don’t take the medication," Morrison says. "I tell people that, I tell them God told me, they look at me like I’m from another planet. It’s like people don’t believe God’s in the miracle business anymore.
"I’ve seen God work in my life, and I know what he’s capable of, and I know what he does for his people that love him."
His life is a series of contradictions, of recklessness and anger mixed with well-meant intentions. He espouses the Bible in the same breath he expresses his disdain for homosexuals. He’s home-to-meet-your-parents sweet to the ladies, then offers that he can’t put a number on the Wilt Chamberlainesque volume of women he slept with in his six-year stay in Kansas City.
The thing about dying is it gives you time to think. On Feb. 10, 1996, "The Duke" -- nicknamed after John Wayne, his great uncle -- was about to step in the ring for a tune-up leading up to a mega-bout with Mike Tyson. Two hours before the fight with Arthur Weathers, his manager broke the news that he had failed a prefight blood test and had HIV. Morrison thought he could still fight that night in Las Vegas.
He went home to Oklahoma, smoked marijuana, and marinated in a fog of drugs and self-research. Morrison still maintains that a person can’t contract HIV from heterosexual sex. He convinced his wife, Dawn, of that, and says she’s still HIV-free. He hypothesizes that the virus is a plot to control population.
He vowed not to take AZT, which he calls a basic form of chemotherapy by pill.
"That was killing people," he says. "You can look at me like I’m crazy if you want. ... It’s a latent virus that your body will get rid of on its own if you exercise and eat right. It’s disappeared from my body twice where they can’t find the antibodies."
Morrison declines to talk about any recent HIV tests he might have taken. He says his attorneys advised him not to discuss the matter.
But he’ll let you in on a little secret. The weight loss? The haggard appearance? He says he was on a methamphetamine binge. He was diagnosed with adult attention deficit disorder at 27, and he said the meth made his mind catch up with all the things that seemed so jumbled.
The only thing he knew how to do was gone, and Morrison wasn’t even sure how to feel about that. Ask him what he misses most about boxing, and he’ll say financial freedom. Then he vacillates from necessity to addiction, hate to passion.
His first fight was arranged by adults when he was 5. Tommy was clutching his Coke at a drive-in movie, because his family didn’t have much and he wanted the drink to last throughout "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre." A boy named Rodney was zinging pebbles into the Coke. Tommy dumped the drink on the 8-year-old. His mama came back, demanding they fight, and it was over.
Tommy flailed his fists like a hummingbird. He bloodied Rodney’s nose, cut him in the eye.
"I remember walking back to the car," Morrison says. "I was kind of almost in shock that I’d just had this altercation. And right as we got to the car door, my mom opened the door and it was like a bell went off and I realized, ‘Damn, I’m good at this.’
"And I loved the feeling it gave me. Loved it. Just declaring dominance, just BOOM!"
The cell phone rings again, and it’s Morrison’s trainer, Mike Munoz.
Munoz is a quiet, hulking man, a former amateur boxer who hangs a poster of Morrison outside his gym and leaves a handwritten note on the glass door Monday for the rest of his pupils. "No boxing today. Go running."
Munoz is just coming back from the airport, and he wants to meet Morrison for lunch before they train. They pick Hooters, which is just off the corner of the strip mall. Morrison misses the turn and swerves his car around again.
A table full of men shout when Morrison walks to the back of the restaurant, and a guy outside gives him one of those I-know-you-from-somewhere stares. Within seconds, a young Hooters girl stops by to take Morrison’s order. Three more waitresses plus a manager will buzz by within the next hour.
Dressed in a white undershirt and shorts, Morrison thickly lays on the Oklahoma charm.
"Are you John Wayne’s grandson?" the waitress asks.
"Are you Marilyn Monroe’s niece?" Tommy replies.
Morrison says he left his hometown of Jay, Okla., because he’d run out of women to sleep with. His nights in Kansas City, after he’d done "Rocky V" and officially earned star status, were rock-star material.
Tommy did up the bars in Westport, got in his share of scrapes and scandals. He figures he had as much as $2 million at one point, and the taps flowed and the women fawned. He was detained once in an altercation with a woman at Senor Phroggs in Lenexa.
"I couldn’t fart in an elevator without people wanting to sue me," Morrison says.
His escapades stretched beyond folk stories.
"There are a lot of beautiful women in Kansas City," Morrison says, "who need to be thanked for helping me stay conditioned for years."
Morrison flirts with the Hooters girls, then rolls his eyes. He says he’s a one-woman man now. But he has no problem dropping his shorts halfway, in the middle of Hooters, to reveal a giant tattoo of Elvis on his hip. He does that twice.
Munoz, who’s sitting at another table, tells him to stop.
"You’re going to get us arrested."
Morrison says he’s been married three times, twice to the same woman, and both wives were named Dawn. Friends call them D1 and D2. He was married to both of the D’s at once, one marriage in Mexico, the other in the States.
"I still can’t figure out how that happened," he says.
Morrison used to find this shoe-shiner in Westport and hand him $100 bills every time he passed. Sometimes, he says, he’d see the guy three or four times a night. The shoe-shiner recognized him on a return stop to Kansas City a few years back, and Morrison said he was sorry. He didn’t have any money.
The in-car rant on this particular day, after HIV and the state of heavyweight boxing, focuses on his rocky relationship with Brown.
Morrison took his beat-up Chevy, with no hubcaps or air conditioning, and loaded two grocery bags with his belongings for a 3 1/2 -hour drive to Kansas City in 1988. He spent two more hours driving around to find Ringside Products, Brown’s business.
Brown says he wanted to do two things for Morrison -- make him wealthy and keep him healthy. Morrison clashed with Brown, nearly from the start, over training and later, money. He says Brown took a 33 1/3 percent cut. Brown says that’s standard, especially when he was paying three to five other people on the Morrison team.
"Every fight he had, he received a full financial report down to the penny," Brown says. "We didn’t take a dime from that kid until he started fighting 10-round fights. I gave that kid five of the best years of my life. I took him off the street, put him in my business, trained him, took him to heavyweight champion of the world.
"I did everything a human being could do to keep him healthy. He’s a kid who has to have a scapegoat. I represented authority. I gave Tommy a hard time almost every day because I wanted him to get up and run. If he was going to have sex, have it with one woman a day, not five, to not drink or take drugs, and to train five days a week so we could become successful."
Morrison was successful in spite of his lifestyle. In 1993, he beat George Foreman for the WBO heavyweight title. A giant tattoo on his bicep reminds him of the day. His arms are also scarred, his 37-year-old face weathered. The poster that hangs outside Munoz’s gym, the one where he’s landing a punch on Foreman, reveals a mug so different -- young, steely, unaffected. He beat Razor Ruddock for the IBC heavyweight championship two years later. It didn’t mean anything to Morrison.
After the death sentence, he went everywhere. The speaking circuit -- he vowed to educate young people on HIV, but his beliefs don’t exactly jibe with the American Medical Association -- the sticks, and eventually the hole. Morrison was arrested for drunken driving, then spent more than a year in jail on drug charges.
Some dude left a bunch of cocaine in his car, Morrison says, and they shackled him up like Hannibal Lecter. He says the cocaine wasn’t his. He’d tried it before, but it was a waste of time. It didn’t last long enough. Fourteen months, eight days, six hours and 46 minutes. That was his penance, in Texarkana, then Little Rock.
"You ever seen ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest?’ " Morrison says. "That’s what it was, a mental floor. One guy there, Mr. Murphy, he was an old guy. He’d been taking elephant tranquilizers. We were locked down all the time. Every once in a while we got to go outside and play basketball if everybody was good.
"How often do you think people were good? Never. They didn’t know what they were doing."
Morrison downs a grilled chicken sandwich with cheese but leaves the side of macaroni salad. The waitress asks whether he’s still hungry. Yes, he says, but he’s trying to keep his girlish figure. He ponders.
"Quesadillas," he says. "Steak."
Everything for Morrison is backward these days. He used to look at a Snickers bar and gain 10 pounds. Now he burns off everything. He’s been training in Phoenix for four months, three with Munoz. It’s much harder now.
The way Morrison explains it, he read a story about a young girl with HIV being discriminated against and decided recently to fight back. That’s the impetus for his return to boxing. He hired attorney Randy Lang.
Lang contacted Keith Kizer, executive director of the Nevada Athletic Commission, in a preliminary inquiry about Morrison obtaining his boxing license.
"He basically said (one of) three things are true here," Kizer says. "Either Tommy never had HIV or he had it and cured himself of it. Or he had it, it was at a contagious level, and through therapy it’s at such a low level it’s not contagious."
If Morrison tests positive for HIV, he won’t be allowed to box in Nevada or most other states. But Lang has another route. He’s pondering a multimillion-dollar lawsuit.
"If Morrison was subjected to any medical limitation issues, each boxing commission is pre-empted by federal law," Lang says. "For instance, if he had cancer, he would fall under the Americans with Disabilities laws, which pre-empt state boxing laws, and they would be required to accommodate his disability. If he had HIV, it would be the same thing."
Kizer says he isn’t worried about any lawsuits, just the safety of the boxers in Nevada. He understands why Morrison wants to get back in the ring now. The heavyweight division is viewed by some as diluted and bland now, dominated by foreign boxers. Morrison and a handful of other once-wasers watch 7-foot Russian Nikolai Valuev drop an opponent and wonder whether they could take him.
Scratch that -- Morrison knows he can. He’s up to 224 pounds, and Munoz says Morrison’s punching power might be better than it was 10 years ago. He had a shoulder injury then and was mostly a left-handed fighter. Now he throws his right hand like a rocket.
Munoz wants to wean Morrison back, start with a couple of six-round bouts. They plan to be fighting by the end of November. Munoz says he was never skeptical about training a 37-year-old boxer with a sordid past, 10 years of rust, and HIV tests that are being kept secret.
"I really wasn’t," Munoz says. "Maybe it’s just something ... a gut feeling of watching him fight previously and knowing he was a tough guy mentally and physically. I knew he’d been through adversity. And I knew he wasn’t a quitter."
Morrison steers the car down Union Hills Drive and points to the right. Mike Tyson lives somewhere over there. Ten years ago, that fight, Morrison says, was going to make him $10 million.
They were kings then, Iron Mike and The Duke, fighting demons but punching air. Morrison glances through the passenger window and keeps rolling.
"He’s out of his mind," Morrison says. "He’s not all there. When he’s on his medication, he’s the nicest guy in the world. Trouble follows him around. I know what that’s like."
Morrison never yearned to be a boxer. He wanted to be a mortician or a punter for the Chiefs. His mom’s the one who told him to go to Omaha 18 years ago and fight in the Golden Gloves. She still has the cap and gown he was supposed to wear that week for graduation neatly packed in a box. Morrison wonders whether it’ll sell someday on eBay.
But he says God puts everyone on this earth to do something, and he’s supposed to fight. He has these visions of winning another heavyweight title, then following his true love, acting. He thinks about that "Rocky V" movie all the time. He says he held a lot back.
That seems impossible with Tommy Morrison.
"I tell people I’m going to win an Oscar, and they laugh at me," he says. "I told them I was going to win a heavyweight championship, too, and they laughed. And I won two of those. A lot of people doubt that I have anything left. But one thing they’re forgetting is that I haven’t been fighting for 10 years. I’ve been resting.
"I’ll go down in history. It’s going to happen. Then I’ll become a legend."
He bounces out of the restaurant and heads to his car. He’s had dozens of them, pimpmobiles and pieces, and for nine years, he’d fantasize behind that wheel, asking himself one thing. Where would I be right now if I were heavyweight champion of the world? The Malibu pulls out, veering in the same direction as the answer. Lost.