Sam Mellinger: Tommy Morrison spent his last years fighting for a reality he created

Former heavyweight boxing champion Tommy Morrison shadow boxes in a gym in south Wichita in 2011. Behind Morrison is a drawing of him from 1990.
Former heavyweight boxing champion Tommy Morrison shadow boxes in a gym in south Wichita in 2011. Behind Morrison is a drawing of him from 1990. The Wichita Eagle

The first time I met Tommy Morrison, he told me about the time he teleported himself out of a bar. Trisha, his wife, sat by his side. In the final part of Tommy’s life, Trisha was always by his side.

This was about three years ago, long after the Tommy Morrison my generation grew up watching had been replaced, before the inevitable news that he died over the weekend. The Tommy whom America came to know in the early 1990s was some kind of star. Cocky, blond, good-looking, built like an 18-wheeler.

Tommy grew up in Oklahoma but moved to Kansas City to train with a Lenexa man named John Brown. He won his first fight here in 1989, and four years later became heavyweight champion of the world by beating George Foreman. He became an adopted star in Kansas City, famous for, in no particular order: being a boxing champion, starring in “Rocky V” and turning Westport’s bars into his playground.

Tommy always wanted to be famous, and when it happened, he took full advantage. He did the late-night talk shows, and the late-night bars after that. He went through trainers and women and money in a blur of good times and rough mornings.

When we first met, Tommy described himself as “all balls and brawn” back then. He was learning to box, but he damn sure knew how to fight. He beat Foreman for the World Boxing Organization heavyweight title in a virtuoso performance and tattooed the accomplishment on his right bicep.

Back then, his reality was the stuff of fantasy for many young men.

That reality halted, abruptly, in 1996. Morrison was a tuneup fight or two away from a mega-bout with Mike Tyson when Tommy’s manager told him he failed a pre-fight blood test.

Even before the specifics became public, some friends suspected HIV. That lifestyle. The women. The drugs. The news, obviously, shook Morrison to the core. In the beginning, he did what those around him asked. He promised to reach out to everyone he put in danger, especially the women — at least the ones whose names he could remember.

He played the role of cautionary tale. He stood before audiences of strangers and talked about the dangers of unprotected sex and HIV. Don’t be like me, he told them. The dangers are real, he said.

After a while, he stopped, and — there is no other way of saying it — created a new reality for himself.

In this new reality, HIV doesn’t exist. Or maybe it does, but it’s not the killer that the mainstream media think. Or maybe it is, but if so, he doesn’t have it, never did, and that failed test was a conspiracy carried out by rivals to get him out of boxing.

Those spots on his arms and hands aren’t the HIV symptom of lesions or Kaposi’s sarcoma. They’re dog bites, from his boxer puppy. Or mosquito bites, even if it’s the middle of winter. He spoke with such conviction. About HIV, about the life he could’ve had, about everything. Trisha, always by his side, nodding her head in agreement and bragging of having unprotected sex with him.

“I know this sounds crazy,” Tommy would say about something, and Trisha would punctuate her Tommy’s recognition with, That’s because this is the truth nobody wants you to see.

At his best, Tommy had a kind soul. You can hear horror stories of selfishness and irresponsibility from some who expected more out of him in boxing. If he trained as hard as he partied, there’s no telling how long that heavyweight-champion, movie-star peak would’ve lasted.

But even in those bad years, there are stories of overwhelming generosity.

“He didn’t have a care in the world and he wanted that to be true for you, too,” one friend said a few years ago. “I’m not excusing things he did. The drugs and the women. But he took care of his friends and he took care of strangers. He wanted to be liked, wanted people to look up to him. Before the diagnosis, he helped a lot of people.”

After the diagnosis, he lived a life of exclusion. Just him and Trisha, mostly. They spent hours and days on websites, communicating with other HIV deniers. They had their favorite literature and documentaries, theirs a shared mission to disprove an awful reality. Trisha regularly sent out emails to reporters she’d met, daring them to write their “truth.”

The last decade or so was especially rocky. Tommy served 14 months in prison for drugs and weapons charges in the early 2000s. He was arrested at least two other times for marijuana possession. There were comebacks he’d announce and then postpone, fights that he talked about as certainties that never materialized.

Three years ago, when we met, there was to be a fight in Montreal. When I called the promoter, he told me sure, he’d love to have Tommy fight — he just needs to pass a blood test.

Tommy did fight at least once, about five years ago in Wyoming. The thing looks clearly staged. You can watch it by searching for “Tommy Morrison fake fight” on YouTube. Whatever the details of that fight, it was real to Tommy. He spent the last years of his life fighting for his reality.

He wanted so badly for that reality to be believed by others. Like the story of teleporting himself out of a bar.

The way he remembered the story, he walked into a shady bar in rural Missouri in the middle of the day. There were some men in the back corner, and something about how they looked at Tommy made him scared. He called it “an overwhelming feeling of evil.” So Tommy closed his eyes and put his head down and the next thing he remembered he woke up outside in the sunshine.

“Things like this don’t work for anybody that doesn’t believe it,” he said. He looked at Trisha, then at me.

“Do you believe me?” he asked.

“No,” I told him. “I don’t.”

“I believe it,” Trisha said. “I know it’s true. I’ve seen it.”

Tommy smiled. That’s all he needed.

He died over the weekend at a hospital in Omaha, Neb. He was 44. Trisha was by his side.

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