Former WBO heavyweight champion Tommy "The Duke" Morrison (48-3-1, 42 KOs) passed away at the age of 44 following a long battle with HIV and other immune deficiencies that may / may not be related to HIV. Morrison's former promoter Tony Holden said he died at 11:50 PM, Sunday, September 1st in an Omaha, Nebraska hospital with his wife Trisha alongside him. Morrison tested positive for HIV early in 1996, effectively ending his already fading boxing career.
Still, he fought 3 more times after the diagnosis (against severely limited opposition). After taking 1 bout late in 1996 Morrison briefly brought himself out of an 11 year retirement as a byproduct of his denial that he had HIV or that the disease even existed. Trisha Morrison insisted that Tommy instead had Guillain-Barre Syndrome.
Morrison's originally scheduled '96 opponent was Arthur Weathers. But, after Tommy's pre-fight blood test turned up HIV positive, the Nevada State Athletic Commission (NSAC) cancelled the bout. Morrison ultimately had to leave the country to get another fight as he took on Marcus Rhode later that year in Japan. The sanctioning and rules of that bout were shady to say the least, but it was televised regardless with the help of a decent supporting card (headlined by lineal heavyweight champion George Foreman, whom Morrison wanted to rematch).
In any event, Morrison defeated Rhode via 1st round TKO as Rhode was dropped 3 times by straight right hands. Eleven years later Morrison similarly made short work of John Castle and Matt Weishaar. The respective West Virginian and Mexican commissions allowed those bouts to take place under the guise that recent blood work showed Morrison did not have HIV.
However, when Morrison tried to make yet another comeback in 2011, he was turned down by the Quebec commission for refusing to participate in a supervised HIV test. But in regards to the impact on his relevant boxing career, it's all a moot point. A long, long time had passed since Morrison established himself as one of the premier heavyweights in the world.
Morrison began his professional career in 1988 and garnered 28 wins, no losses, and 15 first round knockouts in less than 3 years. Victims included former contender James Tillis and former world champion Pinklon Thomas. These victories propelled Morrison into a showdown with 1988 heavyweight Olympic Gold Medalist Ray Mercer for the recently created WBO heavyweight title. Although Mercer had previously bested Morrison in the US Olympic Trials, ironically, had their professional meeting been fought under the same distance, Morrison would have easily won.
Ultimately Morrison led on all scorecards through 4 rounds but was violently beheaded in the 5th. Referee Tony Perez was slow to step in and I doubt Morrison ever fully recovered from the beating. Nonetheless, he'd go on to win the vacant WBO title 2 years later by defeating the soon-to-be-legendary George Foreman, notching the signature win of his career.
Unfortunately it was pretty much all downhill from there.
Morrison only made 1 successful defense of his title against the unheralded Tim Tomashek before getting blitzed in 1 round by Michael Bentt. Bentt was supposed to be a tune-up for big fight against Lennox Lewis but plans were obviously derailed. However, the 2 would eventually meet as Lewis was rebuilding following an early TKO loss of his own to Oliver McCall. Morrison gave the illusion of a credible foe for Lewis by taking out the even-more-faded Donovan "Razor" Ruddock leading in. Lewis dominated and stopped Morrison in 6. Shortly thereafter the HIV diagnosis came, as did the end of a once promising career.
What will history most remember Morrison for? Will it be the millions of dollars he made before he was ready? Will it be the tens of millions he missed out on because his chin failed him? Or will it be for his role as Tommy Gunn in the movie Rocky V? Time will tell, but he'll always have a place in ‘90s heavyweight history. I'll remember him for what could have been, illustrated by his ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat against Carl Williams. Morrison overcame 2 fifth round knockdowns to take Williams out in the 8th, effectively earning him the title shot against Foreman.
What will you remember him for?
[This was originally written without knowledge that Brent Brookhouse would cover Morrison's death. After learning, further substance on Tommy's boxing career was added.]