"Soon You'll See Stars You Fevered After": Tommy Morrison 1969-2013




“I don’t know what’s the reason that I do the things I do. You’ve known men who craved drugs or liquor or tobacco. I must have excitement. I crave it and it preys on me until I just step out and get into devilment of some kind.” Henry Starr


There was pathos, yes, but there was another kind of darkness, the wayward American Dream kind, on switchback roads, through knotweed fields, hard by a Dairy Queen. Under a black or starless sky. Something like that. Why not? After all, Tommy Morrison was trouble young. Hell, maybe he was born with a shiner. At first, his story was sawgrass or scrubland gothic: Starkweather, Lobster Boy, Karpis-Barker, whatever. Later, it would be prizefighting, disease, madness, even. But not even boxing could compete with those early days. Morrison came from a broken home. He was a secondhand son, passed from here to there, from nowhere to nowhere bound, wherever he would stick. Although he was born in Arkansas, Morrison, distantly related to John Wayne, spent most of his teenage years in Jay, Oklahoma, with a population of roughly 2,500. His father was abusive. His mother once beat a murder charge. Tim, his brother, spent 15 years in prison for rape. And Tommy? His mother first made him use his fists when he was five years old against a bully at a drive-in movie theater. It was a showing of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre.


He dropped out of school for a while to pay for groceries. Wal-Mart got most of the money he made from fighting, underage, in Toughman contests. “Well, I’ve been bit,” Morrison told KO in 1992. “I’ve been kicked. A lot of karate people get in there. They study karate all their lives, and when you back them into the corner, they raise up their leg and try to kick you in the head. It’s instinct. Of course, in the fights that were at the bars of fairgrounds, sometimes the referee was someone from out of the crowd, so it was anything goes.” Only 13 years old, Morrison, whose brother once clocked him with a baseball bat, was a Toughman natural. He was also a petty thief. At 13, his mother gave him a homemade tattoo: two boxing gloves burned into his shoulder with a hot needle. Call it a Trailer Park Special. In 1988, he was voted “Least Likely to Survive” by his classmates. He set fire to the Jay High School athletic field after being cut from the baseball team. Morrison, a promising linebacker, was a natural athlete as well as a budding sociopath. He rejected a football scholarship after winning the Kansas City Golden Gloves in 1988 and turned pro later that year.


Then came Stallone, Tommy Gunn, and Mickey Goldmill, still snarling in Rocky V. Morrison went Hollywood, all right. Eyeliner like Nikki Sixx, sunglasses at night, a Nissan 300ZX, sex like the hicks he left behind in Jay could never even dream of: trains, orgies, swaps, trios. He was still a Main Street hero even after Ray Mercer nearly tore his head off in Atlantic City. Morrison sat on his stool, bobbing and weaving, long after the referee had stopped the fight. But his career was never far from vaudeville. There were fights that belonged in tent shows or carnivals: Tim “Doughboy” Tomashek, Wimpy Halstead, Mike Acey. On a conference call before his bout with Morrison, ex- heavyweight champion Pinklon Thomas told the media that the world would be “bombfounded” by his performance. Morrison stopped him in one. Still, in 1992 his casual slapdown of hapless Bobby Quarry was the highest rated fight in the history of ESPN.


“Let’s put it this way,” Bill Cayton, who co-managed Morrison, once said, “Tommy Morrison makes Mike Tyson look like a monk.” A barfly as restless as a roustabout, Morrison also had a boundless appetite for women. His management made him train at military facilities to keep the skirts away: the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado and the Virginia Military Institute. Even the promise of a $7.5 million jackpot failed to keep Morrison chaste. In Tulsa, while training for unknown Michael Bentt, Morrison swapped roadwork for room service and nightcaps. Today, Morrison might check himself into a clinic for sex addiction, like David Duchovny, or he might show up on a set alongside Dr. Drew. Three knockdowns in less than a round against Michael Bentt sent Morrison back to Biloxi and Muskogee.


Although Morrison was not a topnotch heavyweight, he was good enough to score a clean victory over George Foreman before Foreman went on to win the heavyweight championship of the world. Morrison was also one of the most exciting fighters of his era, and he earned the headline slots he got by charging the ring with electroviolence every time he fought. More often than not, Morrison simply forgot to duck. He recovered from knockdowns scored by Carl “The Truth” Williams and Razor Ruddock. Against Joe Hipp he sustained a cut, a broken hand, a broken jaw. His prybar left hook got him out of that one. Ross Puritty dropped him twice in New Jersey but had settled for a draw with The Duke.


Morrison suffers from nerves before big fights. Anxiety accompanies him on the ringwalk the way his trainers and seconds do. For all the women, for all the money, for all the notoriety his Hollywood début brought him, Morrison remains in Westport, Wichita, Missouri, Oklahoma. It makes sense, you guess, it makes as much sense as anything. When he finally gets his first major title shot, Lennox Lewis vivisects him over a handful of gruesome rounds. Morrison hits the deck four times against Lewis. Four months later, just hours before a tuneup bout with Arthur Weathers that will eventually lead to paydirt against Mike Tyson, Morrison is told that he has tested positive for HIV. “All the things that were going to happen, they never will.”


After a second positive test, Morrison calls a press conference in Tulsa and pours out a heartfelt confession of his moral failings. “I could tell you what safe sex is, but I never practiced it,” Morrison says. “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 Lose Angeles. I live in Oklahoma, little Jay, Oklahoma. It’s not supposed to happen here.” He vows to be a spokesman for AIDS—he even consults with Magic Johnson—but that is a dark journey he was never prepared to take.


Later came the conspiracy theory stretch: AIDS does not exist. Who wants to live under such a death sentence? So he killed himself instead. Prison, alcohol, cocaine, crank, DUI—see? He denied HIV and declined AZT.


“The perfect man of action is the suicide.” William Carlos Williams


Morrison spent his last year bedridden, wasting away. Until the very end he denied what doctors diagnosed him with in 1996, when he was 27 years old, a future still in front of him. For years, what most of us take for granted—tomorrow—was something Morrison could never believe in. All he had was a past. Even his strange comeback attempts a few years ago in regulatory netherworlds seemed like a way to recapture what he had once been. By then, Morrison was telling people he would win an Academy Award one day, and that he had recently developed powers of teleportation. He sounded crazier than Vachel Lindsay, the Prairie Poet who killed himself by guzzling Lysol. It was a long, long dusk for Tommy Morrison, once a handsome roughneck who dabbled momentarily with fickle Hollywood fame. Forget the mugshot husk that popped up a few short years ago—there was nothing there but the skull beneath the skin. Remember Tommy Morrison as the man who thought he could knock the world cockeyed with a powerhouse left hook and whose recklessness showed itself as much in the ring as it did in life—where the odds were always against him.


I woke last night to the sound of thunder
How far off I sat and wondered
Started humming a song from 1962
Ain’t it funny how the night moves
When you just don’t seem to have as much to lose
Strange how the night moves
With autumn closing in

   -Bob Seger, Night Moves


Sources: The New York Times, World Boxing, KO, The Ring, Sports Illustrated, Associated Press, ESPN.com, Kansas City Star, Tulsa World, Boxing International.

Tags: Bill Cayton Oklahoma Tommy Morrison

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