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Tommy 'The Duke' Morrison: A 'Rocky' Life But a Great Career

Lee Cleveland Updated
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Tommy Morrison, a Top 10 heavyweight for the better part of 1991 to 1996 and unquestionably one of the most exciting fighters in that explosive decade, is gone. He was 44.

According to a long time promoter and friend, Morrison passed away Sunday night at a Nebraska hospital.

Although the family would not disclose the cause of death, many speculate Tommy, who tested positive several times for HIV in 1996, may have died as a result of complications from the AIDS virus. However, it's mere speculation at this point.

Allegedly the grand-nephew of actor John Wayne (whose real name was Marion Morrison), Tommy never reached the lofty status of contemporaries like Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield and Lennox Lewis, but certainly left his stamp on boxing.

Tommy's life was filled with highs and lows .

He started boxing at the age of 10 and by 13 entered toughman contests using a fake ID (the minimum age for contestants was 21).

In 1988, Morrison advanced to the National Golden Gloves in Omaha, Nebraska. Tommy would progress to the Olympic Trials where he'd drop a split decision to Ray Mercer, who would go on to capture gold in 1988.

Tommy would claim to have finished the amateurs with a record of 222-20.

Tommy Morrison-young

Most fight fans were introduced to Morrison in December 1989 when the 20 year old fought on the undercard of Leonard vs Duran III, dominating journeyman Ken Lakusta en route to a lopsided decision over six rounds.

By then, Morrison had already established a 20-0 record with 17 knockouts and was being compared to a younger Mike Tyson.

Often categorized as a "Great White Hope," Tommy, in early 1990, took time off boxing to work with Sylvester Stallone for the filming of Rocky V.


He was cast as the bad guy, Tommy 'The Machine' Gunn, a young and talented protege of the retired Rocky Balboa. Originally an admirer of Rocky, Gunn's successes led him to goad Rocky into a street fight.

Following his movie gig, Morrison would continue to work his way up the ranks, primarily fighting on ESPN and defeating rugged journeymen like James Tillis and still-capable has-beens such as Pinklon Thomas.

His first step on the big stage occurred in November 1991 when met Ray Mercer, the fighter who had defeated him in the Olympic trials. The bout was for the then-fringe WBO Heavyweight Title. Tommy, fast and explosive, got off to an amazing start. He won at least 3 of the first 4 rounds when, early in Round 5, Morrison was stung by a Mercer powershot before being victimized by a barrage of over 15 unanswered punches before slumping to the canvas.


Morrison was on the receiving end one of the sport's more brutal knockouts over the last 25 years - But the measure of a man is often calculated, not in defeat, but his response to major setbacks.

The Oklahoma fighter would rebound from the debilitating loss and reel off seven straight wins, all by by knockout, before facing a still-dangerous Carl 'The Truth Williams' on HBO in early 1993. Tommy Morrison (then 34-1) engaged in an all-out war with his more experienced foe. Williams was down in the 1st and 3rd rounds while Morrison tasted the canvas twice in the 5th round.

Behind on two of the three scorecards heading into the 8th Round, Morrison would catch Williams with his signature left hook en route to forcing an eventual stoppage later in the round.

Tommy had come all the way back and the fighter with one of the best left hooks in the history of heavyweight boxing was ready for the big-time again.

The Williams win set-up a showdown with George Foreman for the lightly-regardly WBO Heavyweight Championship. It would be Tommy's finest moment.


Nearly everyone, even the experts, thought Foreman vs Morrison would end in a knockout given the aggression and punching power of both fighters - But Tommy executed a perfect game plan and caught everyone by surprise.

Instead of standing toe-to-toe like usual and relying on his power, Tommy used his speed and finesse to "outbox" the slower, plodding Foreman en route to winning a unanimous decision.

But this win was short-lived.

With an $8 Million dollar payday on the line, Morrison would be knocked out by fringe contender Michael Bentt in Round 1 in 1994. It was back to the proverbial drawing board for the 'Duke.'


But Tommy would once again battle back from defeat, going 7-0-1 in his next 8 bouts, including a thrilling sixth round TKO of highly-ranked Razor Ruddock in summer 1995.

Finally, in the fall of 1995, Lewis vs Morrison would take place. They were two heavyweights on a collision course. But unfortunately for Tommy, Lewis was too big, too skilled and too strong in what would be a one-sided affair. Morrison would be knocked down multiple times before the fight was stopped in Round 6.

Despite the loss to Lewis, famed promoter Don King saw value in Morrison and was looking to pair him with the comebacking Mike Tyson in a PPV superfight.... But Tyson vs Morrison never came close to happening.

In February 1996, a Tommy Morrison bout, scheduled to be broadcast live on Showtime, was cancelled at the last minute because Morrison failed his pre-fight physical. The next day, it was announced he had tested positive for HIV multiple times.

Now, it was apparent that Tommy would have a much bigger fight to deal with... Much bigger than facing Tyson.

Morrison's boxing license was suspended by Nevada, and the ban was upheld by every other reputable sanctioning body. Tommy said at a news conference he'd never fight again, blaming his plight on a "permissive, fast and reckless lifestyle."

Tommy's life spiraled downward after that.

dm 130820 boxing tommy morrison feature

Although he'd manage to fight professionally a few more times, he toiled in obscurity when doing so. He had 3 bouts (3-0, 3 KO) versus meek opposition after being diagnosed, with the last taking place in 2008 at the age of 41.

Post February 1996, Morrison made headlines outside the ring. Assault, weapons charges, drug possession and multiple DUI incidents over the years to name a few.

HIV and the loss of his boxing license hit Tommy hard.

Morrison's longtime promoter and friend, Tony Holden, said, "That's the way Tommy took off after he was told he was HIV-positive,"

"When he first was told, I was taking him to seek treatment and to different doctors around the country. And then he started research on the Internet and started saying it was a conspiracy. He went in that direction and never looked back."

Tommy Morrison .... He played a big role in 1990s heavyweight boxing and will be remembered far, far more for his historic battles than the controversies and turmoil that ensued after his failed HIV tests.

He finished 48-3-1 with 42 KOs.

Was Tommy Morrison ever not in an exciting fight? Of his 52 bouts, only 7 went the distance. 

He was a great warrior during an exhilarating time in heavyweight boxing.

R.I.P. Duke!


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