Up Close and Personal with Tommy Morrison

Tommy Morrison i i

hide captionTommy Morrison trains in a Phoenix, AZ gym.

Mike Pesca/NPR
Tommy Morrison

Tommy Morrison trains in a Phoenix, AZ gym.

Mike Pesca/NPR
Tattoos i i

hide captionThe tattoo commemorates Morrison's defeat of George Foreman, to win the WBO championship. He says he plans to one day get a tattoo recalling his second biggest victory, over Donovan "Razor" Ruddock in 1995.

Mike Pesca/NPR
Tattoos

The tattoo commemorates Morrison's defeat of George Foreman, to win the WBO championship. He says he plans to one day get a tattoo recalling his second biggest victory, over Donovan "Razor" Ruddock in 1995.

Mike Pesca/NPR

A few months ago I was listening to sports talk radio here in New York, and the show hosts were going on about Tommy Morrison, the HIV-positive fighter who wanted to make a comeback. They mocked the idea, lighting on his claims of being "cured" of HIV, and sneering at the side sport that boxing has become.

But I got to wondering, "Whatever happened to Tommy Morrison?" From his co-starring role in Rocky 5 to his knockout of George Foreman, Morrison was one of the most recognizable boxers of the '90s and one of many to be saddled by the stupid title "Great White Hope."

So I went to Google and looked him up. He was living in Tennessee, according to an article filled with brimming quotes about an optimistic life. That optimism struck me as implausible. Coincidentally, that week I came across the Sports Illustrated blurb that must have been the inspiration for the talk show I had heard. I went back to the Web and sent an e-mail to the only e-mail address I could find, one for Morrison's charity. I expected to hear nothing.

The next day, however, I heard back from Susan Martin, saying they'd love for me to do a story, only they were in Phoenix not Tennessee. So I convinced my editors that this would be something more than the guy-who-claims-he-beat-HIV-weird-world-of-boxing item the rest of the sports pages seemed to think it was.

I looked up a lot of old articles on Tommy, and what struck me was the tone of so many press accounts from 10 years ago. They treated an HIV-positive boxer as nothing short of an HIV-positive prostitute, and hinted that Morrison, and Magic Johnson, would surely be the Rock Hudson of athletes with AIDS.

Of course, in the decade since, that didn't materialized. Today, all that care that basketball leagues take to stop play in order to douse bloody jerseys in bleach seems archaic. I had read that there was only one case of HIV being transmitted in sports, in an Italian soccer game, but now a lot of experts doubt that. It seemed to me that Tommy Morrison got caught up in the 1996 mindset about HIV and never escaped.

I pitched my editor. Here is a line from the original pitch:

It's a story of a fighter robbed of his livelihood and life by an unfair quirk of fate and possibly a medical overstep. So now he's constructed this elaborate conspiracy story. This could have lots of pathos; and a good issue.

By the way, a lesson there for anyone pitching an editor — hit the human angle (pathos) and the intellectual (good issue).

What I found when I went to Phoenix was a lot more than a nice topic for the debate club on whether HIV-positive boxers should be allowed in the ring.

For one thing, Tommy is really outgoing. He called me "bro" the moment he met me; I never felt he was putting on an act, or saying the "right" thing. Little details convinced me that I was getting a genuine person, or at least a genuine version of his personality.

On the morning I arrived, Susan Martin read a request from an adoring fan for Tommy to autograph an old fight poster. Susan seemed thrilled to be able to connect to fans and eager to show-off to a reporter that Tommy still means a lot to people. Tommy's reaction: "I'll do it for $30."

Susan admonished him, and he acted like a kid caught being bad. He was going to sign anyway, but you could just tell he longed to once again be the kind of athlete who could get away with charging for his signature. Anyway, if you command $30 a signature, and then do it for free anyway, you look like a big man.

Tommy acted like a kid lot; losing things, stabbing himself by accident when he flipped a steak knife into the sink. Tommy's friend Stephen Bayer says Tommy is still 18 years of age.

Bayer, who has that interesting connection to Tommy and Susan that you hear about in my radio piece, also put into context some of the more outrageous claims that Morrison made about HIV not causing AIDS.

"He's got a high school education," says Bayer, "and bless his heart, he's tried to understand this thing to the best of his ability. Yeah, there's comments that I wouldn't agree with, but I think you can't hold that against somebody if they're trying to genuinely find out the right answers."

Even when Tommy laid out his theories about why homosexuals get AIDS (he theorizes that it has to do with their heightened intravenous drug use ) one is tempted to call him a hypocrite for founding a charity which espouses an anti-AIDS discrimination message while at the same time sounding like Anita Bryant with a sharp jab. Or you can see comments like that in another light; you could see them as Tommy not being stage managed into saying the "right" thing; Tommy not being a sophisticate or a diplomat, but a fighter.

If you listen to the entire piece, I hope you ask yourself, as I did, what's the right thing to do here. It's tempting to just say, "Let's go by the best recommendation of medical science."

The problem there is that the American Medical Association has recommended a ban on boxing, especially as it's practiced professionally, without headgear, and without pausing to bandage open wounds. Asking most physicians, "Should an HIV-positive boxer be allowed to fight?" is like asking a Puritan, "How much flesh should this bikini reveal?"

I've come to this partial conclusion. And I say this as a boxing fan. Boxing, at its root, is a sport where the design is to incapacitate another human with your fists. Hundreds have died in the ring. Top thinkers in the Catholic Church say professional boxing is a sin. The major medical organizations are all against it.

It seems to me that it's as big a leap for a civilized society to permit boxing as it is for legalized boxing to permit HIV-positive participants. If boxing is allowed, under the principle that adults should be allowed to assume risk for what happens to their own bodies, then allowing HIV-positive boxers seems more of a baby step than a sea change.

Both participants and officials should know this beforehand and should be allowed to opt out. Of course, if the state of Nevada goes this route — sanctions a fight with an HIV-positive boxer and in the course of the bout the boxer starts gushing blood, which does happen, — there may be a mad rush for the exits. The sports-talk guys will be going crazy for a week, and no casino would ever book another such fight. But given the modern history of this sport, I bet it would be a big hit on pay-per-view.

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