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Ondřej Jarůšek
November 10, 2022, 6:30pm
Reading time: 11:32

Tommy Morrison: Tragic Story Of The Champion And Star Of Rocky 5. He Contracted HIV, But Refused To Believe It.

Tommy Morrison achieved great success in the ring, but outside of it he paid the price for his wild life and frequent changes of sexual partners.

Ondřej Jarůšek
November 10, 2022, 6:30pm
Reading time: 11:32
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Tommy Morrison: Tragic Story Of The Champion And Star Of Rocky 5. He Contracted HIV, But Refused To Believe It.
Zdroj: Getty Images/Allsport UK /Allsport
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The bigger you are, the harder you fall. Unfortunately, this is true for boxing star Tommy Morrison. From a home full of violence and alcohol, he climbed to the top of the boxing world thanks to his tremendous talent, but then came a diagnosis that changed everything. He had convinced himself that the hardest blows were given by life itself.

In 1996, doctors diagnosed him with HIV, but the boxer, who also starred as an actor in the movie Rocky V, quickly went from treatment into denial and claimed to be healthy. He also convinced his wives of this, with whom he continued to have unprotected sex. In the end, the blue-eyed blond-haired muscular wounded man, who in his youth was likened to Adonis, looked like a "concentration camp survivor", according to his father. He died at only 44 years old.


His father drank and beat his mother right before his eyes. I witnessed it.
– the boxer's uncle


Source: Getty Images/Allsport UK /Allsport


Basic information:
Name: Thomas David Morrison
Nickname: The Duke
Score: 52 fights, 48 wins (42 by KO), 3 losses, 1 draw
Height: 188 cm
Arm span: 193 cm

A strip club, an abusive father and childhood fights

Tommy Morrison was born on January 2, 1969. He grew up in Delaware County, Oklahoma, but he was miles away from a carefree childhood. Author Carlos Acevedo writes in the biography The Duke: The Life and Lies of Tommy Morrison that the boxer's father Tim Morrison was an alcoholic and violent. He beat his wife Diana Morrison so badly that he broke several of her bones.

“His father was drinking and beating his mum right in front of his eyes. I witnessed it," the boxer's uncle described the threatening conditions in the household.


In addition to beatings, Tim Morrison also often cheated on his wife. When Diana once caught her husband in a bar with another girl, a fight allegedly ensued in which she stabbed her husband's mistress to death. However, as ESPN reports, she was not punished for the act.


Tommy lost his virginity at the age of 14 - in a strip club where his dad brought him his first woman. He got his first tattoo from his mom, and when he was only in the eighth grade, his parents signed him up for a "tough contest," which were basically bar fights—the minimum age for participants was 21.


The boxer admitted that he started using steroids as a teenager. “I got into them in high school. They were in pill form, taken orally. The injections didn't come until later in my professional career, around 1991. But I didn't use them during preparation, only between matches," revealed "The Duke".


By the way, Tommy Morrison chose this nickname because, according to his own words, he was a distant relative of the western star John Wayne, who was also nicknamed "The Duke". However, it is not proven whether this was really the case.


Source: S. Weiner/IMAGES/Getty Images


A knockout machine and a role in Rocky V

But one thing is certain - Tommy Morrison was born with enormous talent and wrecking balls instead of fists. And despite all the traumatic events of his childhood, he found at least one positive thing that changed his whole life for the better. And that was boxing.

His father introduced him to boxing as a child, and according to his claim, Tommy Morrison participated in more than 200 amateur fights, of which he won the vast majority. And success came quickly even after the transition to the professional ring.


In his professional debut in 1988, he knocked out opponent William Muhammad in the first round and another hard finish followed. By the end of 1989, Tommy Morrison had collected 21 wins without a single defeat and ran over the vast majority of his opponents like a tank. His striking power was famous, thanks to which he demolished opponents as if on a treadmill.



With his performances, iconic blond mane and blue eyes, he impressed not only fans, but also Hollywood star Sylvester Stallone. He decided to cast the boxer in the fifth installment of the legendary film saga about Rocky Balboa. But it was Stallone's brother Frank who saw Tommy Morrison box first and gave Sly a tip about the boxer. Morrison then went through the casting process and got the role.



In the movie Rocky V, Tommy Morrison portrayed the talented Tommy Gunn, who gradually conquers the world of boxing under the guidance of the retired Rocky. But later he turns his back on Balboa and surrounds himself with the wrong people. The film ends with Rocky and Tommy Gunn fighting in the street, where "The Italian Stallion" ends up overpowering his former student.

However, the fifth installment of Rocky was not nearly as warmly received by fans as the previous parts of the series. Sylvester Stallone himself later even called the film a "mistake". Rocky V grossed $120 million in theatres, the least among all the instalments.

Because of the movie, Tommy Morrison didn't wrestle at all in the first half of 1990 and was only focused on filming. He did not enter the ring again until June 9, when he celebrated his expected comeback in a match with Charles Woolard with another technical knockout. He continued his previous wins and his star rose higher and higher.

Win and loss of the champion's belt


Morrison was a knockout machine, but in the end he also stumbled. He suffered his first defeat in 1991 against the then also undefeated Ray Mercer, holder of the WBO belt. He knocked Morrison out in the fifth round, conquering "The Duke's" 28-game winning streak. And it was an unprecedentedly painful defeat.

Well-known UFC commentator Joe Rogan called this knockout one of the "worst ever" in history. An exhausted Morrison made his way to the corner where he found himself under a lot of pressure that he couldn't react to and got tangled up in the ropes. Mercer then hit him with a combination of menacingly hard punches, after which Morrison had no chance of getting back on his feet.



It took less than two years for Morrison to fight his way back to a shot at the coveted title. After eight wins in a row (all by TKO), he finally got the opportunity to fight boxing legend George Foreman for the belt in 1993. He was already 44 years old at the time and was long past his prime, but he was still able to do a lot of damage to his opponents in the ring.

But Tommy Morrison was 20 years younger and at the peak of his powers. Although he did not finish the twice more experienced Foreman before the limit, as he used to do in most matches, he secured a unanimous points win after twelve rounds with a dominant performance. Morrison thus became the new holder of the WBO world belt.


If he hit me in the stomach, I'd probably throw up.
– Tommy Morrison's opponent Tim Tomashek

Source: Getty Images/Allsport UK /Allsport


Interestingly, Morrison was supposed to defend his title in a fight against another actor from Rocky V. It was supposed to be boxer Michael Williams, who played a character named Union Cane in the movie, who was Tommy Gunn's opponent. Now the film colleagues were supposed to fight in a real ring, however, Williams refused to leave the dressing room just before the fight.

The little-known boxer Tim Tomashek was quickly called into the fight as a substitute.
“A lot of people and some newspapers thought we pulled a random person out of the crowd. But he was there just in case Williams backed out. He was sitting in the stands, drinking a beer, and then somebody called out to him, 'Hey, you're going to do it,'" Morrison recalled of the curious situation.

Tomashek gave up the fight after a few rounds. Fortunately for him, Morrison tried to mostly hit his head. "If he'd hit me in the stomach, I'd probably throw up," Tomashek described.

The title for the heavyweight champion did not last long for Morrison. He failed to defend the WBO belt in a subsequent fight with Michael Bentt, who finished Morrison in the first round, and when he won the minor IBC belt in a memorable fight with Donovan Ruddock in 1995, he lost it again in a subsequent fight with one of the most famous boxers in history, Lenox Lewis. He finished Morrison in the sixth round.


Source: Getty Images/Tim de Frisco/Allsport


I lived a wild, wild life. (...) I hope my example will serve as a warning that such a lifestyle leads only to suffering.

Tests positive for HIV


However, belt losses or suffered knockouts are not the biggest blow that marked the boxer's career. Before an upcoming game in 1996, Tommy Morrison tested positive for HIV. Another test that Morrison underwent a few days later was also positive. According to his words, he did not know how he contracted the virus, but attributed it to his lifestyle and the frequent changes of sexual partners.

It was also right before a fight that could potentially pave the way for a rumored mega-fight with Mike Tyson, which would earn him millions of dollars.

“I lived a wild, wild life. (...) I hope my example will serve as a warning that such a lifestyle leads only to suffering. I was stupid. I thought I was bulletproof, but I'm not,” Morrison lamented shortly after announcing his diagnosis.


Tommy Morrison also stated that he decided to speak publicly about his health problem because if his case could make at least one person have a more responsible approach to sex, he would consider it his biggest win in life. It is said that he himself was not informed enough about how he could become infected with the malicious virus.

“I really thought there was a better chance of winning the lottery than getting infected. I've never been so wrong. The only one hundred percent prevention is (sexual) abstinence. This disease does not choose, that is now abundantly clear to me. It doesn't matter if you live in a drug-ridden ghetto or on a ranch in Oklahoma. It's something that can jump up and bite you no matter where you are, and it doesn't matter what color your skin is," Morrison said.

The boxer even founded the charity organization KnockOut AIDS Foundation and expressed his wish to stand in the ring one last time and donate the proceeds from the fight to the fight against HIV. However, he was not granted a license in America, although he was taking medication to reduce the viral load in his body. He was however given the option to fight in Japan under the condition that the match be stopped immediately if blood started to flow. He knocked out his opponent in the first round and raised about 500 thousand dollars for his foundation.


Source: Getty Images/Mark Morrison/Allsport


I'd rather believe a lawyer than some doctor.

Denial of infection and unprotected sex

However, Morrison changed his attitude towards his diagnosis quite quickly. To the surprise of all the other boxers, he stated that his earlier tests were false negatives and that he never had HIV. Among other things, the famous basketball player "Magic" Johnson became infected with the HIV virus, and spoke publicly about his infection in 1991 and tried to help Morrison after his diagnosis, but the boxer did not listen to his words.

“I spoke to Magic the same day I announced I had HIV. He told me to listen to my doctor. But I had none, so I got down on my knees and prayed every day that God would tell me what to do. I saw myself dying. Then books started arriving in my inbox that said 'Don't worry about it, just live your life'. So that's exactly what I did," he declared.

About the fact that he is not infected with the HIV virus, Morrison did not only convince himself and the public, but also his wife. In 1997, a year after the diagnosis, the boxer declared that he was still having unprotected sex with his first wife. He didn't even use protection with his last wife, Trisha, who confirmed it herself. "I'd rather believe a lawyer than a doctor," declared the boxer.


Prison and controversial return to boxing

In the years following his diagnosis, however, Morrison's life took a rather steep decline. He earned around $12 million in his career but squandered most of it. He also got into trouble with the law, drugs and ended up behind bars.

In September 1999, the police stopped him and found prohibited narcotics and weapons in his car, only a few months later he was arrested again - again with drugs and a gun. In the past, he was also prosecuted for driving under the influence of alcohol, during which he injured three people. In 2000, he was sentenced to two years in prison.


I can't wait to get out (of prison) and fight somebody. I want to fight the whole world, the system, everyone.


Even after his imprisonment, he insisted on his innocence. “I was hanging out with the wrong people. They were drug dealers, but I didn't know that about them. I was simply at the wrong place at the wrong time," claimed the boxer. He himself has never been a user of hard drugs and only smoked marijuana. He blamed others for his imprisonment


Similarly, he continued to claim that he was healthy. In his own words, he always was. “HIV does not cause AIDS, it never did. This whole pandemic is made up, it's a government conspiracy," Morrison said, adding that only drug users sharing dirty needles could have contracted the virus. Not him.

Despite his stay in prison, where he spent 125 days in solitary confinement, and the fact that no one wanted to grant him a license in the United States, he did not want to give up boxing at any cost. “The heavyweight division needs me. (...) I can't wait to get out of there and fight someone. I want to fight the whole world, the system, everyone. I want to fight. That's why I'm here - to fight," he said from behind bars.



When he got out of prison, he kept his word and went back to training. “I was one of the most famous boxers of my time. And this time it will be even more spectacular," he looked forward to his return. But it again brought a dose of controversy.

In early 2007, Morrison was retested for HIV and came back negative, allowing him to face John Castle in the ring a month later, whom he finished in the second round. Allegations later surfaced that the negative test results were not from Morrison's own blood and that the boxer had falsified the tested samples. He denied it and suggested that he get tested again in public. But that didn't happen.

The last time Morrison stepped into the ring was in February 2008 in Mexico, despite voices in America calling for the infected boxer not to be allowed to fight in the country. They were not heard and the boxer entered the fight. He won his last fight by knockout in the third round.


Source: Getty Images/Dan Tuffs


My son is falling apart. (...) He looks just like the people who got out of a concentration camp.

Last days of life

In August 2013, Tommy Morrison's mother announced that her son had "full-blown AIDS" and was in his "last days of his life". There was no longer any hope of recovery. "It's in its last stages," she said. She spoke to her son on the phone before his death, but as she said, she stopped trying to convince him to fight his condition because she wanted him to be able to leave this world in peace. "He refused to accept the truth since he got infected," Morrison's mother said.

The boxer's father Tim also spoke about how difficult looking at his son was in this final period of his life. The former boxer spent his last year in bed and he changed beyond recognition. He lost tens of kilos of muscle. “My son is falling apart. It looks just like AIDS or cancer patients. He looks just like the people who got out of the concentration camp. He was always bright and intelligent, but now out of the blue he stops talking, stops and says, 'What did I say?'" the father described his son's condition.


Tommy Morrison died on September 1, 2013, aged 44. The official cause of death was cardiac arrest due to multiple organ failing, following a septic shock. According to the death certificate, the former boxer suffered from a blood infection, but the HIV virus or AIDS, which this virus causes, were not explicitly mentioned.


"The Duke" has achieved impressive feats throughout his professional career, holding a world belt and delivering a long line of spectacular knockouts that belong in boxing's showcase. He can't be denied that. But his personal life outside the ring is a cautionary tale of how a tragic downfall can befall a person due to his own decisions. After all, as Tommy Morrison himself once said, others should learn from his mistakes.

"He could have been huge, he had a gift from God. (...) But he never fully utilized his potential," promoter Tony Holden, who worked with Tommy Morrison during his career, described the boxer's tragic downfall.

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Thumbnail: Getty Images/Allsport UK /Allsport
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