Redneck resplendent in flowing purple harem pants, a tight black T-shirt, boxing boots, and designer shades, Tommy Morrison charges past the pardon our appearance sign in the lobby of Houston’s decrepit Grand Plaza Hotel looking for an answer. “I’ve put up with this shit for a decade,” he yells, the veins in his neck bulging. “I’m so sick of it.”
It’s Friday Fight Night in the grand ballroom, where 1,000 fans are expecting Tommy “the Duke” Morrisonthe “Great White Hope,” the great-grandnephew of John Wayne, the costar of Rocky Vin the ring three fights from now. But Morrison is stuck in a nightmare, the same one he found himself in 11 years ago.
They won’t let Morrison in the ringsomething about his blood work. “The doctor who did his medical exam told me yesterday Tommy was good to go,” Dick Cole, the boxing administrator of the Texas Department of Licensing and Regulation, says, shrugging at ringside. “He just didn’t get the paperwork to me on time today.”
The bell for an undercard bout sounds. Charging past Conference Room B, where a dozen fighters are taping up, Morrison looks ready for any fight he can get tonight. His trainer, Jerry Cheatham, and his strength coach, Mike Munoz, slow him down, talking urgently in his ear, until finally he’s at least calm enough to get paid for the canceled fight without punching someone. Welcome to the exile of Tommy Morrison, two-time heavyweight world champion, hoping to make a comeback at 38. There’s just this little matter of his blood work standing in the way. In 1996 he was told he’d tested positive for HIV during a prefight medical exam, and his nightmare began. Banished from his sport, driven from his hometown of Jay, Oklahoma, he drifted toward oblivion: across four states, three marriages, seven DUIs, arrests for drugs and weapons possession, and inevitably prison. “Fourteen months, eight days, six hours, 46 minutes,” he’s quick to say; 125 of those days, he’s not so quick to mention, were in the psych ward of the Southwest Arkansas Community Punishment Center in Texarkana.
Things would go easier for Morrison if he would accept his condition and yield to prevailing authorities, to science, and to reason. “But Tommy,” says Brian Elder, a childhood friend, “has never been accused of listening too hard.” Six days after his diagnosis, Morrison held a press conference in which he speculated that he’d contracted the virus from an HIV-positive fighter or through unprotected sex. He got a referral from Magic Johnsonthe AIDS-cocktail poster childfor HIV specialist Dr. David Ho, who’d later be named Time’s “Man of the Year.” In the years since, however, he’s been advancing every other explanation for his diagnosis: That it was a conspiracy to keep the undisputed world championship out of a white man’s hands, to help Don King “make gazillions out of the sport once I was out of the way.” That his positive result came from steroid abuse, not the unprotected sex Morrison was notorious for, and that “heterosexuals can’t transmit the virus.” That HIV is “an invented virus” making money for the drug industry. (“There’s no money in a cure,” Morrison says, “but there is money in treatment.”) That the antiretroviral drug AZT, not HIV, causes AIDS. That he was tested for antibodies, but not for the presence of HIV itselfthe viral-load testwhich Morrison claims to have passed repeatedly in recent years.