Tommy Morrison's latest big fight
In a house on the edge of a dead-end road, an old woman waits for her son to die. The call will come any day now, she says, and when it does, she wants her youngest boy to be buried in Sulphur Springs, Ark., with the rest of the family. She dreads and hopes for this call, if that makes any sense. Only none of it makes sense.
Diana Morrison crushes a Pall Mall, lights another and dissects her son's fate. She's matter-of-fact about it, barely emotional, perhaps because Tommy Morrison, former World Boxing Organization champion, former HIV cautionary tale, has stared at death before. But this time it's different.
She says he has full-blown AIDS. She believes he's in his final days. His skin is jaundiced; his liver is failing. "He's too far gone," she says, flashing an incredulous look when asked whether he could recover. "He's in the end stages. That's it." She says Morrison has been bedridden for a year, can't speak and is being kept alive with the help of a feeding tube and a ventilator.
"I talk to him on the phone," she says. "I tell him that the family loves him, he's always in our prayers. What can you say to him? I don't tell him to keep fighting or nothing, because I want him to go."
She is interrupted by her ex-husband, who's living with her now because he's had a couple of strokes. Tim Morrison wraps his arms around Diana, and she tells him to go lie down, but he keeps pacing around the house with a blank look on his face.
It's the middle of the afternoon, but the house is dark. Diana lights another cigarette. She is slight but imposing, harsh but sentimental; she's a woman with tattoos on her arm and her great-granddaughter's pink bike parked outside the house.
Diana gets up off her chair and searches for proof of her son's status, pulling down a picture from the wall. It captures one of the last times she saw her son. She's not good with dates, and can't remember when it was taken, but Tommy is thin, gray-bearded -- barely recognizable as the strapping, confident man from six years ago who swore he was not HIV-positive and vowed a comeback. In the photo on the wall, he looks lost.
It's been about a year since she last saw him. It's complicated. She just had back surgery; he's been shuffled to various health care facilities in at least three states. She says she doesn't have the money to leave her house in Aurora, Mo., and drive hundreds of miles to see him. There's tension between her and Morrison's wife, Trisha, and at the moment, it seems thick. In her heart, Diana believes her daughter-in-law loves Tommy, but is keeping him alive through extraordinary means. She says Tommy wouldn't want it this way.
She says Trisha, like Tommy, doesn't believe he has HIV.
"Tommy blowed smoke up her butt about it," Diana Morrison says. "He's been in denial ever since he's had it. So he's blown smoke up her rear end and got her believing."
The women communicate daily by text. It's easier that way. Diana says he's in a hospital somewhere in Nebraska. Morrison's wife, reached by phone, declines to say where he is. She doesn't want the hospital to be inundated with reporters and visitors. "He is somewhere," she says, and adds that she is touching his arm as we speak. She says he was to have surgery Thursday to replace a gastrointestinal tube. She is steadfast that his illness is not HIV-related.
Since Feb. 10, 1996, when the Nevada Athletic Commission said Morrison tested positive for HIV before a fight, the 44-year-old has spent most of his days dodging the diagnosis. And now Trisha Morrison, who married Tommy two years ago, is carrying on that battle. She says both of them question whether the virus exists in him, and if it exists at all.
She says Morrison's health issues began more than a year and a half ago, when a doctor left a 12-foot piece of surgical gauze in his chest for eight days. She declines to name the hospital or doctor, only that it happened in Tennessee. Things got worse, she says, when he contracted Guillain-Barré Syndrome, an ailment in which the immune system attacks the peripheral nervous system. She says Morrison has the rare Miller Fisher variant, which manifests as a descending paralysis.
She has hope, but it's all up to Tommy now, she says. God and Tommy. She hangs up the phone, and texts a photo of a gift she says Tommy gave her before he got sick. It's a picture of a heart-shaped piece of wood, and on it is a handwritten note.
"Don't give up on me!!" it says.
I've been fascinated by Morrison since I met him in 2006. He was in Arizona that fall, training for a return to the ring, a comeback he said would be so great that if it were a movie, it'd be a combination of "Rocky," "Rudy" and "Slap Shot." He drove like a bat out of hell through the streets of Phoenix that day, getting lost on numerous occasions. He said HIV was a conspiracy by the government, that his positive test was possibly the evil work of a rival promoter.
The day was confusing, entertaining, uncomfortable and weird. At one point, at a Hooters, he pulled his shorts partway down to show off an Elvis tattoo on his hip. By the end of the interview, I had more questions than answers. That's the way it's always been with Morrison.
He starred in "Rocky V," spent part of his fortune on pet monkeys and at least one mountain lion and was once married to two women at the same time. Two years ago, in one of his last interviews, he told The Kansas City Star a story about how he teleported himself out of a bar to avoid a fight.
So it's no surprise that the journey to find Tommy Morrison -- and to find out what exactly is wrong with him -- is nowhere near cohesive. There are tales of chest implants and phantom graves and a dark abyss of drugs and unfulfilled dreams.
There is a general sense of impermanence to his life. He's lived in Tulsa. Wichita. Kansas City. He had an address in Pigeon Forge, Tenn., also known as the home of Dollywood.
Morrison made at least $10 million during his boxing career, according to his family and a former promoter, but now has next to nothing. In a financial affidavit filed in September 2011, months after he was charged with possession of marijuana and drug paraphernalia -- the charges later were dropped -- he wrote in scribbled cursive that he did not own a home or a car. On the line that asked about his employment, he checked self-employed.
"Athlete," he wrote.
His last known job was running a gym called TCB -- Taking Care of Business, which is also the motto Elvis used in the last years of his life. It was 2010. Morrison was featured in The Wichita Business Journal, hobnobbing with the mayor and a handful of old boxers who came for the gym's opening. He promised to work with inner-city kids and teach them his sport. He was still training -- still hoping -- for a comeback that year, even though he was 41.
The 3,000-square-foot space was donated by developer Rob Snyder, who told the local paper that he was skeptical but was rooting that Morrison would succeed because it would do great good for the kids in the community.
Morrison had left Wichita by late 2011 and was living in Tennessee when he was taken into custody and transported to Kansas to face the drug charges. When his mug shot was released, boxing fans were startled by his appearance. He was bald and gaunt and barely recognizable. Morrison's uncle Troy, an anesthesiologist in the state of Washington, was floored when he saw the photo. He says his nephew looked homeless and 60 years old in the picture.
"When I saw him two years ago, he was still of the mindset that he was going to launch a comeback," Troy Morrison says. "I didn't want to deflate that, but I didn't want to encourage it, either. I just tried to change the subject and play along with it. I think he was living in a fantasy world for a while. I think at some point reality slammed him in the face, and that's when he poured the depression and everything into drugs and alcohol, and that accelerated the disease process.
"You know, I think it's very lonely where he's at right now."
The number for TCB Boxing Gym was at some point disconnected, and now belongs to a man who says he's never heard of it. By 2012, Tommy Morrison had slipped off the grid, and his fans knew something was wrong. Gordon Berry, an ex-amateur boxer from Maine, was so concerned that he did a search of Tennessee's vital records out of fear that Morrison had died.
Berry used to love watching film of Morrison's fights in the 1990s, and one day figured, What the heck, why not send Tommy a message on Facebook? Morrison replied, and they talked about boxing and comebacks and even texted each other occasionally. When the communication stopped, Berry knew it wasn't a case of an athlete blowing off a fan. Morrison loved interacting with his fans. Maybe they brought him back to a better time. Maybe they made that time seem closer.
"I think if he let everyone know he's all right, it would be great," Berry wrote in an email, "or if he's not [and] needs help, I think he'd be surprised at the boxing [community's] concern for him, people would love to help him out."
His closest friends paint Morrison as a man with good intentions and questionable judgment. One of them declined to talk for this story unless Morrison approved the interview, then suggested that there was no way he'd approve the interview.
He'd hate for people to know he was sick. Or weak. Years ago, his mother said, he got pectoral implants to make himself look bigger and stronger. Those implants became infected -- hence the chest surgery in late 2011 -- and had to be removed.
Ask 10 people why Morrison has tried to run from his HIV diagnosis all these years, and you might get 20 different answers. Accepting it meant giving up boxing. Accepting it, back then at least, meant he was going to die.
Morrison grew up in Jay, a northeast Oklahoma town with a population of about 2,500. He always considered himself a country boy at heart. There was a time, at the height of his career, when he was on "The Tonight Show" with Jay Leno. He went to a bar with Sylvester Stallone after the show, then Stallone asked Morrison and his promoter, Tony Holden, to come back to his house. Morrison eyed the scene, the celebrities and the swooning fans, and decided to go back to his hotel. When he got in the car, he told Holden, "You know, this is a lot of fun, Tony. But this isn't us. Let's go back to Oklahoma."
There was once a sign at the town's city limit proudly welcoming folks to the home of WBO heavyweight champ Tommy Morrison, but then just after after his HIV diagnosis, it reportedly was taken down. It made Morrison feel isolated.
To the people of Jay, HIV was something that happened thousands of miles away. It was a different time. In some places, it was still known as "the gay plague."
"Tommy had a hard time with it back then," Holden says. "People wouldn't shake his hand, wouldn't come close to him, wouldn't let babies next to him. And I saw that, and you took a kid from this height of stardom, being in movies, to the point where everyone wanted to be Morrison's friend to the point where, man, nobody wanted to be in the same room with him.
"I witnessed it. And it was heartbreaking."
Holden was the one who broke the news to Morrison that he'd tested positive for HIV in February 1996, hours before he was supposed to fight Arthur "Stormy" Weathers in a tuneup for an eagerly anticipated bout with Mike Tyson. Holden says the man with the Nevada Athletic Commission who informed him of Morrison's test results had tears in his eyes.
He was 27 years old and had just signed a contract that, according to previous Morrison interviews, guaranteed him three fights and $38 million. And with that test, the guarantees were gone. He called his mother. "Come home," she told him, then advised him to take another HIV test. That one also was positive.
His life before that was a decadent stream of parties, limos and sex that would've made Keith Richards blush. His life after that appeared lonely. He once lent/gave large sums of money to his entourage, a group that shared copious amounts of booze and women with him as he prowled the bars of Westport in Kansas City. That group of friends, Holden says, disappeared once the money was gone.
Morrison, who's 6 years younger than Holden, was like a little brother Holden wanted to hug and smack upside the head. He tried repeatedly to get Morrison to save his money, to be careful. Holden and trainer Tom Virgets used to take Morrison to all-male military academies to train so he'd lay off the women and the bars. After the diagnosis, Holden tried to get his friend to take care of himself. He took him to Dr. David Ho, who treated Magic Johnson for the disease.
"Tommy bought into it at first, and then did some research," Holden said. "And then he went into the direction that he didn't have it, that it doesn't exist."
And so after his tearful news conference, after he confirmed he was HIV-positive and blamed it on a reckless lifestyle, after he promised to get in touch with anyone he'd come in contact with -- sparring partners, and especially the young ladies -- Morrison did a complete about-face.
Holden said Morrison quickly had a change of heart after doing research on the Internet. He concluded that HIV was a conspiracy, and that the doctors were "quacks." He said the tests were false positives. He staged a comeback in 2007, tested negative for HIV, but questions swirled over whether the blood was actually his.
Holden is one of the few people who stuck around for his friend. He says Tommy was loyal to him back in the 1990s, when other bigger promoters tried to snatch him away. Now Holden won't leave him. There was a little spat a few years ago, when Morrison wanted to fight again, and Holden was strongly against it. But they're fine now. "Here's the thing," he says. "I believe in HIV; he doesn't. We both know where we stand."
Holden declines to say whether he communicates with Morrison right now, but he does check in with Trisha every other day.
"I know that sometimes there's a rift, sometimes not, with the family and Trisha," he says. "But I will say this: His wife has been by his side, 24/7, every day. She's always there for him. Every time I call, she's with him."
Trisha Morrison says she met Tommy in 2008, but then again, maybe it was 2009. It was whenever the documentary "House of Numbers" played at the Tallgrass Film Festival in Wichita. Trisha says she was working at a hotel in Wichita then, and Morrison, who happened to be staying at that hotel, asked whether she'd go to the film with him.
"House of Numbers" is a controversial film about HIV and AIDS that the New York Times once called "a weaselly support pamphlet for AIDS denialists." Tommy, according to Trisha, watched the documentary with his mouth wide open. He told her that he's been saying the same things about HIV for years, but nobody believed him.
Before she met Morrison, Trisha didn't have a lot of thoughts on HIV or AIDS. She used to believe that a person had to "be careful" around HIV patients. But then she did her own research. She goes on about how she wants to see a real picture of the virus, not just a computer-generated image.
Dr. Richard Haubrich, a professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of California San Diego, said that there are photos of HIV using scanning electron microscopes.
"HIV," Haubrich said in an email, "is the best documented infection there is."
But Trisha is resolute. She forwards an email to ESPN.com with Morrison's viral load levels. She sends a text that says HIV tests on the market do not detect HIV infection. She refers to Dr. Robert Gallo, the man known for his role in the discovery of HIV as the infectious agent responsible for AIDS, as "the biggest medical fraud in history."
Trisha adds that she's had unprotected sex with Morrison.
She does a lot of research. She knew of Tommy's past via Google. When they met, one of the first things she told him was that she's never done drugs, has no body piercings, and has never been a hooker or a stripper. She felt like she had to get that out there after everything she'd read.
She says Morrison looked at her and said, "You're the type of person I'm looking for."
Morrison's wife says she came to the United States in the early 1990s to work in the tourism industry. She, too, was once an athlete, an accomplished tennis player in her youth. In an article on the Sundridge Park tennis club website in England, she's listed under "Famous members." The article says Trisha played on the tennis circuit, and once took three games off former French Open champion Sue Barker. "However," the article says, "when she was beaten at Kent by Anthea Cooper, she did not like the feeling and gave up competitive tennis."
Trisha denies that she stopped playing competitively because of that loss.
"You have to devote yourself 100 percent to it," she says. "I had other stuff I was doing."
Trisha says she's known who Morrison was since 1993, when she was in Las Vegas. She was trying to book hotels for clients, but all the rooms were gone. She later found out why: Morrison was fighting George Foreman that week.
She says she isn't with him because he was in "Rocky V," and she isn't a groupie. She was drawn to him because he has a kind soul. Because he's an emotional guy. A decent guy. She says she's going to read Morrison this story while he lies in his hospital bed.
She disagrees with Diana Morrison on a number of things, but makes a point, in a later text, that Tommy loves his mother very much. She says he would always call her every time they flew somewhere. She says she doesn't believe she's keeping him alive through extraordinary measures.
"You never give up hope, right?" she says. "And you never give up. That's him, too."
When Morrison was in jail for the drug charges, Trisha made an appeal to his fans to donate money for his bail. She concedes that they are struggling financially but quashes rumors that she is writing a book. There is a book that Tommy wrote that is sitting on their computer from a while back, she says, waiting to be published. It's called, "My Darkest Years."
She says Tommy wrote it by speaking into a handheld recorder, and then Trisha typed it out for him, and he proofread it.
"I haven't got time to write a book," she says. "I'm not out to profit on any of this. I'm with him 24/7, taking care of him."
But back in Missouri, Morrison family members believe they have reason to be wary. They think she will write a tell-all book that will paint an unflattering picture of the family.
They know that there's plenty of material out there already. It's been written, many times, that Morrison's dad, Tim, was abusive, that he'd get drunk and beat Tommy and Diana, that he was a perpetual philanderer until she finally left him. It's also widely known that Morrison's brother, Tim Jr., spent 15 years in prison for rape. And four decades ago, Diana was acquitted of a murder charge.
Tommy's brother says he doesn't mind if his past is mentioned "because that's public record. I don't care. But she's been listening to the delusions of a guy whose mind don't work right."
Tim Jr. -- he's called Timmy by his family -- is visibly frustrated by his brother's condition and his inability to do anything about it. He was the one who used to take care of his little brother, who watched to make sure people treated him right. Tim was a fighter, too. He was in a hotel in Boise, Idaho, in 1992, the night after a fight, when he watched Tommy, with a broken jaw and a busted hand, go nine rounds to beat Joe Hipp. Tim was so proud of Tommy that night.
But Tim went to jail when he was 28, and got out at 43. His boxing dreams were over, so he did construction work. About four or five years ago, Tommy was short on money, so Tim hired him to work on a construction project he was overseeing. Construction was not exactly Tommy's thing.
"Basically, I paid him to hang around," Tim says. "I mean, we were working on a house, and I get up there and say, 'Paint this side of that door,' and he climbed up the ladder and said, 'Ahh, I can't do these heights.' He sat in the truck."
Tommy struggled to find a niche outside of boxing. He was so used to having people take care of things for him, Tim says. If he was lonely or sad, the brothers never talked about it. They were raised in a household where men don't cry, stuff happens and you handle your business and go on. The closest they ever got to talking in depth about Tommy's fall from grace was Tim telling his brother, "Kind of a bad deal," and Tommy replying, "Yeah, I know what you mean."
The last time he saw his brother was roughly a year ago. He says it took Tommy 10 minutes to figure out who he was. Tim says he doesn't visit Tommy anymore because Tim just gets angry. He acts tough and shrugs when asked about his brother's fate, and says everybody has to die sometime. But he clutches onto his lapdog named Jezebel during part of the conversation.
His dad was bound for a nursing home after the strokes, but the family couldn't stand for that. "I still love him," Diana says. So she took him back in, and together, Tim and Diana take care of Tim Sr., who walks with small steps.
Tim Sr. has a glass eye. His eye was gouged many years ago at work. People close to the family speculate that Tim Sr. lost his way as a young man, on a construction site, when his older brother was crushed by a blade, and Tim held him in his arms as he lay dying. That brother's name was Tom.
When he was younger, Tommy wanted to be a jail warden, his family says. No one is quite sure why. Tim says he could've been anything. He would've been a great comedian. With his wit and looks, he could've been a TV analyst, if he'd only kept his conspiracy theories to himself.
Diana loves boxing -- she used to corner for her sons and taped their hands -- but her favorite Tommy story has nothing to do with that. He was 3, maybe 4 years old. His daddy had just bought a car, a shiny, new-to-them Lincoln, and Tommy was outside playing in his cute little bib overalls. He ran inside and said, "Dad, I filled your car up." They went outside. They saw the garden hose.
She still smiles when she tells that story, still picturing Tommy smiling and running his thumbs through his overalls.
"He was always a mama's boy," she says.
Tommy has three sons of his own, two who are adults now. His oldest, Trey, has considered taking up boxing. Trey recently called Tony Holden and said he wants to meet up and talk about his dad. He wants to know about the old days, when his dad was a superstar.
Holden is eager to tell him about a man he was so close to, he made him best man at his wedding.
"I think he knows he screwed up," Holden says, "and probably didn't get the chance to spend the time he wanted to with his boys. But he sure cherished them, and loved being around those kids."
When Tommy is gone, Morrison's family hopes he's remembered as a person, and not just a personality. Tim Morrison says Tommy brought a lot of excitement back to boxing. He says he was human.
"Try being 20 and a millionaire," Tim says. "You're not always going to make the most wise decisions. Tommy was way too young to have all the money and fame that he had. That was his whole problem.
"He had the world by the balls. And he blew it."
Years after they watched him fight on pay-per-view, the Morrisons sit in a single-story house with worn-out floors and tales. Diana was so scared before his first professional fight. She covered her eyes for part of the time. She once charged toward a referee when Morrison was getting beaten to a pulp and the ref wouldn't call the fight. She knew when he'd had enough.
Some days, Diana says, Trisha puts the phone up to Tommy's ear and Diana can hear him breathing. She wonders why he's still hanging on.
"I think he's waiting for me to tell him it's OK to go," she says. "I want to tell him, 'Your family is going to be fine. Your sons are fine. And I'll be fine.'"