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Rematch: Tommy Morrison is Surviving
What's worse, prison or HIV? He'll tell you prison. He'll tell you prison'll kill you before any virus. He hears it all the time: Ain't you dead? Ain't you dead yet?
But it's not the HIV that almost got him, it's that "Hitler bitch" in Texarkana, where they left him to rot in the hole. He was locked up for 14 months, 8 days, 6 hours and 46 minutes, and he says they had him in the hole for 3 months, 25 days, 3 hours and 2 minutes of it. He says they put him in a metal box, and lit it up with a floodlight. Lit it up 24/7.
That'll burn your eyes, all right. He can't sleep to save his life now unless he wears a triple-layered blindfoldotherwise, light gets in. It may be imaginary light, but it gets the hell in.
That's how much they screwed him up in there. HIV never cost him one second of sleep (so he says), but prison infected him with hate. Prison had him so ticked off that when he got out, he says he thought about making some bombs and blowing up the place: "I was goin' back down to Texarkana. I was gonna take care of business."
But payback will have to wait. Maybe forever. And that's the poignant thing: This former heavyweight champion can maybe think about forever.
Five years ago, when The Magazine profiled him in its inaugural issue, Tommy Morrison was wasting away. His T-cell count had dropped to 3. (Normal is 700-1,000. Under 200 is considered AIDS.) He was doing crank. He refused to take his HIV pills. He was married to two women at once. He refused to use condoms. He carried a gun.
Five years ago, Tommy Morrison was a dead man. A dead man, guaranteed. A bevy of doctors refused to treat him back then, telling him if he didn't take his medication, it was no use, no use at all. Boy, would he like to see them now.
Five years later, he's got some news. Some breathtaking news. And it's not that he's still here, because he still thinks HIV's a crock. And it's not that he's at his former fighting weight of 225 pounds, because that's partly due to the prescription steroids he takes. And it's not that his T-cell count is now 371, because he's not at all proud of that. No, Tommy Morrison has some other news. News he wants to tell you, your neighbor, that "Hitler bitch" and the Centers for Disease Control:
The wife is pregnant.
So this pretty much postpones the obit.
"Bet that pisses people off," Morrison says. He now lives 100 miles east of Nashville, in a modest home he keeps colder than an icebox. His wifehe's down to one nowwalks around all day with a blanket, because even in the dead of winter, the AC's jacked up. The room temperature has to be 62°, and his only explanation is he's hot-blooded. And he drinks too much black coffee.
But a home is a home, and fact is, he could be living in a cave right now. Five years ago, he bought an acre of land with a cave on it because he thought the world was going to end at the stroke of midnight, Y2K. He would need a strong roof over his head, and this cave, at the foot of a mountain in Flippin, Ark., was going to be it.
Except he spent Y2K in the county jail.
Sometimes possession of drugs and guns gets you 14 months, and sometimes possession of drugs and guns gets your life straightened out. In Tommy Morrison's case, it somehow did both. He went to jail in December 1999 strung out and weighing 190, and he walked out in February 2001 weighing 225 and carrying a box of pills.
It's taken him five years to reinvent himself, and the journey's included a tough judge, two Dawn Morrisons, three different prisons and an episode of Montel Williams' show. The HIV in Morrison's system is undetectable now, according to Dr. Stanley Bodner, a Nashville physician who sees Morrison every other month. Morrison, now 34, claims he's healthy because he's eating right; Bodner says it's because Morrison's on HIV meds. Either way, we can call off the deathwatch.
"You owe me an apology," Tommy says.
And he owes us an explanation.
Beating George Foreman for the WBO title in 1993 doesn't carry any weight. Neither does going 4631 with 40 KOs. Not in the joint.
On Sept. 16, 1999, traffic cops in Fayetteville, Ark., arrested Tommy Morrison after discovering cocaine, drug paraphernalia and a gun in his Corvette. He was arrested again in November for marijuana possession and public intoxication. Deeming Morrison a flight risk, a circuit court judge revoked bail on Dec. 21 and ordered him to the county jail pending trial. In January 2000, Morrison pled guilty to four felony charges and was sentenced to 10 years (eight suspended).
Local prison officials in Fayetteville say that, from the start, they kept Morrison isolated so he could have access to nurses and medication. Says deputy Jak Kimball: "I remember thinking, 'This guy looks awful.' "
Morrison remembers thinking, I gotta get outta here. So he spit his dinner into a cup to make it look like puke. He drew dark circles under his eyes with cigarette butts. He groaned loudly. His boy Sly Stallone, who made him a star in Rocky V, would have been proud of the acting job. The guards bought it, and after 35 days, Morrison was sent to a hospital. ("How would I know he was faking?" Kimball says. "I'm not a doctor.")
Morrison was subsequently transferred downstate to the Southwest Arkansas Community Correction Center in Texarkana, a converted hospital that houses multiple drug offenders and felons convicted of nonviolent crimes. "That's the place," Morrison says, "where I got tortured."
On his arrival in Texarkana, Morrison was sent to the Special Needs floor for evaluation, and admits now, "I wasn't playing their game, and they didn't like it." The floor supervisor was a taciturn woman of German descent whom Morrison called "Hitler." Morrison says she was "the sadistic bitch" who almost broke him.
"To qualify for this floor," he says, "you had to be mentally retarded, mentally and physically handicapped, schizophrenic. Half the guys walked around spitting and drooling on themselves. They kept me there to screw with my head."
Prison officials say they suspected Morrison was hooked on methamphetamine. Morrison denied it, which exacerbated matters. "I never had a drug problem," he says. "I just fooled around with drugs a little. After I retired, I figured, 'I'll find out what the big deal is.' But that was it."
Morrison says the more the prison pushed, the more he got "kind of a bad attitude." He says they kept sending him to the box115 days worthfor trumped up reasons. He says guards planted contraband in his room, and that he even got one 30-day stint in isolation for agreeing to send a female guard an autographed poster.
The warden, Daniel McGuinness, denies Morrison's charges. He says "the hole" was merely slang for the cell used for administrative segregation, and that Morrison was segregated at times, but never with the lights on 24/7 and or in a metal box. "Mr. Morrison was real resistant," the warden says. "He didn't like being told what to do. He wanted to be treated special. He had trouble following rules."
And the "Hitler bitch"? "We've had former inmates write to her, thanking her," McGuinness says. "Maybe it was a personality thing with Morrison. He didn't like what she forced him to do, but I don't see why that makes her a 'Hitler'. That's comical to me. I don't know where he comes up with this, but consider the source."
Other prison employees considered Morrison delusional. "They don't call 'em personality disorders for nothing," says a worker who saw a lot of Morrison during that time. "The guy didn't think he had HIV or a drug problem. Come on, he's got no credibility. There are some metal rooms in here now, and they do keep the lights on at night. But the rooms on his floor don't even have bars on the doors. There's not even a fence outside. This place is kindergarten compared to a real prison."
The boxer points to his tired eyes, eyes he says got fried in the hole, eyes he's underlined with permanent tattoos, and says they're all lying: "McGuinness is a puppet. They put me in the hole to break me. You're talking a metal box, in the middle of the summer. I was convinced they were never going to let me out. I was in that place with 300 people, but I felt completely alone."
And the question was, which wife was going to show up on visitors day?
Not only were there two wivesthere were two Dawns. ("At least you'll always call out the right name in bed," his daddy told him.)
Tommy met the firstDawn Freemanat his high school in Jay, Okla., and predicted he'd marry the blonde someday. It took him eight years to get it done, but the problem was he got distracted during the chase.
On July 4, 1994, while he was still wooing Freeman, he met another blonde at a lake party. When she told him her name was Dawn Gilbert, Morrison turned to his drunk buddies and howled, "Guys! This is Dawwwwwwwn!"
"Everyone was like, Wooooooo!'" Dawn Gilbert says. "I was like, 'What's that about?'"
Fairly soon, it became a love triangle. Morrison would refer to Dawn Freeman as D1 and Dawn Gilbert as D2, and the two women essentially split the boxer in half. D1 lived with him in Jay, and D2 lived with him in Tulsa; D2 got him while he was training during the week; D1 got him on weekends. "Wore my butt out," he says.
By the time he learned of his HIV, on Feb. 10, 1996, both women were aware of each other. On the morning of Morrison's HIV press conference in Tulsa, D2 left a love note on Morrison's bed that D1 found first. Now at her wit's end, D1 invited D2 over to Morrison's apartment, and D2 showed up and spilled everything. "I wanted to pick up the coffee table and smash her with it," D1 says. Morrison arrived later and calmed both women down, but he knew he would have to pick one.
In some ways, the HIV revelation had forced his hand. He wanted a legal partner now, and he chose D1 on a whim. He even got a tattoo of D1's face on his upper back with the caption, Dawn 'You Sexy Bitch' Morrison. They were married on May 18, 1996, in Las Vegas. When D2 found out, she says she had a "nervous breakdown" that sent her to a hospital for three days.
So a guilty Morrison started seeing D2 again, and they got married in Tijuana on Sept. 17, 1996. Their witness was a taxi driver. ("Raul," Tommy recalls.) "Don't ask me what we were thinking," D2 says. "It was a stupid, stupid move."
Eventually, D1 caught on. One day D2 called their house and the name "Dawn Morrison" showed up on Caller ID. Another time, when D1 stopped at a Tulsa Quik Stop, the attendant said, "That's funny. Another Dawn Morrison was in here the other day. Looked just like you."
The bigamy went on for two years, but enough was enough. "It was driving me wild," Tommy says. "I couldn't lie anymore." So, in the summer of 1998, he took D1 to a crowded restaurantto avoid a sceneand broke the news. He asked if she'd ever trust him again. She said no, but he split with D2 and tried to make a go of it with D1.
They moved to Fayetteville and stayed together one more year, but it was all show. He says they were still having unprotected sexlike alwaysbut Morrison would be gone for three days at a time, saying he was "depressed" and "lost." With his T-cell count at 3, family members assumed he was succumbing to AIDS. "I would actually make carrot juice and go looking for him," says D1, "because I knew he wasn't eating."
She asked if he was on methamphetamine. He denied it, vehemently. "Tom started hanging out with people who were into crank, and he let it get out of control," D1 says. "I could see the residue on the bathroom counter, and I was finding gutted-out ink pens everywhere. I saw the person I was in love with slowly dying in front of my eyes."
When he went to jail in December 1999, Morrison asked if she'd be there when he got out. A petrified D1, down to a stressed-out 100 pounds and itching to leave, said yes out of fear. "That's the one time I lied to him," she says. "Tom going to jail was my way out of a horrible situation."
She visited him in the Fayetteville jail one time, on a day she says he asked her to smuggle in some valium. They've seen each other only once since, at their divorce hearing. "I do regret I had unprotected sex with him, but I had faith I would be okay, and I still believe I will always be healthy," says D1, who now lives in Texas and is HIV negative. "But, honestly, the last year of our marriage, I wasn't his wife; I was his nurse/babysitter."
Postdivorce, D2 re-entered the picture. It was D2 who began writing him, D2 who began showing up in Texarkana, D2 whom he called crying. They decided to reunite, and in the process, Dawn Gilbert convinced Morrison to do the unthinkable: take his HIV meds.
The judge who sentenced him had ordered him to take the meds. But for the first three months in prison, Morrison still refused. D2 kept pleading, saying it would make her and his mother happy, and the prison doctors kept nagging him as well. "I finally took 'em because they were on my ass all the time," he says.
After a year in Texarkana, he was transferred to Little Rock, and one day, D2 told him about a Montel Williams show she'd seen on TV. A woman and an HIV-positive man had conceived a healthy baby via in vitro fertilization, and D2 said she wanted to try it too. Morrison agreed, and on the day he was released from Little Rock, D2 picked him up wearing high heels, a black leather coat and nothing underneath.
On the way home, they made one stop.
To have devil horns added to his D1 tattoo.
At least he still had the cave.
Except for that, Morrison says, he left prison "without a pot to piss in." While he was away, Tommy claims, D1 cleaned out his checking accounts and took $50,000 worth of his gold coins. D1 denies it, saying she took only the half she was entitled to and that the coins added up to just $9,000, a third of which she spent on lawyer fees.
Either way, Tommy needed cash so he and D2 could have their baby. He had grossed $12 million in his career, but now, with all that gone, he had to sell his cars and his cave, and file for disability.
Morrison went to family members, asking them to co-sign a loan, but they said they wanted no part of an "AIDS baby." The rejection brought Tommy and D2 closer together, and they were married for a second time on Sept. 17, 2001five years to the day after they were first married. ("No Raul this time," Tommy says.) They moved from Fayetteville to Sparta, Tenn., a rural community they'd found on the Internet. He quickly made friends with the local cops, and D2 found new reasons to trust her husband. "People probably think I'm nuts," she says.
What's different now is that he wears a pager, a pager set to ring every morning and evening at 8:30. And when it buzzes, Tommy walks dutifully toward a blue rectangular case and takes his HIV pills. "Been on 'em for three years now," he says.
It's a combination therapy similar to the one Magic Johnson is on. Morrison takes Trizivir, Viramune and an antibiotic called Bactrim in the morning, and Trizivir and Viramune with a multi-vitamin in the evening. He's still dismissive of HIV, calling it "no more of a nuisance than diabetes," but he never skips a dose.
"I know why," D2 says. "The baby."
After two years of searching, they found Dr. Ann Kiessling, an embryologist and virologist in Boston, who explained she could take Morrison's sperm, wash it in a centrifuge, test it for HIV and combine an uninfected specimen with one of D2's eggs in a petri dish. The CDC doesn't recommend the procedure, but Kiessling says she's fertilized 16 HIV-free babies using it, and estimates 100-150 such babies have been born worldwide.
There were additional obstacles. Tommy's HIV therapy included testosterone and steroids, which lowered his sperm count, and he needed to stop them for six months. (He suffered no side effects.) A further complication was that he'd had a vasectomy at 19 after fathering two children, which meant Kiessling had to do surgery to locate sperm.
Morrison and D2 eventually pieced together $15,000 for a first in vitro cycle in July 2002. It didn't take. Then, on Dec. 30, 2002, a second cycle worked. "Tommy was even telling gas station attendants, 'We're pregnant!' " says D2, who takes an HIV test every three months.
Now, more than ever, Morrison needs a job. D2 has another child, a 3-year-old named Justin, and with the new baby due in September, they will need more than just his disability checks. He's always wanted to get back into acting, and so he just about jumped out of bed when he saw a TV news report that Stallone was making Rocky VI. Rocky V ended with Morrison's character, Tommy Gunn, as champ. Granted, Rocky had punched him into a garbage can, but the champ is still the champ. He had to be in Rocky VI.
"I just know Stallone will call," Morrison says. And so he lifts weights every day, takes his pills, goes to church, forgets about taking revenge on Texarkana and waits by the phone. For three months now, he's been waiting.
"I only see there being one problem," says Tommy Morrison with a wan smile.
"Maybe Stallone thinks I'm dead."
This article appears in the March 31 issue of ESPN The Magazine.
RE:Rematch: Tommy Morrison is Surviving
When I was a younger, I was a huge boxing fan. I still am, I guess, but all of the tainted decisions and other assorted bs I have seen over the years have left a permanent bad taste in my mouth. Anyways, when Tommy Morrison was climbing the ladder, I think I probably watched every televised fight he had. Going into the Mercer fight I was deluded enough to believe all of the hype, and the first couple of rounds Morrison really seemed to be dominating him. In the fourth round you could tell Morrison was already tired, and in the fifth Mercer caught him and delivered what I still believe is the most vicious knockout I ever saw. I remember thinking that Morrison would never be the same after that beating, and he really never was. He came back a few months later and fought a bunch of stiffs, but then came the Joe Hipp fight. If memory serves me correctly, he had broken both hands and his jaw, and still came back and KO'd Hipp in the 9th round. I actully started believing that Morrison might have some toughness in him after all, and just might come back from the Mercer beating and make something of himself. But I don't think it was so much his toughness as it was his lack of stamina and ultimately, his glass jaw. He got knocked down a few times when he beat Carl "the Truth" Willimas, who was already way past his prime and couldn't break glass with his punches. But every time his career seemed dead, he would come back and beat someone (Razor Ruddock, George Foreman) to make you think maybe he was finally getting it. He's obviously made a lot of stupid decisions in his life, but I hope he pulls through.
RE:Rematch: Tommy Morrison is Surviving
I just can't believe they keep making these Rocky movies. Ruined the legacy of it for sure. After the second one, the story was done. The third one was cheezy and stupid. The fourth was so stereotypical of the Soviet Union and contrived, it was even stupider. The fourth went one step lower with absolutely no legitimate plot and a Saturday Night Live parody of Don King.
Now a fifth one? What up yo? Is Rocky going to fight in the senior citizen circuit against George Foreman?
Thank you, Phil!
RE: Rematch: Tommy Morrison is Surviving
To Hell and Back
November 1, 2002
Everybody remembers bits and pieces of information about Tommy Morrison -- tough white kid with a standout left hook who defeated George Foreman, was massacred by Ray Mercer. Co-starred in ROCKY V. Announced he was HIV-positive. Got into trouble with the law. Dropped out of sight.
Not terribly trusting of reporters, he's rarely interviewed. But when he decides to talk to you and you fill in some of the blanks, you discover there's more to Tommy Morrison than you thought.
He's been to hell and back, been screwed and tattooed, been up, been down, is now, at age 33, living quietly in Sparta, Tenn., working on his autobiography, looking for a publisher, and attending acting school. Because he was a famous white heavyweight in a fighting fraternity largely made up of minorities, lots of fans assumed he started out with some kind of silver spoon. Uh uh.
Morrison began entering tough man contests AT AGE 13 to put food on the table. He was living in Jay, Olka., when his parents divorced. "My mom was a stay-at-home mom. I had to quit school and get a job at 13," he explained.
"I worked on an oil rig, at construction, and meanwhile my mother completed nursing school. I got exposed to a lot of stuff that year, including tough man contests."
Tommy, raised in a boxing family, first put on the gloves when he was seven. He fought in 242 amateur fights, "most by the time I was 13."
After a year, his mother completed training for a nursing license and Tommy was able to re-enroll in school. Meanwhile, he knocked around different locations on weekends following the tough man circuit through Oklahoma, Missouri and Arkansas.
His knockabout life was similar to the early days of the great Jack Dempsey, who followed a trail through mining camps and railroad yards, doing back-breaking labor by day and fighting in barroom contests at night for extra cash.
Back in Jay, Morrison excelled in high school football. "But then my senior year in high school my mom said she wanted me to fight in the Golden Gloves. My brother had won the Golden Gloves in Kansas City. We had lots of fighters in my family. I knew eventually it would be my turn.
"Oddly enough, it was something I was gifted at to some extent. But I never had a passion for it." What is his passion?
"Acting," he answered immediately. He had a three-picture deal when he performed in ROCKY V, but he was so busy training and fighting, he just let it expire.
In 1988, his senior year, he won the Kansas City Golden Gloves. In the Olympic trials, he advanced to the finals and lost to Army Sergeant Ray Mercer, eight years his senior.
Three years later Morrison would challenge then-WBO champ Mercer in Atlantic City, where Mercer caught him with a huge shot in the fifth round and knocked him unconscious with a vicious combination. It was one of the most brutal heavyweight knockouts ever seen on TV.
But Morrison was no easy mark. Before losing to Mercer, he'd stopped James (Quick) Tillis and Pinklon Thomas, both in round one. In 1993 he decisioned Foreman for the vacant WBO heavyweight title. Before he was through Morrison, whose final record was 46-3-1 (40), would stop Joe Hipp, Carl Williams, Michael Bentt, Bryan Scott and Razor Ruddock. He had a natural, one-of-a-kind, bread-and-butter hook that could end a fight at any time.
"Whenever I fought, the guy's entire career hinged on me," he recalled. "I felt like I was always subject to 10 times more criticism just because I was white. This great white hope thing was never down my alley. I always look forward to the day fighters can be recognized for their skill, not the color of their skin. But I was not in control of that."
Morrison's proudest moment may have been his 1992 victory in Reno, Nev. over tough journeyman Hipp. Morrison was cut, broke both hands, and his jaw was so severely fractured the bone separated in two. But he refused to quit and stopped Hipp in round nine.
"I had a three-fight deal signed with Don King. It was a $38.5 million contract, and the third fight was going to be with (Mike) Tyson after he got out of prison. I know I would have beaten him. That would have been my last fight - win, lose, or draw."
Then his world collapsed. The Nevada commission had just begun to test for HIV. Morrison tested positive in February 1996. A heterosexual who'd never injected drugs, he figured he was infected by a woman. But which one? "Wilt Chamberlain had nothing on me," he said. "Infidelity was one of my biggest battles in life. I couldn't overcome it. It probably helped my first marriage crumble."
Morrison announced the lab results at a press conference in Tulsa. When he got back to Jay an hour later, the highway signs reading, "Home of Tommy Morrison" were already torn down. "My best friends wouldn't even wave at me," he recalled. "These people were just complete idiots. Uneducated people. No class at all."
He came home from a ski trip to discover his house had burned down. He moved to Fayeteville, Ark. "I had a lot of old friends there. It seemed they were all into the drug scene. I tried it for a couple months, didn't like it, and that was that."
He was stopped several times on traffic offenses, including DUI. Meanwhile, a "friend" was supposed to be getting a security system installed in Morrison's Corvette.
"He was cooking up speed and trading with this other guy for cocaine, I found out later." His friend kept stalling on returning the car, so Morrison just took it back. Police had staked out the man's house. They followed Morrison and found "either 11 or 18 grams of cocaine in the trunk, depending on which report you believed," Morrison said.
He had a permit to carry a firearm. Having the drugs and gun together got him charged with six felonies, each punishable by 40 to life. He copped a plea and in January 2000 was sentenced to two years. In prison, another con leaned on him, and Morrison "busted him up some. They put me in the hole for awhile." After that, "I was really well-liked among the inmates."
But not among guards. They despised him for being famous, for being a drug felon. He said they repeatedly planted contraband tobacco in his cell. He didn't smoke. Each time his sentence was extended two months. He spent much time in the hole and in a lockup with mentally ill inmates who "did the thorazine shuffle," too zoned out on medication to speak.
To keep himself from going crazy, he told himself, "I did a lot of things in my life I didn't get caught for."
Eventually, through correspondence, he found an ordinary citizen who took his case to the corrections department, and he was moved to another institution. He served 14 months altogether.
The ex-millionaire's bankroll was down to $11,000. His wife, who'd divorced him, ended up with appreciably more, he said. He gets a disability check and his second wife, Dawn, works as an interior designer.
He takes a drug cocktail and has never showed HIV symptoms. His wife had a son through artificial insemination, and they recently discovered a new lab process that will "wash" his semen so he and Dawn can safely conceive his child. That would be his fourth.
Tommy Morrison remains a boxing fan and talks knowledgeably about what's going on in the game.
"I spent two Christmases in prison," he said. "It changed me as an individual." The changes, he said, were positive ones.
Written by Ivan Goldman